Following the death of her uncle, Elizabeth (Erna Schurer) arrives at the family castle with her fidanzato Jack (Roland Carey), a journalist, for a reading of the will.
Dolls and black gloved killers, what more could one want?
After dinner with the other guests and servants, in which the history of the castle and the family are discussed, Elizabeth and Jack are taken to their rooms – a conservative touch which provides an early indication of the film's at times awkward straddling of 60s and 70s styles, whilst also serving as an important plot point insofar as it allows for the easier terrorisation of Elizabeth at night.
Schurer's characteristic expressions
Instinctively heading for the room she used to stay in when she visited the castle as a child many years ago, Elizabeth is shocked to discover the first of the castle's many secrets. An old servant whom she had been informed was dead is in fact very much alive, albeit wheelchair-bound and apparently insane.
Bava they are not
The next day uncle's will is read, naming Elizabeth as the principal beneficiary to no-one else's particular surprise.
Black gloved hands at work
Later the housekeeper takes Elizabeth, Jack and some of the others on a tour of the castle's dungeons, complete with reproduction torture chamber and identified as being like something out of a giallo novel by another guest; meanwhile another young woman, ostensibly a landscape painter vacationing in the vicinity, proves to be searching for something in the castle grounds along with some unidentified confederates with whom she communicates by walkie-talkie...
Note how the candelabra is shedding absolutely no light at all
That night Elizabeth finds her sleep troubled by extraordinarily vivid nightmares involving the castle, its staff and Jack – if, that is, they are in fact nightmares and not a carefully stage-managed reality designed to drive her mad or to her death...
Released at the end of the 1960s, La Bambola di Satana – not to be confused with the later, more explicit and supernatural horror themed La Bimba di Satana – is one of those entries that hedges its bets by throwing in just about gothic horror and giallo motif the filmmakers could think of into a plot that's half Agatha Christie and half Scooby Doo; fans of the latter style of giallo may care to note that the film climaxes with the literal unmasking of the hitherto disguised chief villain.
Besides the aforementioned madwoman (not) in the attic, torture dungeon and sinister servants, we also have plenty of dark corridors illuminated only by the light from a candelabra; a black-gloved figure whose face we never see until late on; wolves howling outside in the dark; storms every night and a beautiful heroine / damsel in distress who spends much of her time in nightwear that leaves little to the imagination.
Obviously also inspired by the wider fumetti culture of the time, with the credits even being presented as a series of posed stills from later in the film – many also in black and white rather than colour – La Bambola di Satana is perhaps better as a collection of static images than as an actual movie.
While director Ferrucio Casapinta – whose sole film credit this seems to be – definitely has an eye for an arresting composition and tries hard, with the nightmare sequences well rendered, the technical aspects of the film are lacking at times elsewhere, with the zoom lens work sometimes stop-start rather than smooth and far too many attempts at atmospheric and / or realistic lighting going awry as the use of a candelabra, the switching of a bedside light, or a flash of lightning fail to produce an appreciable changes in illumination.
This in turn serves to distinguish La Bambola di Satana from other films of its kind, such as The Virgin of Nuremberg and The Bloody Pit of Horror, albeit to its detriment insofar as they each really work as films in their own right; perhaps the most telling aspect here is the way the makers of Bloody Pit of Horror have the confidence to incorporate the making of a fumetti into the film's narrative, poking fun at what they themselves are doing and indicating that it's all in good fun, not to be taken too seriously.
As Elizabeth, Erna Schurer doesn't have too much to do except look pretty, vulnerable and scared along with screaming on cue. She's adequate to each task, with her background as a photomodel in fumetti clearly giving her the kind of expertise in creating one-dimensional characters needed by the film.
Roland Carey's Jack is similarly flat, the kind of traditional hard-headed hero whom one is never really inclined to doubt or consider as having ulterior motives, with this again serving to give the film a distinctly old-fashioned and comforting feel when compared to the likes of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (with its similar gothic / giallo crossover) or what a George Hilton type might have brought to the role.
Much the same can be said of the rest of the performers, with the absence of an eccentric character actors of the Luciano Rossi or Pigozzi type being felt along with that of more recognisable female glamour presences beyond Schurer herself.
In line with the general 60s / 70s crossover, Franco Potenza's score is a mixture of contemporary rock pieces and jazzy cues – the former playing diegetically in the nearby trattoria – and old fashioned horror mood music.