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Among horror fans Barbara Steele pictures can do no wrong, and I'm the first to admit that anything with Ms. Steele involved will always have my undivided attention. But I have a feeling that the reason she avoided talking about her horror career for so long was that she wasn't very proud of them... that, and she surely felt that being a horror goddess was not helpful to her Art Film career. Steele's classic Euro-horrors stretch out for only six years. By 1964 she was the darling of the French publication Midi-minuit Fantastique which published racy photographs of her on the sets of directors like Camilo Mastrocinque. Were those semi-nude shots actually in the movies? Most U.S. horror fans wouldn't learn the answer to that one for thirty years. After Riccardo Freda's The Ghost, Steele's horror output was no longer suitable for all-ages horror matinees; when the films did rate stateside releases they were routinely cut to pieces. The adolescent-oriented Famous Monsters magazine might feature a glassy-eyed portrait or two, but wasn't a proper venue for racy photos of Steele being whipped, and liking it.
Antonio Margheriti's two Steele pictures are a definite step down from her rapturous Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda movies. They must have been filmed fairly close together. Castle of Blood (Danza Macabra) is rather good, with an interesting story idea; Steele isn't the whole show but her part is central. The second Margheriti picture The Long Hair of Death is definitely weaker. Its supernatural tale leans in the direction of a simple vengeance soap opera; it plays rather slowly. Rarovideo's disc presents it in tip-top condition.
As in Black Sunday a woman is burned at the stake. Count Humboldt Whalen (Jean Rafferty / Giuliano Raffaelli) not only looks the other way while his profligate son Kurt (George Ardisson of Erik the Conqueror) frames Adele Karnstein for witchcraft, he beds Adele's oldest daughter Helen Rochefort (Barbara Steele) on the false promise that he'll stay the trial. As Adele burns, she curses the Whalen family with a prediction of plagues and killings. The Count silences Helen by throwing her to her death over a waterfall. Kurt allows Adele's younger daughter Lisabeth Karnstein (Halina Zalewska) to live. Several years later Adele's promised plague and famine come to pass, and the elderly Count goes mad. Lisabeth is sickened by Kurt's drunken attentions yet is forced to marry him, and prays that providence will carry out her mother's revenge. Lightning strikes Helen's grave, and her skeletal corpse rematerializes under a different identity, Mary (Steele). The Count dies at the sight of this doppelgänger, while Kurt immediately desires her. He and Mary are soon engaged in an adulterous affair, and scheming to murder Lisabeth.
The title The Long Hair of Death suggests an evil Rapunzel character, one whose hair might strangle unlucky lovers; it also sounds like a good M.O. for a Japanese Yokai spook. But nowhere in the story does long hair become an important issue. Neither do a couple of burnings, a murder or two and a sexy reanimated corpse break new ground in the horror genre. Where Long Hair excels is in basic Castle Corridor Wandering 101. In Castle Whalen all tunnels seem to lead to the crypt; Steele and Halina Zalewska are sublimely beautiful as they tiptoe through stony passages or up and down narrow staircases. Never mind that some of the trips have no particular urgency: seeing Steele cruise through a dank passage in a nightgown serves much the same purpose as watching Randolph Scott ride a horse. Both visuals are satisfying in and of themselves.
But this is Margheriti, not Bava or Freda. Compared to the movies of those two directors, The Long Hair of Death is stylistically challenged. Margheriti's direction is slack and unfocused and the cinematography mostly undistinguished. Without the heightened visual dimension there are no zinger moments, those single angles on Steele that elicit chills -- like the close-up through the rainy window in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock or every other shot in Black Sunday. Margheriti's elaborate castle set is too often flat-lit and lacking in atmosphere. 1 What's lacking is delirium, Barbara Steele's stock in trade. In her best pictures the director and cameraman seem to be compelled to imbue Barbara's every appearance with the erotic glamour afforded an exotic Hollywood siren. Here in Long Hair Margheriti compensates with glimpses of nudity.
I also must fault the scripting and direction, which draws out the narrative and leaves few surprises. The vengeance of Adele and Helen/Mary has no fire -- when Mary finally reveals her trap we feel something of a letdown. Kurt doesn't suffer nearly enough, considering what an evil bastard he is. The wooden effigy of Death built to celebrate the end of the pestilence needs to be more impressive. When it is burned, we don't get the feeling of a victim dying while a crowd encourages the flames, unaware of what's really happening. Most importantly, Barbara's passive ghost is just too tame. I know she's trying to behave in a ghostly manner, but she lacks personality. By contrast, the vengeance-seeking Marla Landi in Fisher's The Hound of the Baskervilles really gets our juices flowing -- we share her bloodlust. Not much happens with Long Hair's Mary. She doesn't even acknowledge a sisterly solidarity with the humorless Lisabeth.
Some of Margheriti's special effects are very satisfying. The ghostly Mary appears and disappears, driving poor Kurt into a panic. Too bad the director's blocking is so ragged here -- the 'geography' around the characters is too vague, and we must take it on faith that Mary is actually jumping ahead of Kurt, blocking his escape. The various horror heads are half-hearted fakes, although it's an easy guess that the shot of the gnarly corpse crawling with wormy-worms gave everyone a jolt in 1964. But not on American screens -- the show doesn't seem to have been given a theatrical release here.
Imperfect as it is, The Long Hair of Death still finishes far in the plus column. It's prime vintage Babs, for crying out loud. It's not her sexiest appearance -- a couple of shots of her low-cut gown in Castle of Blood do the trick for this fan -- but she's there in all her glory. And I hasten to add, finally in a top quality transfer.
Rarovideo's Blu-ray of The Long Hair of Death is certainly the quality presentation we've been waiting for on this title. It's obvious that prime elements were sourced, as the B&W scan is sharp and rich in contrast. I remember seeing no negative damage. The few visible flaws derive from the original cinematography -- out of focus shots, that sort of thing. A few cuts have little jittery patterns that might be a phenomenon that occurs when a static charge builds up in the camera, causing tiny sparks to fog the passing film. As with doorknobs, it happens under particularly dry conditions.
The clear audio is offered in both Italian and English (the Italian is recommended) and optional English subs are provided. Overall the track is bare, with the dubbed voices synching up fairly well but almost no sound effects save for loud footfalls and other obvious noises. Carlo Rustichelli's music score often plays completely in the clear. The eerie main theme is tracked into the film rather than just dropped in, and contributes atmosphere to the Corridor-Wandering episodes. But it's used throughout, no matter what's happening on screen. When Steele's Mary goes into ghostly action something NEW should have burst onto the soundtrack. Is it unfair to say that Margheriti's work almost more often betrays a rushed, get-it-done quality not detected in Freda or Bava?
Rarovideo is noted for interesting text and video extras, which often tap name critics for discussions of classic Italo fare. For Long Hair they've gone the route of something like Werewolf Woman. The interview pieces look like they were filmed on a lower-end cell phone. Margheriti's son appears in a blurry piece recorded in Dario Argento's horror museum, offering ten minutes of chat with little new info or insight. That's followed by an equally sketchy visit with noted screenwriter Antonio Tentori, who proceeds to cover nearly the same territory in an equally meandering style.
The third item features the enthusiastic Chris Alexander of Fangoria magazine, who breaks a record for gushing over Barbara Steele, something this writer has plenty of experience with. Alexander is an expert on the subject, but here he appeals directly to the fanboys. His short text essay for Raro's insert pamphlet fares better, as a general intro to Steele and quick brief on the show. He tells us that Rustichelli also composed the melancholy, romantic music for The Whip and the Body, something I'd forgotten.
A pair of pristine original trailers in Italian and English are clearly from the same vault as the feature negative. I can imagine that A.I.P.'s London rep probably passed on this feature and Castle of Blood back in '64, as being too adult to release as kids' fare -- drop the sex content and gore shots and there'd be nothing left. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Hair of Death Blu-ray rates:
1. In one shot, what looks like a telephone wire is tacked along the lower edge of a castle room: apparently Count Whalen didn't give up his land line. Less of a 'mistake' but nevertheless notable is Ms. Zalewska's prominent vaccination scar, which looks enormous in close-up. We're paying special attention at that particular moment because she's in the process of being disrobed by Ardisson, and that shoulder is right in our face. Of course, Health Care in medieval times could very well have been a wonderful single-payer system.
2. I was a confused teenager in 1966 or 1967 when I saw a B&W TV showing of a movie called "What?" Much later I learned that it was a radical cut-down of The Whip and The Body, originally a Technicolor Mario Bava film with a fairly explicit sadomasochistic sex angle. With the racy content removed it made no sense whatsoever. I may be wrong and The Long Hair of Death was released here or was broadcast on TV... but it seems unlikely. I wasn't aware of it until around 1974, through French and Italian magazines loaned me by James Ursini.
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T'was Ever Thus.