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 Mario 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 Blu-ray of THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (I Lunghi capelli della morte), presenting the actress in one her most bewitching Italian starring roles.
In late 15th 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, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), 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, AN ANGEL FOR SATAN) is then forced into marriage with the Count’s wicked son Kurt (George Ardisson, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD), 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 period gothic cinema. Though owing a bit to BLACK SUNDAY, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is filled with haunting black & white imagery, including the re-animation of a corpse, coffins filled with rotting skeletons ravished by rats, and the cobwebbed catacombs which gives the beautiful Steele an excuse to roam through in her flowing white nightgown. The film was able to make ample use of the famed Cinecitta Studios, so it’s a lush affair with handsome production values, probably more than any other of Steele’s Italian gothics.
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 gorgeous Halina Zalewska also turns in a noteworthy performance as the tormented young 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 (seen here on this Blu-ray’s print source) flaunts a flash of bare breasts, courtesy of Steele’s body double. Familiar Italian character actor Umberto Raho (THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, BARON BLOOD) pays the Count’s spiritual compraderie, and his name, like most of the cast and crew, has been anglicized in the English credits. The music score by Carlo Rustichelli (here billed as “Evirust”) is both haunting and menacing, and at times resembles the score for Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, released some years later.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH arrives on Blu-ray in a 1080p HD transfer which reflects the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Needless to say, this looks miles better than the various public domain DVD releases, as the black and white image has adequate black levels with slightly overblown white levels. Detail is sharp throughout, and only soft on occasion, and the extreme lack of grain is likely due to some DNR (digital noise reduction) manipulation to the source print, but thankfully it’s never too excessive. The source print still has some fleeting debris and lines to remind us this is film, but for the most part, the image is extremely clean and definitely a revelation in comparison to what we’ve been offered on this title before. The disc includes both English and Italian tracks (LPCM 2.0) and both of course are post-synced (Steele rarely did her own voice in any versions of her Italian horror movies). Dialogue on both is well balanced with the film's music, providing nice clean tracks with very little hiss or distortion (the English language version was apparently dubbed by the famous Titra Sound Studios). Optional English subtitles are included.
Fangoria Magazine editor Chris Alexander (3:51) does a video introduction, gushing over Steele’s undeniable allure in horror cinema, and he admits he prefers THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH over BLACK SUNDAY and her other Italian-made terrors. The director’s son, Edoardo Margheriti does his own introduction/interview (10:31), discussing his father’s fascination with Steele and gothic horror in general, calling LONG HAIR a worthy successor to CASTLE OF BLOOD. Margheriti (who worked as an assistant director for Antonio) also talks about how his father became disenchanted with horror when the films got more graphic during the 1980s, opting to then work on projects which were fun to him, such as the action/adventure pictures he did in the “Indiana Jones” mold. Screenwriter Antonio Tentori (A CAT IN THE BRAIN) also does an introduction (6:17) discussing Margheriti and his “native bent” for horror films (crediting him for directing FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA) and dropping the names of some his other works (the latter two introductions/interviews are in Italian with English subtitles). An Italian trailer and an English International trailer are included, and the packaging includes a booklet with liner notes by Alexander. (George R. Reis)
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