A young nobleman is about to be married, but the wedding is under threat when his disgraced older brother returns home. The bride is one of his ex-lovers, and it’s not long before the two resume their relationship and murder is just around the corner…
Darkly Gothic thriller from Italian director Mario Bava, who mixes Sado-masochism and the supernatural with his customary stunning visuals and production design. A capable cast led by horror legend Christopher Lee prowl cobwebbed corridors, secret passages and a windswept beach to tell a twisted tale of family dysfunction, kinky sex and violent death.
Kurt Menliffe (Lee) returns to the family castle after many years away, persona non grata after violating the daughter of housekeeper Katia (Evelyn Stewart). The girl committed suicide after the act, and Stewart has retained the knife she used to do the deed; the first sign that this is perhaps not a particularly well-adjusted household. Patriarch Count Vladimir (Gustavo De Nardo) had originally selected the beautiful Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) as Lee’s wife, but, in his absence, has pushed her onto younger brother Christain (Tony Kendall). The young man has agreed to go on with the wedding, even though he is really in love with cousin Georgia (Harriet Medin).
Unsurprisingly, Lee’s surprise return puts the cat well and truly among the pigeons, especially when he encounters Lavi on a deserted beach. A few quick strokes of his whip later, she’s his, and their affair is on again. Striding around the castle in his black cloak and riding boots, Lee is arrogance personified, his character revelling in the uproar he is creating and the emotional distress of all around him.
So it’s no great shock when he turns up dead, slashed in the throat with the very same knife Stewart’s daughter used to kill herself. Curiously enough, there’s no investigation of the murder or intrusion by the authorities; Lee is just interred in the family vault, and that seems to be that. Only, of course, it’s not, because Lee refuses to stay dead; leaving muddy footprints all over the castle and visiting Lavi in her boudoir, where he resumes his somewhat dubious attentions. Does his vengeful spirit now haunt the castle’s bed chambers, or is he somehow still alive?
This is a pleasingly twisted thriller, bursting with adult themes not often tackled by mainstream cinema of the period. These mostly concern Lavi’s character, whose eager acceptance and obvious enjoyment of the whip is front and centre. The actress really throws herself into the role, her character seemingly in a permanent state of arousal, her desperate need for love always overwhelmed by her violent sexual urges. It’s a powerhouse turn, and very daring for its time. Lee’s part is not a nuanced one, but he delivers steely arrogance like few others, and it’s a shame his screen time is somewhat brief. The pair overshadow the rest of the cast, although it’s always good to see cult cinema favourite Luciano Pigozzi, here in the role of a family servant.
To sell the movie in the States, the vast majority of the crew hide behind anglicised pseudonyms. Bava became John M Old, screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino were credited as Julian Berry, Robert Hugo and Martin Hardy, and cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano transformed into David Hamilton. But anyone familiar with Lee was not likely to be fooled, his voice obviously dubbed by another actor in the English language release. This was common practice in the Italian film industry of the time as a cost-cutting exercise, but it irked Lee. Subsequently, he had it written into his contracts that producers would pay the necessary costs required to call him back for the necessary voice work.
Being a Bava film, it’s visually stunning, of course, and it’s interesting to note that he foregoes his usual technicolour palette in favour of much darker tones, draping the long passages in deep shadows cast by flaming torches. The main weakness here is the story, which needed a few more layers of complexity to elevate this to classic status. There are ambiguities too; just who is Lavi’s character? She’s given no backstory or identity beyond her relation to the family. Some commentators have theorised that De Nardo is keen to marry her off to one of his sons because she’s his mistress and he needs to legitimise her presence within the castle. It’s an interesting thought, although there is little concrete evidence to support it.
The explicit nature of the relationship between Lee and Lavi was enough to get censors hot under the collar, and the whipping scenes were cut in many countries, including the UK where even the title was changed to the more neutral ‘Night Is The Phantom’. An action for obscenity was brought against the producers, which may serve to explain why the film flopped in its homeland. American-International Pictures which had distributed Bava’s last few films in the US refused to touch it, and it was released by a company with a far lower profile.
Lavi retired for films in the early 1970s after notable roles in ‘Lord Jim’ (1965), Matt Helm spy spoof ‘The Silencers’ (1966), comedy ‘The Spy With The Cold Nose’ (1966) and the Western ‘Catlow’ (1971) with Yul Brynner. Subsequently, she enjoyed far greater success as a singer and recording artist, enjoying many hits in Germany before retiring in 1983. She was popular enough to mount a farewell tour shortly before her death in 2017.
A striking contrast between elegant romanticism and sexual violence distinguishes another technical masterclass by director Mario Bava. If the story doesn’t quite deliver on the same level, the result is still a classy, atmospheric portrait of murder and aristocratic moral decay.