5 Scary Classics for A Movie Night with Kelsey James

by Kelsey James

In The Woman in the Castello, the heroine, Silvia Whitford, gets cast as the female lead in a horror movie called The Revenge of the Lake Witch. As part of my research for the book, I delved into the world of 1960s horror and the Hollywood on the Tiber era. These five movies include a mix of ones that served as inspiration — plus some creepy classic titles I’ve long loved and would recommend for a thrilling movie night! 

Black Sunday

This movie is the one that most directly inspired The Revenge of the Lake Witch. It stars Barbara Steele, a famous “scream queen” from a number of Italian gothic horror flicks in the ’60s. The opening scene shows a witch being put to death when a mask is nailed into her face, and this powerful scene is referenced in my book by the assistant director as the basis for the beginning of The Revenge of the Lake Witch. Black Sunday’s production quality and special effects will seem a bit cheesy by 21st century standards, but film buffs will find it worth watching as a classic example of Italian horror.

The Haunting

As an adolescent, I saw the 1999 remake of this, and for my book research decided to watch the 1963 version. It’s critically acclaimed for a reason, and darker than the remake, subtler and more subversive. It’s notable for its queer representation—Theo’s character, played by Claire Bloom, is a lesbian—which was groundbreaking for the time. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom are both terrific, and there are whiffs of their on-screen dynamic between Silvia and Lucrezia’s characters in my book. 

Castle of the Living Dead

This isn’t exactly a great example of Italian horror, although fans of Christopher Lee may find it worth a watch—but it was a useful example for my research. It was shot on location at Castello Orsini-Odeschalchi on a low budget over the course of a month or so. There also seems to have been some drama on set and it’s not entirely clear who the director was. The Revenge of the Lake Witch was also shot on location at a castle outside of Rome in a short timeframe, and as for on-set drama—well, you’ll just have to read the book and see for yourself. 

Wait Until Dark

This is one of the best works of psychological suspense ever created. It came out in 1967 and stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who accidentally comes into possession of a heroin-stuffed doll and finds herself pursued by criminals. Almost the entire movie takes place in her apartment. I first watched it in Bryant Park as part of a movies in the park event, and the hundreds of New Yorkers sprawled out on the lawn were scared out of their minds. Interestingly, when I watched The Shining in a park setting, the jump scares came across as funny and the movie got a lot of laughs. Not so with Wait Until Dark, which proves subtler mental terrors are actually more thrilling. I highly recommend this film—and recommend watching it in a group setting. 

Dial M for Murder


This is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies—the other probably being Rear Window. Interestingly, both—much like Wait Until Dark—are set almost entirely on location in apartment settings. Both Wait Until Dark and Dial M For Murder were adapted from stage plays. This allows these settings to become characters in themselves and significant figures in the plot. It also means these movies have to hold your attention through incredibly tight dialogue, clever plotting and satisfying twists. Grace Kelly shines in both of these Hitchcock films (although, when doesn’t she?) 

Set in 1960s Italy, this stylish, atmospheric debut spins a bewitching web of ruthless ambition, family secrets, and the consequences of forbidden love, as an ambitious American actress snags the starring role in a mysterious horror movie shooting on location in a crumbling medieval castle outside Rome…

Readers who enjoy the moody gothic allure of Kate Morton and Silvia Moreno-Garcia or the immersive settings of Lucinda Riley and Fiona Davis will be enthralled by Kelsey James’ spellbinding web of intriguing mystery, family secrets, forbidden love, and midcentury Italian flair.

“You’ll get lost in the pages of this lush, entertaining story.” —Ellen Marie Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Willowbrook

Rome, 1965: Aspiring actress Silvia Whitford arrives at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios from Los Angeles, ready for her big break and a taste of la dolce vita. Instead, she learns that the movie in which she was cast has been canceled. Desperate for money, Silvia has only one choice: seek out the Italian aunt she has never met.

Gabriella Conti lives in a crumbling castello on the edge of a volcanic lake. Silvia’s mother refuses to explain the rift that drove the sisters apart, but Silvia is fascinated by Gabriella, a once-famous actress who still radiates charisma. And the eerie castle inspires Silvia’s second chance when it becomes the location for a new horror movie, aptly named The Revenge of the Lake Witch—and she lands a starring role.

Silvia immerses herself in the part of an ingenue tormented by the ghost of her beautiful, seductive ancestor. But when Gabriella abruptly vanishes, the movie’s make-believe terrors seep into reality. No one else on set seems to share Silvia’s suspicions. Yet as she delves into Gabriella’s disappearance, she triggers a chain of events that illuminate dark secrets in the past—and a growing menace in the present…