It shouldn't really be that difficult to put a horror story together when filming out on location with a real castle. With a few good cast members and the expertise of Carlo Rambaldi at hand, what is there to do but write an engaging yarn? A cursed nobleman being resurrected by his foolish descendants seems like a straightforward enough plot, and just for fun throwing in some elements about witchcraft and spiritual mediums adds a little variety to things. Unfortunately none of this has been given any thought whatsoever considering how easy it should be, and the result is a very weak effort from director Mario Bava.
Peter, the only living descendant of Baron von Kleist arrives in Austria to visit the castle where the titular madman was burned alive after a reign of terror, not before being cursed by a witch. Supposedly he was to rise again, so he could suffer the same death over and over. It's not clear exactly what Peter's plans are but he wants to check out his family history - despite everyone knowing the reputation of the titular Baron already. The family castle is under renovations so it can be used as a tourist attraction, and our other main character Eva (Elke Sommer) is advising the work being done.
Soon Peter reveals he has a manuscript which shows some sinister incantations, which he believes are meant to bring the Baron back to life and afterwards seal his spirit away again. It's pretty convenient that he just found it lying around somewhere. Apparently out of boredom the two idiots go up to the very room his death occurred in and read out the spell... which doesn't do anything besides make a church bell ring the wrong number of times. Of course they do it again the next night for some reason, and this time it works - and the wind immediately blows the parchment into a fireplace. In a disused castle where nobody would need a fire...
The Baron then rises from his grave and goes on a killing spree, for reasons that are just as unclear. I guess it was his old hobby and he's been away for a while? He also uncovers a secret panel in the castle floor where a lot of jewels were hidden. Days later a mysterious Mr. Becker (Joseph Cotten) arrives during an auction and snaps up the property, what could possibly be the connection?
This is the part of the story which sort of makes sense, but it's not a great start. If you're expecting any interesting twists involving Peter or the medium they consult to try and stop the Baron's evil deeds you'll be disappointed. It's part dull and by the numbers... and part nonsense. A good stretch is simply dedicated to Eva running about screaming, sometimes in the same recycled city streets. While I have reservations about Lisa and the Devil, it was strangely interesting and at least had a good central villain. Here the Baron doesn't do anything besides a few murders - the zombie make-up job is left in shadow for good reason. It was a role intended for Vincent Price, but he turned it down and Shadow of a Doubt star Cotten was given the role - which lacks anything interesting for him to do.
There are some interesting sets and the lighting in the castle dungeon is dramatic, but this isn't really a visually striking film overall. There are too many zoom effects and too many scenes set in total darkness. In terms of horror there isn't much shock violence or suspense, and the storyline drags until it reaches a pretty silly conclusion. With a few tweaks there might have been some interesting ideas about reaching the past by speaking to the dead, or even a classic cursed bloodline element. Instead it just shambles along and introduces random ideas about magic pendants just to get things over with at the last minute. Rational behaviour is often missing in this kind of thing, but here it stands out more than usual. It's often laughable, but never much fun, and in the end it's just too much of a mess to really enjoy.