1967, West Germany, Directed by Harold Reinl
Colour, Running Time: 80 minutes
Review Source: Download; Image: Letterbox 1.66:1, Audio: Mono
Beginning the tale a century or so ago, we along with a group of angry villagers witness the sentencing and quartering of an evil count found guilty of brutal crimes against humanity. Jumping forward a few years an eminent scholar called Roger is on his way to an ancient castle to learn more about his family history. Stopping off at a village within the vicinity he discovers a certain degree of hostility whenever the castle is mentioned but pushes on with his trip regardless. On his long coach ride to the mysterious destination he rescues a nubile young female and her servant from travelling marauders and together they all continue their journey through the forest. Passing through morbidly decorated woodland their coach driver is brought to his own demise, bringing about an awareness of ubiquitous death in the air. Arriving at the castle nonetheless it soon becomes apparent that the corpse-like keeper of the place is working towards the resurrection of the count who was horrifically executed so long ago, and the guests at the castle are just the materials he needs to conclude his experiments with immortality.
Masquerading in parts (including YouTube) under the rather misleading title of The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (boasting even more misleading poster art!) this Euro chiller from the sixties is much more appealing under its Castle of the Walking Dead moniker, however the German title (Die Schlangengrube und Das Pendel) more so reflects the opening credit knod towards Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, probable influence being derived from the moderate success of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of the period. The story itself was of course already adapted effectively by Corman at the beginning of the same decade with Barbara Steele and Vincent Price in lead roles, and a respectable job it was in terms of cinema at least. Here the Germans brought their own interpretation of proceedings and whilst there are elements that couldn’t be considered entirely original even back then, certain sequences have been realised imaginatively to produce unique imagery: the prime example of this is the prolonged coach ride through the woods, with corpses hanging from the trees amidst an artistically lit environment - quite exquisite in a ghoulish sort of way. Christopher Lee appears on screen for fairly short periods, playing Count Regula (errr, okay), the man who is executed and later brought back to life in an attempt to grasp at immortality. His presence is striking as usual, made more impressive by deathly make-up and an omnipresent expression of sombreness. The characters spend most of the last half of the story occupying the castle of Roger’s (Lex Barker) destination, and a glorious gothic delight it is; full of traps, dark passages, walls made of skulls, and inhospitable rooms, it’s the sort of place I’d love to explore. Also standing in the movie’s favour is an aesthetically pleasant approach to cinematography generally (marred by occasionally clumsy editing), giving birth to some striking landscape shots as well as accentuating the claustrophobic interiors. Finally we have the Kraut contribution to the Euro babe: Karin Dor! Wow, I wish she had been a bit more widely used in these kinds of gothic chillers: a voluptuous, elegant, and effortlessly beautiful scream queen that grants bonus points to the film’s visual appeal. The film is a little let down by its old fashioned English dubbing (though Lee definitely provides his own voice), and a slowly paced final act (in fact, the whole outing is quite leisurely), however there is plenty to recommend it to the fan of European macabre cinema.
This is one of those films that has never been treated particularly respectfully on home video, with transfers ranging from fullscreen to widescreen with generally lacklustre picture quality and often footage missing. Presumably it’s a so-called ‘public domain’ title as I watched it in its entirety on YouTube and whilst I’m not in favour of free downloading of movies it does give the serious collector the opportunity to specimen titles which might ordinarily be avoided. In my case I’d been looking forward to watching this film ever since reading about it in the monolithic Aurum Horror Encyclopaedia so many years ago, and it didn’t let me down. I’d certainly like to buy a restored version of the movie should it ever appear, though it does seem unlikely given its present status. At least the presentation online was 1.66:1, with picture quality approximating something between VHS and DVD, with audio clear enough. If you’re interested in a DVD it’s available stateside from low-end labels such as KEF Films and Thrill Kill, whilst Image Entertainment (now in administration unfortunately) once put out their own disc. I’m personally waiting - probably in vain - for a worthwhile restoration.