Shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a travelling troupe of theatrical players are making their way through Europe, stopping at various towns to put on their act, the centrepiece of which is a mock hanging which always goes down well with peasant and nobleman alike. The leader is Bruno (Jacques Stany) who is not entirely in control of his colleagues, most blatantly Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), who is a mutinous sort and stages an uprising against him, leading to a fight in a tavern which Bruno decisively wins. Will this spell danger for the actors later on?
Well, something will, but it won't be what you, or they, might expect. Mention of Castle of the Living Dead, which features no living dead as the deceased stay that way even after what has brought them to that state happens, must bring up the name of one of the directors: Michael Reeves. He was listed as assistant director on the credits, but over the years commentators both professional and otherwise have visited this fairly minor Italian horror and sought to identify any distinguishing characteristics of the too-briefly lived British filmmaker.
That was mainly due to Reeves leaving such a small but distinctive body of work, where a nihilistic view of the world was growing more evident with each successive movie, but here it would appear to be more in line with the Hammer-aping Italian shockers of the period rather than anything with his particular authorial voice. That was not to say you couldn't see any of Reeves in this at all, but that could have been down to the era and what it was bringing out in its European chiller makers. Still, this was no dead loss, and showed a knack for the striking image that saw it through early to middle stages where its purpose looked uncertain.
Once a certain Christopher Lee was introduced, however, events began to crystalise: not for these guys the plot misdirection as the second he turns up sporting deep shadows under his eyes you will guess correctly he is up to no good. Lee played Count Drago with a shade more enthusiasm than some of his other horror efforts, embracing the rather offbeat narrative which may have been your run of the mill Gothic, but also found time for a twist, a visual, a personality, which made it stand out. The second Drago demonstrates his latest invention, a serum which turns things into frozen statues in effect, your mind will be racing to work out what his big deal is.
Not that it has to race far, as when Bruno starts acting strangely while the actors stage their hangman's show for the Count, alarm bells should be ringing, although the troupe believe this is down to Dart exacting his revenge, and given he was played by Pigozzi, a long time Italian exponent of sneakiness in his movies, you could forgive them for that. In the meantime there was interest generated in seeing a young Donald Sutherland in two roles, one of which was a wizened old crone who seems to be placing curses on the characters, and a large garden filled with huge but stylised statues, a perfect example of finding a great location and using it to its best advantage as Drago's scuzzy underling Sandro (Mirko Valentin) hunts the remaining actors through and over the stone creations - Reeves directed these scenes for sure. Of course, statues have a double meaning here by implication, and if this was no classic, it was stimulating in its low budget invention. Music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino.
Promising British writer-director who first found work in Italy, on Castle of the Living Dead. The She Beast was his next credit, and two minor classics of bleak horror followed: The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, which many regard as his masterpiece. Tragically he died of an overdose in his mid-twenties, before he could start work on his next film, The Oblong Box.