Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967)

a.k.a Castle of the Walking Dead
Lex Barker and Christopher Lee star in this effective gothic horror by Harald Reinl, based on Edgar Allan Poe. German R2 E-M-S DVD.

The Film

"Down -- steadily down it crept.
I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity.

To the right -- to the left -- far and wide -- with the shriek of a damned spirit;
to my heart with the stealthy pace of the tiger!
 I alternately laughed and howled as the one or the other idea grew predominant." 
                                                                                        Edgar Allan Poe - The Pit and the Pendulum

In 19th Century Germany, Count Frederic Regula (Christopher Lee) is sentenced to death by quartering after being found guilty of the deaths of twelve women. Three decades later, a strange man tracks down Roger von Marienberg (Lex Barker), a nobleman who is trying to track down his parents, and gives him a letter - it asks him to come to Count Regula's castle. On the way he encounters the carriage of Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Karin Dor) who has received a similar note. Joined by a suspicious clergyman called Fabian, they travel through the dark and mysterious landscape to Regula's castle where they discover their connections to the Count, and a hideous scheme to return him to life...

Gothic horror was big in the 1960s - kicked off by Hammer's globally sucessful Curse of Frankenstein (1957), gothic horror films were soon being sucessfully shot in the USA by Roger Corman and in Italy by Mario Bava and others, however the German film industry was still undeveloped at the beginning of the decade - slowly recovering from the effects of the war, the German film studios were gradually clawing back audiences with the Heimatfilms ("homeland films", mostly romances and dramas) targeted at the domestic market. At the beginning of the 1960s the studios had big sucesses with the dark Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, and later with the near-epic Karl May Westerns and adventure films - finally the studios had the finaces, and export markets to allow them to follow the popular international genres of the time.

Although nominally based on Poe, as with many credited adaptations of the author's works, the film runs its own plot around Poe's basic theme - in this case, the striking image of a swinging sycthe on a pendulum and an impending pit of snakes. Castle of the Walking Dead's script is decently written - when the doomed Count at the start threatens revenge on those who kill him then the viewer might well expect a cliché "monster rises from the dead to stalk the living, killing lots of random peasants" storyline, fortunately instead we get more of a traditional literary tone as the Count's two intented victims are actually invited, cordially, to the castle. A scene in a small town, with the local people denying the existance of the castle, equally appears to be rather
cliché, although unlike many horror films of the genre, the castle is far enough away from the town (a full day's ride) that the children in the town could plausibly have never heard of it. On arrival at the castle the story becomes rather confused at times. A lot of the effectively eerie tension build up in the journey is lost when the "living dead" Count seems to be bizarrely courteous, with some rather banal and convenient dialogue. Despite the short run-time (just 80 minutes), the film's pacing is quite slow, more so than most of the Hammer and AIP gothics - the journey to the castle itself takes a good twenty minutes - although the film never seems to drag and with some effectively tense scenes it eventually builds up to a coherent, if rather anti-climactic, even disappointing conclusion.

Director Harald Reinl, and his frequent collaborator Ernst W. Kalinke as cinematographer worked together over twenty times, starting with the HeimatfilmDie Fischerin vom Bodensee (1956) and continuing through the dark Edgar Wallace/Dr. Mabuse productions and the epic Karl May Westerns. With Castle of the Walking Dead their effective team-work can be seen, combined with some truly stunning production values that put the film at the top of the gothic horrors on visual terms. The availability of real locations for the town scenes, rather than the sets that Hammer were forced to use, give these scenes a good sense of realism, while the eerie sequences in the haunted forest are very effectively realised, as is the gothic horror splendor of the castle itself - full of skull lined passages, secret traps and hideously surreal paintings. It is clear that the film is trying to eschew realism and go for all out nightmarish atmosphere, and it achieves this perfectly. The music varies slightly between the English and German soundtracks and is more effective in the German (the ending on the English print is almost ruined by a horribly cheesy, upbeat score), but through most of the film it is the same, and sucessful in building the tension and atmosphere.

Lex Barker was an unexpected star of German cinema in the 1960s, leaving Hollywood after being typecast for his repeated roles as Tarzan, he found work in Italian adventure films, and later in the iconic role of Old Shatterhand in the German Karl May Westerns - the role which saw him take on near superstar status (in Germany at least) for several years. 
Castle of the Walking Dead is one of the last films he made before his untimely death in 1973 and he gives a quite typical performance - although unlikely to win any awards for emoting, his presence is strong, and his physical size gives his action scenes some real authenticity. Christopher Lee had built on his popularity in the Hammer gothic horrors by appearing in various European films including Mario Bava's gothic horror The Whip and the Body (1963) and Antonio Margheriti's Virgin of Nuremberg (1963) as well as playing the lead role in Harry Alan Tower's German produced Fu Manchu series - his casting here was all but inevitable, and he gives a typically strong performance, especially in the opening scenes, although he doesn't elicit much fear after his rise from the tomb thanks to the rather dull dialogue.

The very attractive Karin Dor had risen through the German cinema genres, appearing in several Edgar Wallace thrillers and several of the Karl May Westerns. The largest role of her career had come early in 1967, playing the unsucessful SPECTRE henchwoman Helga Brandt in Japanese set James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice (1967). Here she gives a good performance as the victimised Baroness and manages to make the role about more than just screaming. Some rather unexpected casting comes in the form of Vladimir Medar as "Father" Fabian - a Jugoslavian character actor, he was almost unknown until he was cast in several minor roles in the early Karl May Westerns and in a more important role in Sergio Corbucci's early Spaghetti Western Grand Canyon Massacre (1965), also shot in Jugoslavia. His distinctive bearded appearance made him a popular figure, and for a short lived period he become a small star in Germany, he gives a strong performance here, very remniscent of British actor Andrew Kier who would doubtless have played the role if this film had been made by Hammer.

 Castle of the Walking Dead certainly ranks among the best of the 1960's gothic horror films. Benefiting from some good location shoots, effective studio sets, impressive direction/editing and generally good acting with a decent script that largely avoids the genres worst clichés, the film only slips up on some slightly odd dialogue. Compared to the almost "realistic" Hammer Horror films you get a general feeling here that the creators wanted to try and get every possible aspect of gothic horror into the story, which pushes it deep into a Mario Bava, even Werner Herzog style fantasy/dream land. I would strongly recommend this film to fans of the 1960s gothic horrors and it is generally recommended to all euro-cult and horror fans although for Poe fans it might prove rather a disappointment, containing little reference to the writer's works.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Lex Barker - An American actor who made a name for himself in Europe in the Karl May Westerns.
Christopher Lee - The English Hammer star who also made a name for himself in euro-cult cinema.
Directed by anyone interesting? Harald Reinl - The German director of Karl May's Treasure of Silver Lake (1962), Edgar Wallace's Bande des Schreckens (1960) and epic mythological adventure Die Nibelungen (1966/7).
Is it scary?Several scenes are tense and there is some good atmosphere throughout - scary in the right conditions.
Any violence? Some mild gore and body parts, very mild compared to many of the 1970s gothic horrors.
Any sex? No
Who is it for?
Recommended to all fans of the 1960s gothic horror cycle.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.66:1. Anamorphically Enhanced. Colour
The print is of good quality, with strong colours and only mild grain and print damage.
Audio Original English and German mono tracks - sound fine with minimal hiss.
Note: the music is slightly different on the two tracks.
Note 2: The English track includes the original voices of Christopher Lee and Lex Barker.
Subtitles German only.
ExtrasThe disc includes:
  • 2 German television reports from the sets of the film. Including some good behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with several of the cast, including Barker, Lee and Dor. Print quality is good, audio is German only (the interviews with Barker and Lee are dubbed over). Total runtime 5 minutes.
  • Original German theatrical trailer, relatively low quality.
  • Two 8mm prints of the film. Low quality prints, in German only. (15 minutes each)
  • Audio interview with Karin Dor, 40 minutes, in Germany only.
  • Poster and stills gallery - presented as a video file with music from the film playing behind.
  • Detailed biographies of Lex Barker, Christopher Lee, Karin Dor and Harald Reinl. German only.
  • The DVD also includes an 8 page book of liner notes written by Mirek Lipinksi. German only.
PackagingA standard Amaray case, contained within a slip case.
Region Region 2 - PAL
Other regions? Some public domain prints in the USA, very low quality.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print used is German language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 1st December 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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