“Our ancestors had imaginations that were positively – diabolic!”

 The Punisher

“That’s quite a poetic name to apply to what is after all a brutal instrument of torture,” comments a suspicious Rhineland doctor after being shown The Virgin of Nuremberg by its proud owner in the 1963 film of the same name. And it has to be said he has a point, the “Virgin” being what is better known to most as an Iron Maiden; that infamous anthropomorphic casket, designed in the image of the Virgin Mary, with an inner door lined with lethal metal skewers. Appropriate then, that a film which takes its name should also be one of the most graphically violent Italian horror films of its decade.

La vergine di Norimberga, released in the US and UK under the unimaginative monikers of Horror Castle and The Castle of Terror respectively, marks the first foray into the (by this point thriving) Italian Gothic horror cycle by journeyman director and one-time professional soccer player Antonio ‘Anthony Dawson’ Margheriti. Although never afforded quite the same retrospective respect and admiration as his more famous peer Mario Bava, Margheriti was a nonetheless a towering figure on the filone (‘formula film’) landscape, directing three key horror films of the ‘Golden Age’ along with countless in other genres, including westerns, pepla, spy capers and sci-fi mini-epics, at the outset of a career that would span 49 years and some 57 films. Although his best Gothic work of the sixties was yet to come, La vergine at the very least makes for a noteworthy start, despite at several junctures having the flavour of a routine potboiler.

Filmed in ultra-lurid Kodak Eastmancolor, the narrative purports to be based on a pulp novel by a long-forgotten (if he ever existed) author called Frank Bogart, and is written for the screen by the busy Ernesto Gastaldi, his first work in the genre since the previous year’s The Horrible Dr Hichcock, French writer and director Edmond T. Greville (his last film credit before his death in 1966), and Margheriti himself. Filmed in around three weeks between De Paolis Studios and the Villa Sciarra, both in Rome, the tale is set in an unspecified area of Bavaria, presumably near the city named in the title.

It all starts with young Mary (Rossana Podestà), awaking in her husband’s ancestral and decidedly Gothic castle to find he isn’t beside her. Disturbed by his absence and the mandatory raging storm outside, she lights a candle and creeps downstairs, only to hear the strangulated screams of a woman in agony. Following the noise, and finding a stray stocking on the floor, she is led to what appears to be her husband’s very own in-house torture museum (every home should have one) and, at its far side, the titular Virgin of Nuremberg. She approaches the monstrous casket with a mounting sense of dread and, swinging open its door, is horrified to find the corpse of a woman, skewered on the spikes, with bloody, empty sockets where her eyes once were.

She faints (of course) and the camera pulls in on the Virgin, its door now swung closed again. As the title card comes up, a slinky, sexy jazz theme (courtesy of Riz Ortolani) begins; disorientating the viewer who up until this moment has been led by the Gothic trappings to think they were watching a story set somewhere in the mists of history. As the title sequence ends, we are catapulted even further into modernity when the jazz trumpets flare up and we see a syringe injected into Mary’s arm.

The swingin’ sixties it may be, but there’s certainly nothing ‘mod’ about the way her husband, Max (Georges Rivière) reacts to her to trauma. Our prime suspect from the outset, the Lord of the Manor (who helpfully explains he only comes to his own castle “every six months on visits”) has her confined to bed rest, doped up on tranquillisers and condemned to a house-bound existence doing absolutely nothing, himself being constantly and mysteriously absent. With a husband like this, it’s a wonder the poor woman hasn’t already gone the same way as the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. “My wife likes any sort of make-believe,” he explains to the local doctor, who not being a total idiot is instantly hip to the fact that something is amiss. “She’s like a child”.

In any case, it soon emerges the murderer is fact someone lurking in the castle’s vast network of catacombs, masquerading as one of Max’s ancestors; “The Punisher”, who three hundred years ago roamed the province capturing “adulteresses” and torturing “them to death in the Virgin of Nuremberg”, clad in mock-medieval executioner garb reminiscent of the grim figures from the arresting opening of Black Sunday (1960) or the villains of several German krimi films made in the period. Now’s probably not a good time to point out that it’s widely known Virgins/ Iron Maidens were in fact created at the beginning of the nineteenth century and not, as the script assumes, in medieval days of yore.

Although Max and his scarred in-house torture museum attendant Erich (none other than Christopher Lee, in the first of several sixties Italian horror excursions) both serve as red herrings for much of the film, “The Punisher” is in fact revealed to be Erich’s father, a former Nazi general who was punished for an assassination attempt on Hitler by having his face surgically transformed by demented SS surgeons into “The Living Skull – their masterpiece!”

As such a shocking revelation suggests, Virgin does indeed set new standards of cruelty for the horror film and prefigures the more blood-spattered direction Euro-horror would take in the seventies and eighties. Although there are but two de facto ‘torture scenes’, both have an unforgettable impact that must surely have shocked audiences of the day. In the first of these, The Punisher, his identity still hidden by his black executioner’s hood, captures a nameless female victim (Lucile Saint-Simon), ties her to a chair and, taunting her, attaches a basket containing a ravenous rat to her face. As Mary manages to free her, the viewer notices before the victim that the rodent has chewed away half of her nose. This is represented by a horribly realistic wound courtesy of director Margheriti himself, also an accomplished make-up effects artist. A moment later, the viewer can’t help but shudder in fellow-feeling when we hear her screams of anguish, as the woman realises the extent and implications of her mutilation.

The second such scene is in the last reel when The Punisher finally manages to get his hands on Mary, who of course is “the Virgin’s” namesake. When he trusses her up on a table and leers over her with his terrifying sunken skull face, the modern viewer automatically contextualises the film as a direct cinematic forbearer of modern torture-based fare like Hostel (2005) and, more directly, the Italian shocker Shadow (L’Ombra, 2009) from Federico Zampaglione, with its similarly skeletal, sinister antagonist and Nazi backstory.

The blood on display is the exact hue of ‘Kensington Gore’, and this is echoed throughout the proceedings by the set design. From the carpets of the castle to the drapes of the torture museum and The Punisher’s costume, that same hue is everywhere. Displaying the influence of Bava, the script has Mary at one point run out into the grounds at night, where the trees seem to hurl themselves towards her, becoming hued a deep red, through the use of gels, as they do so. While Margheriti’s use of colour does not equal Bava’s mastery, it is arresting nonetheless.

The film looks deceptively lavish on its low budget, thanks to the set designs, use of real castle grounds, and fine photography from frequent Margheriti collaborator Riccardo Pallottini, although a major flaw in the film’s look is some amusing miniature work in the last reel. When, in a forties serial style moment, Herr Max escapes from the waterlogged cave into which his crazed father has consigned him, it’s represented by what looks like a tiny doll being tossed through a model hillside. Soon after, Erich looks up at an obviously miniscule castle parapet. It surely couldn’t have been on the strength of these shots that Sergio Leone later hired Margheriti to oversee the special effects of A Fistful of Dynamite (Giù la testa, 1971).

Lee gets the chance to play a fairly sympathetic character in the form of Erich, although, as mentioned above, his towering physique and FX make-up facial deformities make him a red herring for much of the film. However, although not the murderer, Erich has, along with Max, been aiding and abetting the latter’s father by covering up his crimes, with Mary at one point catching him polishing the skull-faced killer’s torture implements; which are of course stored in a red velvet lined box. Erich’s loyalty and affection for his wartime master verge on the homoerotic, with the latter dying in his arms as the castle burns down at the film’s climax. “Together,” he says, “like we were before…” Sadly, Lee is dubbed by another actor here, as he would be on many of these Euro escapades, although at least some attempt has been made to provide a voice that roughly resembles his distinctive rumble; as opposed to saddling him with an incongruous American accent as in other instances.

An uncredited Mirko Valentin – dubbed with an amusing but appropriately cruel-sounding James Mason-esque voice in export prints – plays Max’s father under the heavy make-up. His unmasking scene is another of the film’s major shocks. Many of the cast and crew, as had become customary, had their names anglicised even on the Italian prints, obscuring some of the supporting players to the extent that the IMDB still lists many of the supporting cast under random, invented names like “James Borden” and “Bredon Brett”. Libyan-born ‘Mary’, Rossana Podestà was the wife of the film’s producer Marco Vicario, who would also co-direct Mondo Cane knock-off Mondo Inferno alongside Margheriti in the following year.

The Virgin of Nuremberg was no doubt considered by most contemporary critics to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill programme filler. However, in more recent years, mostly thanks to a 2003 US DVD release, it has been reappraised as a work occupying the upper ranks of the ‘Golden Age Gothic’ canon, just below works by Bava and Freda. As more previously conservative ‘world cinema’ histories of Italian film have finally begun to admit the importance of filone to its general development, Virgin begins to be at least mentioned in such histories, with a fairly recent example being Peter Bondanella’s indispensible revised edition of his A History of Italian Cinema. Christopher Dietrich at Kinoeye called The Virgin of Nuremberg “a galvanising moment of mid-1960s Italian Gothic” thatepitomises and legitimises the stellar reputation of Italy’s ‘Golden Age’ of horror output”. One can’t deny the film, and the figure of Max’s father, The Punisher, have a haunting power that lingers in the mind for some time afterwards. And, as a lurid Eastmancolor Italian Gothic with all the trappings (and Chris Lee to boot), it probably goes without saying that the whole affair is more fun than a barrel of blood-simple monkeys.

However, as far as classic Gothic horror cinema is concerned, the best was yet to come for Antonio Margheriti. But, before exploring what was perhaps his finest hour in the genre, there are more works to consider first, including Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock follow-up, Lo spettro (also 1963), better known to English-speaking audiences as simply The Ghost.