Released in the UK and US under the clichéd titles of THE CASTLE OF TERROR and HORROR CASTLE respectively, LE VERGINE DE NORIMBERGA (translation: The Virgin of Nuremberg) marked the first foray into the Italian Gothic cycle by journeyman director and one-time professional soccer player Antonio Margheriti, better known to gorehounds as the man behind CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980). Armed with a script from genre mainstay Ernesto Gastaldi, he created one of the most graphically violent horror pictures of the decade.
Young Mary (Rosanna Podestá) awakes in her opulent bedchamber on the night of a raging storm to hear the screams of a woman in pain. Following the noise, she is led downstairs to her husband’s very own private torture museum (every home should have one) and to the titular ‘Virgin of Nuremberg’ (better known to us as an ‘Iron Maiden’), whereupon she faints when confronted with the corpse of the woman, skewered on the Virgin’s inner spikes, with bloody empty sockets where her eyes should be.
On his return, Mary’s husband and lord of the manor Max (Georges Rivière), promptly has her doped up and consigned to bed-rest. “My wife likes any sort of make-believe,” he explains to the local quack, who not being a complete moron is immediately hip to the fact that something is amiss. Max and his scarred in-house torture museum curator Erich (none other than Christopher Lee, in his first Italian horror film role) are the obvious suspects, but it soon becomes apparent that the murderer is in fact someone lurking in the castle’s network of catacombs. What’s more, said killer is masquerading as Max’s ancestor, ‘The Punisher’, who three hundred years earlier made it his business to roam the countryside capturing ‘adultresses’ to torture to death in the Virgin. As the murders continue, Mary’s chances of survival start looking slim…
Without spoiling what comes next, it can certainly be said that Margheriti’s film set new standards of cruelty for the horror film, prefiguring the excesses of the late seventies and early eighties, along with later torture-lovin’ fare like HOSTEL (2005). Although there are but two de facto torture sequences, they must surely have had a devastating impact on audiences of the time, and remain shocking to this day, as does the revelation of the murderer’s identity and motivation. Now’s probably not a good time to point out that ‘Iron Maidens’ were in fact created at the beginning of the 19th century and not, as the script assumes, in medieval days of yore, but this doesn’t spoil the gruesome fun.
Despite the sublimely Gothic setting of the castle and its environs, the story is in fact set in the present day, a fact forcefully brought home by a slinky jazz score by Riz Ortolani. Some may find this inappropriate. The blood on display is the exact hue of ‘Kensington Gore’, and this is beautifully echoed by the set design, from the drapes of the torture museum to The Punisher’s outlandish executioner’s garb.
The film looks deceptively lavish on its low budget, thanks to the design and some rich cinematography by frequent Margheriti collab Riccardo Pallotini, but a minor flaw in its look is some unintentionally cute miniature work (a Margheriti trademark) in the last reel. One suspects that it wasn’t on the strength of these shots that Sergio Leone later hired Margheriti to oversee the visual effects on his epic A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (1971).
The acting performances from all concerned pass muster, with Lee, as one might expect, being the stand-out. Here he gets a chance to play a fairly sympathetic character in the form of Erich, belied by his threatening physique and facial scarring. Sadly, Lee is dubbed by another actor here, as he would be on many a Euro escapade, but at least some attempt has been made to emulate his distinctive rumble.
THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG may be ‘second tier’ in comparison to similar works of the time from Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, but it still deserves to be considered a key work in the ‘Golden Age’ Italian Gothic canon. However, Margheriti would soon surpass this first attempt with the darkly beautiful monochrome chills of the following year’s CASTLE OF BLOOD.