British born actress Barbara Steele, with her long raven hair, entrancing dark eyes, high cheekbones and stunning figure, was an unconventional beauty perfect for the horror genre. After significant roles in Maria Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (aka MASK OF THE DEMON) (1960) and Roger Corman’s PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), these vehicles brought her to the eyes of Italian producers, who quickly saw fit to cast her in many a gothic outing. A number of period costume (and mostly black and white) melodramas quickly made her the top scream queen of the 1960s, despite often not having the benefit of her own voice in the final product. The allure of Barbara Steele in all her mid 1960s glory can be seen in this double feature DVD, presenting two of her most bewitching Italian starring roles.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (I Lunghi capelli della morte): In the 16th Century, Helen Karnstein (Steele) tries desperately to save her mother from being burnt as a witch, as she was falsely accused of murder. Offering herself to the aging Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli), it does no good; the mother is executed and Helen is murdered, thrown over a cliff but vowing revenge for her family name. Helen’s younger sister Elizabeth (Halina Zalewska) is then forced into marriage with the Count’s wicked son Kurt (George Ardisson), the man who framed her mother. Years later, a plague has devastated the village. On a dark and stormy night, Helen rises from the grave, coinciding with the Count’s untimely death, and she enters the Humboldt castle as a wayward visitor, using the name Mary. Helen/Mary quickly secures the lust of Kurt (now the Count) who plans to murder wife Elizabeth in a scheme that only backfires and brings about final retribution for the Karnstein family.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is the second collaboration between director Antonio Margheriti and Steele, the first being CASTLE OF BLOOD (Danza macabre). A well-rounded exploitation filmmaker throughout his long career, Margheriti was never as revered as colleagues Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, but here he proves again that he has a penchant for gothic cinema. Though owing a bit to BLACK SUNDAY, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is filled with haunting B&W imagery, including the re-animation of a corpse, coffins filled with rotting skeletons ravished by rats, and the cob-webbed catacombs which gives the beautiful Steele an excuse to roam them in her flowing nightgown. The film was able to make ample use of the famed Cinecitta Studios, so it’s a lush affair with handsome production values.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH unravels somewhat like a Shakespearean tragedy, and it might take too much time to complete its final act of revenge, but fans of Italian horror will have no problem sticking with it all the way through, as it’s exemplary of its kind and makes great use of the attributes of Steele. A scene where a bolt of lightning hits Helen’s grave, causing her skeletal remains to revitalize with flesh and blood, is a bizarre highlight, and Halina Zalewska also turns in a noteworthy performance as the tormented wife who is basically a prisoner in her own loveless marriage. Like Margheriti’s CASTLE OF BLOOD, the European version of THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (scene here on this DVD) flaunts a flash of bare breasts, courtesy of Steele’s body double.
AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (Un Angelo per Satana): In a small town in Italy at the end of the 19th Century, a centuries-old life-size statue of a beautiful woman is brought up from the bottom of a lake. A young artist named Roberto Morigi (Anthony Steffen, THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE) is commissioned to restore it by Count Salvoni (Claudio Gora). The statue has an uncanny resemblance to Harriet Montebruno (Steele), the Count’s young niece whose has just arrived for a visit. Roberto asks Harriet to pose for him as he works on her cement look-alike, and he easily falls in love with her, but Harriet is soon overcome by the depraved personality of Belinda, the woman who the statue was originally modeled after - a much-feared individual, who, as legend would have it, is believed to be a witch by the locals.
AN ANGEL FOR SATAN was directed by Camillo Mastrocinque who gave us TERROR IN THE CRYPT (aka CRYPT OF TERROR, CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE), a fine cinematic adaptation of “Carmilla” starring Christopher Lee. Unlike that film, AN ANGEL FOR SATAN has been largely unseen in America, as it was never dubbed into English nor was it ever shown on TV or played theatrically here. Now that it’s finally been subtitled for DVD release, it can now be rediscovered by those that have never seen it or only witnessed dupey bootleg tapes without the benefit of an English translation. The last of Steele’s Italian gothics, and one of the last to be shot in black and white, it’s something of a Euro horror classic, beautifully shot and actually looking like it could belong to the previous decade. It also gives us one of the cult actress’s best performances.
Like in BLACK SUNDAY and several films afterwards, Steele gets to display her ability to play a double role effectively, that of the innocent Harriet and the sadistic and cunning Belinda, both being wrapped together as a dual personality. Being possessed by Belinda, Steele is shown seducing and whipping an idiot gardener for gawking at her (she then causes him to go on a rape spree), luring a brawny woodsman into murdering his family, causing a kindly school teacher to hang himself, and she even uses lesbianism to persuade her maid (Ursula Davis, KING OF KONG ISLAND) to do wrong. A terrific flashback explains that Belinda’s homely and jealous sister Illa (Marina Berti) accidentally fell into the lake with the statue while trying to destroy it. Illa’s ravished, bubbling portrait explains this to Anthony Steffen’s character in one of the more unusual scenes, and there are a number of unexpected twists that come into play before it’s all over.
Midnight Choir’s DVD presentation of AN ANGEL FOR SATAN looks quite impressive, offering the film in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The black and white picture has crisp detail and deep blacks, and it's pretty much blemish free throughout. The Italian mono track is clean, and the (removable) English subtitles are done well and easy to read. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, while not perfect, looks far better than the previous public domain DVD releases out there, namely one released by Eclectic DVD in 2005 which was not only very fuzzy, but was plagued by out-of-sync dialogue. Using an Italian print source (with Italian credits), Midnight Choir’s transfer has good picture detail, even if some of the long shots come off soft or display some trifling video noise. It’s presented letterboxed and non-anamorphic, and although the print source has some flaws, it’s nothing too distracting. The mono English has some hiss and scratchiness, but again nothing too distracting and everything is in synch. The only extra is a selected filmography for Steele, but the disc is a must-have for any serious Italian horror buff. (George R. Reis)
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