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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Long Hair of Death (1964) review


Barbara Steele (Helen/Mary Karnstein), George Ardisson (Kurt), Halina Zalewska (Elizabeth Karnstein), Umberto Raho (Von Klage), Guiliano Raffaelli (Count Humboldt), Nello Pazzafini (Monk)

***Warning: This review contains one pic that features nudity***

Adele Karnstein is condemned to burn at the stake for suspicion of witchcraft as well as the murder or Count France, the brother of Count Humboldt. Soldiers search for Adele's oldest daughter, Helen Karnstein, also suspected of witchery. She secretly enters the room of Count Humboldt and begs for her mother's freedom proclaiming that she is in fact innocent and that someone else murdered the Count; someone living within the castle. Humboldt promises to delay the burning should Helen give her body to him. She does, but the execution is carried out anyway. As she burns, Adele promises that a plague and a curse will befall the castle of Humboldt and the villages around it. Helen tries to escape but is caught and murdered by Humboldt.

Years later a plague indeed penetrates the castle laying waste to the surrounding villagers. Count Humboldt, now riddled with fear and sickness, along with his son enter the chapel during a violent thunderstorm to hear passages from the bible. At that time, a lightning bolt strikes the tomb of Helen Karnstein cracking it open. Suddenly, the doors of the church swing open and a mysterious woman enters; a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Helen Karnstein. Thus begins the vengeance of the witch.

THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) is a nice companion piece to Margheriti's other B/W Gothic horror romp, CASTLE OF BLOOD (1963). Owing much to the style of Mario Bava and his big hit THE MASK OF SATAN (1959; and not forgetting Ricardo Freda's I, VAMPIRI from 1956 which Bava also worked on), Italian Gothic horror of the 1960s had a flair that could stand with the best of Hammer Productions in England. Like the Gothic horror films emerging from Mexico around the same time, the most foreboding and intrinsic entries were often the B/W features.

THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) has a number of atmospheric sequences that adds layers of dread that possibly would be lost had the film been shot in color. After the 40 minute mark, the film slows down its pace a bit when Mary (Steele), the strange woman who entered the church on the night of Humboldt's death, enters the picture. All the necessary ingredients to make one of these spooky olde world horror films is on hand here--a wrongful death/burning of a witch, the eerie castle, hidden passageways, ghosts, and like MASK OF SATAN (1959), there's a hint of necrophilia present.

Barbara Steele was a striking beauty with an unusually sensual face. According to the booklet that came inside the DVD keepcase, Steele exposes one of her breasts during one of the love scenes. However, during the scene, a cut takes place just prior to Ardisson covering Mary's face with her hair before ripping her top away. It would seem to be a stand-in as you never see Steele's face during this brief scene. Prior to her stint as the Queen of Italian horror, conflicting stories have Steele either storming off the set of the Elvis Presley movie, FLAMING STAR (1960) or being let go because of her accent.

Whichever is the case, having turned her back on Hollywood at the time, she turned to Italy and made a nice career in Italian horror for a number of years before returning to America where she got little work mostly in the horror or fantasy field. Her best is undoubtedly her dual role in the groundbreaking THE MASK OF SATAN (1959) followed by Roger Corman's THE PIT & THE PENDULUM (1961) and subsequent Euro horror such as THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962), the aforementioned CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964), THE FACELESS MONSTER (1965) and TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965).

Character actor Nello Pazzafini is seen in a number of scenes as the character named Monk. Like director Margheriti, Pazzafini had his hands in every Italian genre throughout the 60s and 70s most always in supporting or minor roles such as sword & sandal movies then making the successful transition to spaghetti westerns, horror, crime, comedy films and more. Without doubt one of the most recognizable faces of Italian cinema.

Antonio Margheriti was a versatile talent whose stamp covers most all genres. His favorite being the cinema of the fantastique, he also helmed a number of Italian Sci-Fi pictures and sword & sandal adventures such as HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1965), a lesser entry in the peplum/fusto genre that is actually part of the Ursus series of films but the title was changed for US distribution. This film had elements of horror featuring a sorceress who turns men into werewolves. Margheriti also delivered a somewhat mediocre, but lively film in the Italian cannibal subgenre with CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980) starring John Saxon, Tony King and John Morghen about a deadly virus brought back from Vietnam.

Margheriti peppers THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) with interesting characters and situations and although the action slows down a bit during the last half, the suspenseful second half benefits from these interactions. The film is also enhanced by a hauntingly beautiful score that reminds me a lot of the later score for Hammer's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971). Recommended for Barbara Steele fans and those who enjoy older horror films with Gothic trappings. The ghoulish ending is foreshadowed around the 70 minute mark even though you can pretty much guess how the twist is going to play out at the end but it's still a good, gloomy trip getting there.

Also of note is the opening title card which is presented in Italian. The title appears in front of a wall presumably the dungeon seen in the castle. A lit torch is to the left of the frame giving off a shadow effect of the films title. A nice touch but this is missing from release versions bearing the films English translated title. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) is an often visually striking piece of Euro horror that not only fans of Antonio Margheriti, but Barbara Steele and (especially) black and white terror films will find of interest.

This review is representative of the Italian Raro DVD (R2). There is an English dub as well as Italian language audio on this DVD.


Sean M said...

Watched this late last night which probably wasn't the best tme for me because i was a bit noddy and had to rewind in a few places for the slower second half of the movie.But it was definitely worth lasting out to the end as there are truly memorable scenes like Adele Karnstein throwing down the curse as she burned,the spooky resurrection of Helen and the final 10 minutes or so when the freaked out Kurt receives his deserved retribution.

A great looking atmospheric b&w gothic horror which i rate 8 out of 10.

venoms5 said...

Yeah, it does slow down a bit in the middle, but the opening 30 minutes and the ending are excellent. Even still, I found all the dramatics in the middle portion compelling just the same. I have the score on CD and enjoyed it quite a bit.

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