I’m bored... let’s do something evil.
It is occasionally nice to be reminded that even geniuses have their off days.
You’ve seen F. W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic Nosferatu, right? Hopefully in the restored edition from Kino? A brilliant creepfest from its opening frames. You would think, wouldn’t you, that his Haunted Castle (aka Schloss Vogeloed) from just a year earlier would be full of signs of budding talent? Especially with the great Fritz Arno Wagner (Nosferatu, Der mude Tod, the Dr. Mabuse films) as cinematographer?
Not so much, actually. In fact, hardly at all. In fact... Haunted Castle will have you shaking your head at the bitter irony that this film survived the ravages of time while Der Januskopf, Murnau’s celebrated Jekyll-and-Hyde knockoff, is lost.
The German title makes fewer claims on our expectations of horror to come. Schloss Vogeloed simply references Lord von Vogelschrey, who is throwing a hunting party at his country estate. You see the oak-paneled rooms full of men playing cards, smoking, drinking, and doing other all-male social stuff. The only woman in residence is Lady von Vogelschrey, but we learn that another is expected: the Baroness Safferstätt, arriving with her husband the Baron. This is the point when you realize that you’re watching a filmed play, and a pretty primitive one at that, and you check the DVD box to be sure you have the right movie. You do. Sigh.
In walks the plot complication, duly announced by the butler: Count Oetsch, looking nasty and sardonic. Lord von Vogelschrey and his guests are appalled. “You forgot to invite me?” snarks the Count. No, he was intentionally left off the guest list; a Retired Local Judge, one of the card players, quickly fills us in on the scandal. A few years earlier, Count Oetsch’s younger brother was murdered, and the Count himself was the chief suspect. He was never convicted, but everyone knows he’s guilty. To make matters worse, the Baroness Safferstätt is his brother’s widow, since remarried. Lord von Vogelschrey pleads with his unwanted visitor, asking him to leave and spare the lady’s feelings, but Count Oetsch refuses. He just sits there like a big malignant spider, smoking nonchalantly while everyone tiptoes around him with disapproving looks.
Lady von Vogelschrey, who is a weepily emotional sort, is beside herself with humiliation. What an affront this will be to the Baroness! Surely she’ll refuse to stay! But then she remembers something and produces a letter, waving it about excitedly. The letter is from Father Faramund from Rome! Father Faramund from Rome? Yes, Father Faramund from Rome! (The English title cards were clearly written by someone more comfortable with German grammar and idiom. You know: “I will kill the wabbit with my spear and magic helmet!” “Your spear and magic helmet?” “Yes, my spear and magic helmet!”)
It turns out that Father Faramund (from Rome) is a great theologian and a distant relative of the Oetschs. He is coming especially to see Baroness Safferstätt, and the Baroness has let it be known she urgently wants to see him, too. Surely she’ll stay at the party now, even with her former brother-in-law lurking about! Lady von Vogelschrey can dry her tears. You can too, because next we get a great shot of horses galloping along, pulling the Safferstätts’ carriage through a foreboding landscape, overexposed and stylized. Yes, you are watching a Murnau film after all. The scene looks as though it was spliced in from Nosferatu. Sadly, it’s gone in a flash and we’re back to the drawing-room drama at the Castle, with its amateurish exterior model surrounded by shaky miniature trees.
Of course the Baron and Baroness snub Count Oetsch, and the Baroness does indeed announce that she’s leaving at once, but is promptly dissuaded by Lady von Vogelschrey’s letter from Father Faramund. Lady von Vogelschrey is frantically affectionate, hugging and kissing the Baroness so passionately through the film that I’m sure male viewers got their hopes up for a sapphic interlude. It never happens. I think the point was to contrast Lady von Vogelschrey—warm, good mother, dutiful hausfrau—with the Baroness, who is a chilly creature. As played by actress Olga Chekhova, she is always staring coldly into the middle distance or, if the scene requires an extreme reaction, closing her eyes. Woman as Frozen Monolith. Ms. Chekhova seems to have gone on to an illustrious career as an actress, but you wouldn’t suspect it here.
Meanwhile Count Oetsch is still lounging around in the drawing-room, making cryptic remarks. He claims to have learned to predict the future from a mystic in India, and when asked how many shots will be fired during the hunt, answers only one shot—two, tops. He adds that other men may hunt in fair weather, but he himself will only hunt during storms. The guests tire of this pretty fast and go off to ride to the hunt, but rain begins falling and they return immediately. Count Oetsch, true to his word, grabs his gun and departs into the storm. And then Father Faramund arrives! From Rome. By coach. Late at night. He’s a big man in monks’ robes and tonsure, with a beard that would do credit to a ZZ Top member and heavy-rimmed glasses. He declines to wake his hosts, saying he will present himself in the morning, but asks to be taken directly to Baroness Safferstätt.
The Baroness receives him and proceeds to tell him the story of her marriage to the younger Count Oetsch. A flashback ensues. At first the couple were blissfully happy, but gradually her hubbykins grew distracted, bookish, more interested in spiritual pursuits. In particular he fell under the influence of Father Faramund himself, who wrote (from Rome) to advise him that true happiness can only be found by renouncing worldly things. Like sex, presumably, because Wifey then found herself drawn to dark and perverse longings and started that expressionless-staring-into-the-distance routine.
Here the Baroness breaks off her tale, announcing that she’s fatigued and will tell Father Faramund the rest in the morning. Father Faramund retires. Morning comes and, lo! He doesn’t answer the servant’s knock! In fact, he’s vanished from his room! He’s nowhere to be found! Everyone’s certain he’s been murdered and of course the suspicion falls on Count Oetsch, who is still being pointedly sinister. Accusations and counter-accusations fly! There is a pointless sequence involving a kitchen boy who gets slapped for eating icing out of a pastry bag! And then night—dark and stormy, of course—falls again, and no one feels safe.
Cue the only other sequence that will remind you you’re watching a Murnau film. A guest known as the Anxious Man falls asleep and opens his eyes to see his bedroom window flying open. As the drapes blow wildly, a deathly hand reaches through and comes closer... closer... and just as It grabs him and pulls him out into the night, the guest wakes from his nightmare, safe in bed. All very atmospheric, but the scene’s force is immediately dissipated by another dream sequence, in which the kitchen boy finds himself being fed all the sugar icing he can eat by Father Faramund, who looks on benignly as the boy turns to slap his boss between every mouthful. Maybe it was intended as comic relief. It’s just creepy.
Dawn comes at last and the film finally gets down to resolving whodunnit. I had it figured out well ahead of the last five minutes, but then I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie novels.
Reasons to see this film: It’s Murnau’s earliest surviving work and, if you’re a Murnau fan, it will interest you. Ditto if you’re a student of Fritz Arno Wagner’s work or an admirer of Olga Chekhova, who in addition to acting had a successful career as a double agent during WWII; her life makes interesting reading. Or maybe you like stiffly performed drawing-room dramas. Or are a connoisseur of cheesy exterior model shots. Or perhaps you personally will find it a profound work of cinematic poetry, as one reviewer did, going on at some length about the brilliance of a shot of a couple of coffinlike doorways and the visual metaphor counterpointing the stifled intensity of the underlying... yadayadayada.
To be fair, the print I watched is dark, blurred and muddy, and, as I pointed out, the title cards are painfully Germanic in their sentence structure. I saw it on an Alpha Home Video cheapie twofer disc, but Kino has released a restoration that is reportedly in much better condition. Perhaps they made the title cards a bit more coherent for English speakers, too. Kino’s extras include a look at some of the set designs and some excerpts from the mystery novel on which Haunted Castle was based. The novel, by the way, appeared serially in a magazine; the film version, shot in 16 days, timed its release for the week the final chapter appeared. I’m sure the media event helped.
Next week, a look at what purports to be the earliest werewolf movie ever made! Ah, but is it?
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. She has occasionally coped with stress by staring coldly into the middle distance, but has tried not to make a habit of it.