Originally released in 1973, Spanish horror thriller It Happened At Nightmare Inn (originally titled A Candle For The Devil) was a late night TV staple in the late 70s, but it did play US theaters at some point as a co-feature with Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (which was retitled Things From The Grave for this run).
In a Spanish village, sisters Veronica (Esperanze Roy) and Marta (Aurora Bautista) run an old school inn that shelters tourists, also offering a restaurant patronized by both locals and visitors. The sisters both have a serious issue with what they consider to be declining morals, and their topic of conversation is a current guest named May (Loreta Tovar). When they are drawn to the roof by the sound of a ruckus, they realize May is sunbathing topless on the roof and drawing catcalls from men on a neighboring balcony. Marta angrily confronts her and orders her to leave, throwing a robe over her “shamelessness”. When Marta shoves May in front herself, she falls down the stairs and plunges into a stained glass window, which pierces her in all the wrong places, killing her instantly. Veronica is horrified and wants to call the police, but Marta sees it as “providence” and hides the body. Moments after, May’s sister Laura (Judy Geeson) shows up to rendezvous with her sister, and the sisters tell her May left; they are forced to give Laura a room to avoid suspicion, though, and Laura starts investigating the whereabouts of her sister.
With her religious mania seemingly justified, Marta figures it’s OK for her to start killing anybody she perceives as a sinner. When Helen Miller (Lone Fleming) shows up in short-shorts looking like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, it’s a sure thing that she’s next. In one of the movie’s most bizarre moments, she comes home drunk and rather foolishly makes lesbian advances on Marta to upset her, not realizing she’s cornering a psychopathic woman who thinks she has the moral high ground to murder people without remorse.
It Happened At Nightmare Inn was directed by Eugenio Martin, just one year after he did Horror Express, and it’s got that same claustrophobic sound design, with seemingly all of the dialogue and sound effects added in post-production. There’s something compelling about its villains, trapped by the religious indoctrination of their parents — Marta constantly makes references to how shocked their parents would be to see women behaving like “hussies”, but her own motivations seem to be more closely related to being spurned in her youth.
There isn’t much mystery to be had in this film, since we know from the beginning who the murderer is, and the only real suspense is Judy Geeson’s insistence on hanging around to become knife-bait. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was really invested in seeing someone finally put Marta in her place. Martin short-circuits this tension, though, with an ending that tells you what happened without ever giving you what you really want to see. This is a small price to pay, though, for a film as atmospheric and unusual as It Happened At Nightmare Inn. The version on the Pure Terror box set is the public domain print, but Scorpion put out a blu ray that was highly recommended by George Reis of DVD Drive-In.