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Horror aficionados swoon at the appearance of Barbara Steele, the Gothic goddess who ruled European screens from roughly 1960 to 1966. Helped by her appearance in Federico Fellini's Otto e mezzo, Steele was embraced by every critic with a yen for the exotic, and was practically canonized within the pages of the French magazine Midi-minuit Fantastique.
Before the advent of home video, finding Barbara Steele's eight or nine key Eurohorror titles wasn't easy, and even then reasonable versions have been scarce. Both of the titles below have been available, if at all, only in woefully inadequate video transfers. Ryko and Midnight Choir's new double bill disc is both a welcome release and something of a disappointment. If like me you've been dying to see these exotic, erotic horrors, the disc will be worthwhile. If you're hoping for prime-quality presentations, they're on the weak side.
The oddly titled The Long Hair of Death is a gothic chiller from Antonio Margheriti, a prolific director who worked with Barbara Steele previously on the imaginative Danse Macabre (Castle of Blood). It's yet another Margheriti film signed as Anthony Dawson, with half the names on the credits changed to give the impression that the film was made in England.
As in La maschera del demonio a woman is accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Count Humboldt Whalen (Jean Rafferty / Giuliano Raffaelli) not only frames Adele Karnstein for murder, he beds Adele's oldest daughter Helen Rochefort (Barbara Steele) on the false promise that he'll stay the trial. As she burns, Adele promises that plagues and murders will follow the Whalen family. The Count silences Helen by throwing her over a waterfall to her death. Humboldt's profligate son Kurt (George Ardisson of Erik the Conqueror) allows Adele's younger daughter Elizabeth Karnstein (Halina Zalewska) to live.
Things only become worse in later years as a plague sweeps the region. Convinced that Adele's curse is real, the Count begins to go mad. Elizabeth is sickened by Kurt's drunken attentions but is forced to marry him. While the household prays for deliverance from the sickness, Elizabeth prays for help to carry out her mother's revenge. Lightning strikes Helen's grave, and her skeletal corpse rematerializes with a different identity, Mary. The Count dies when he sees this doppelgänger, the sister nobody but he has met. Kurt and Mary are soon engaged in an adulterous affair, and scheme to murder Elizabeth.
The Long Hair of Death has acceptable acting and a reasonable basic story but Margheriti's direction lacks energy. Despite an occasionally effective "corridor wandering" scene there's little or no visual dynamism -- the mostly flat lighting doesn't have the visual kick we associate with the best Eurohorror of the time. The script is packed with redundant dialogue of the, "If more of this happens I'll go mad" variety. As in a radio play, characters are constantly explaining things and defining their relationships with each other instead of doing something.
Most reviews mention the moment in which lightning revivifies Helen Rochefort's rotting corpse; it's not all that impressive. But a few scenes do capture the right mood. Kurt and Helen steal down to the crypt to seal a woman into a sepulcher, using candle wax so that she'll suffocate. We just know that the dead body isn't going to stay put.
In the major sex scene between Kurt and Mary (the film is not suited for kiddie matinees) Barbara Steele appears to have been replaced with a body double for some fleeting nudity -- her face is obscured by hair. Ms. Zaleweska is also partially disrobed, without benefit of a stand-in.
Even the fiery ending (which predates a similar event in the horror classic The Wicker Man) could stand a great deal of trimming; stills of the ritual scene are more impressive than the scene itself. The Long Hair of Death remains a noteworthy horror film, but the presence of Barbara Steele is its only truly satisfactory element.
The Long Hair of Death is presented in an flat-matted 1.66 transfer of an intact but uneven and contrasty print with Italian credits. Many scenes look reasonable on a small monitor, but the image is soft. Whites are sometimes so blasted out that facial details are erased; white shirts can induce eyestrain. The film has some good locations, with an enormous castle and garden standing in as the ancestral home of the Whalens; I'm sure the film would be a much more pleasurable experience with a better source element.
The audio track is an English dub. Carlo Rustichelli's score features some good orchestral passages. The mix does without perspective on voices and the sound effects work is thin. At least once I caught Kurt speaking on camera, with no dialogue on the soundtrack.1
An Angel for Satan is overall a much better film. Made two years later, it looks much more modern and is fashioned with more care for detail. Veteran Italian director Camillo Mastrocinque was almost thirty years older than Margheriti; this is one of his last movies.
It is the late 1800s, at the lakeside Montebruno Villa in Northern Italy. A statue recently recovered from the lake has aroused the superstitions of the local villagers, who consider it an evil omen. Count Montebruno (Claudio Gora of Danger: Diabolik) hires art expert Roberto Merigi (Anthony Steffen of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave) to restore the female figure. The housekeeper Illa (Marina Berti of Quo Vadis and Madame Sans-Gêne) is nervous because the heir to the estate, Harriet Montebruno (Barbara Steele) is coming home from school abroad; Illa and the Count have become lovers.
Roberto and Harriet fall in love, but Harriet begins to exhibit signs of a split personality, as if possessed by the statue that so closely resembles her. Believing she's Belinda, the ancestor associated with the statue a hundred years before, Harriet changes personality and becomes a malicious female predator. Harriet / Belinda seduces the gardener and encourages a local strongman (Mario Brega) to murder his family. Knowing that her maid Rita (Ursula Davis of Mastrocinque's Terror in the Crypt) is in love with the local schoolteacher (Vassili Karis), "Belinda" sets out to seduce him as well. Only Roberto sees that something is amiss in Harriet's inconsistent behavior, and sets out to solve the mystery.
An Angel for Satan has a moody B&W look that hasn't much in common with Gothic conventions. Harriet prowls in broad daylight like a wicked woman in a soap opera; the picture could have been remade starring Joan Collins! A simple process of elimination makes it easy to figure out who is behind the central conspiracy, but the story still functions acceptably.
Director Mastrocinque enlarges Barbara Steele's album of sixties' performances. Mario Bava began the dual personality game with a striking virgin vs. witch contrast. Riccardo Freda cast Steele as a Victorian innocent in one film (L'orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock) and a pitiless schemer in another (Lo spettro). Mario Caiano (Amanti d'oltretomba) uses a jumbled narrative as an excuse to place Steele in provocative bondage poses. In this film Mastrocinque has the "good" Harriet overdo her eye makeup to become the sensual Belinda, a vixen bent on making men destroy themselves. The implication is that inside every female is an evil seductress waiting to get out; any slight disturbance can turn a woman into a demon. As is true in a great deal of Eurohorror, the sexual politics of An Angel for Satan are distinctly retrograde.
Mastrocinque heightens the erotic quotient without resorting to the crude nude inserts of the Margheriti film. Harriet lounges in revealing nightgowns and bares her back and shoulders in various scenes, probably because she felt flattered by the quality of Giuseppe Aquari's cinematography. Not only does An Angel for Satan give Barbara Steele some of her most attractive B&W close-ups, the scripts doesn't require her to climb into real stone tombs in damp, cold castles!
The relaxed atmosphere may have encouraged Ms. Steele to give a more rounded performance, backed by a group of good players. Claudio Gora and Marina Berti (said to be a married couple in real life) do fine work and Anthony Steffen is an acceptable lead; Ursula Davis and Vassili Karis are an equally handsome and sympathetic couple. Mario Brega takes time out from his Sergio Leone westerns to play the village brute that becomes another of Belinda's perverse playthings.
An Angel for Satan fares far better than its co-feature, although it's still given a less than optimum encoding. The transfer is enhanced so detail is improved several-fold, yet some contrast problems remain. The gray-on-gray B&W cinematography requires an exacting transfer to avoid looking dull, and this version comes off fairly well. I'd consider this Barbara Steele double bill to be an acceptable disc of An Angel for Satan, with an iffy transfer of The Long Hair of Death thrown in as an extra.
On the positive side, An Angel for Satan has an original Italian track with removable English subtitles. The Italian audio mix is quite good, as opposed to the budget dub job done for the co-feature.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I no longer have time for such fun, but I'd recommend The Long Hair of Death as a great practice title for aspiring editors. Almost every scene needs trimming or condensing, like an assembly that lacks pace and rhythm.
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