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.

Savage Streets (1984) review


Linda Blair (Brenda), Robert Dryer (Jake), Sal Landi (Fargo), Scott Mayer (Red), Johnny Venocur (Vince), John Vernon (Principal Underwood), Linnea Quigley (Heather)

Directed by Danny Steinmann

Brenda is the leader of the Satans, an all girl street gang who get into trouble with a vicious circle of hoodlums called The Scars. Made up of four miscreants, the leader of this wild bunch is the sadistic Jake (Dryer). When Brenda's deaf and mute sister, Heather (Quigley), is brutally raped by the four men in the girl's locker room, Brenda vows to find out who was responsible. After getting into a scuffle in a local dance club, one of Brenda's friends is assaulted by the Scars. She manages to cut Jake in the face prompting a rage that results in him stalking the girl and eventually throwing her from a bridge to her death on her wedding day. When one of the gang feels remorse for his actions, Brenda learns who is to blame. Buying some weapons of death and dressing in a black leather jumpsuit, Brenda prowls the night to exact a bloody retribution for the rape of her sister and death of her close friend.

Danny Steinmann directs one of the absolute best vigilante movies ever. The films title sums up the proceedings perfectly. An extremely mean-spirited movie, Steinmann knows how to deliver the exploitation goods creating one of the most ferociously evil group of villains you're likely to see. With virtually no cops in sight save for one at the end, the primitive playground that are the streets of Los Angeles are an 'anything goes' battlefield for the callous Scars gang.

One of the most curious aspects of this group is that while they are attracted to women, they have no problem reaching out and laying a kiss on one another. Director Steinmann previously directed porn prior to SAVAGE STREETS (1984) and because of his work on the Linda Blair actioner, he was offered the gig on FRIDAY THE 13TH 5, another film in which Steinmann piled on the sleaze element. Steinmann was also tapped to direct LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT 2 but like several other projects he was also attached to, the sequel to Craven's film fell through.

Despite showing a flair for some good characterization and cinematography among all the violence, the film was very problematic and almost didn't get made. The original director (thought to be Tom De Simone who directed HELL NIGHT and REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS) was fired before shooting began and replaced by Steinmann. The script was also drastically altered during filming. Subplots involving the principal played by John Vernon and a young rookie cop were removed when Steinmann took over as they took away from the main plot involving Blair's character.

Four days into the shooting of the movie, the money ran out when the investors (apparently a mob affiliated organization) bailed with the money. A well known producer named John Strong was brought in to save the film. Steinmann apparently didn't get along with Strong (on the commentary Steinmann never actually names the producer but it is presumed he refers to Strong in reference to a producer coming onboard to save the production) claiming he was throwing his ego around and even shooting a lot of footage Steinmann felt was unnecessary.

SAVAGE STREETS (1984) contains one of the most ferocious and uncompromising rape scenes ever put on film. Not only do all four of the Scars gleefully rape this underage girl, but she is mute and cannot scream for help. After the men take turns with her, Jake kicks her in the face before exiting the scene. Originally, this brutal rape sequence was much stronger entailing more violence and sexual violation on the deaf and mute Heather. Also, in the finished film, Jake is seen kicking her in the face one time. Originally, he kicked her three times.

To obtain its 'R' rating, this excruciating sequence was seriously cut down eliminating some extended shots of the men torturing the girl. Even in its cut down version, the rape scene is incredibly powerful made all the more gruelling in that Linnea Quigley looks around 12 or 13 years old. In actuality, she was one year older than Linda Blair. She also had yet to get her breast implants she would put on display in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT the same year.

During the final 25-30 minutes, Brenda has had enough and takes to the streets with a crossbow and beartraps (among other things) to kill all the Scars members one by one. The sleaze factor is prevalent for the duration of the picture. John Vernon's character as the principle even bears some traits of lustful connotations with Brenda. She even mentions at one point that he's been trying to get into her pants for years. There's also ample nudity and even a 'Women In Prison' style shower sequence replete with cat fight. Blair gets fully naked in a bath tub at one point although this brief scene is rather tastefully shot considering everything else seen on screen. The film also has a bit of Women-In-Prison shenanigans with a big cat fight in the school showers. Lots of flesh on display throughout the movie.

SAVAGE STREETS (1984), while coming off as a female version of DEATH WISH (1974), is also reminiscent of Meir Zarchi's 1979 trash classick, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE mainly in the similarities of the character of Vince played by Johnny Venocur. Here, he doesn't care to participate in the more sadistic trials the other Scars take part in, but is forced into it. In the Zarchi film, one of the rapists is a semi-retarded kid who is also hesitant to comply (at first). Both films feature extremely nasty rape scenes although Zarchi's gruelingly protracted rape sequence is easily the most difficult to watch of its kind.

Whereas Steinmann shoots his scene with notable flair (despite the disturbing nature of it), Zarchi's sequence lacks any attempt to handle the act in any seriousness opting instead to go for the jugular wringing every bit of exploitation nastiness out of his rape sequence (which takes up some one third of the films running time). It's not mentioned on any of the commentaries, but both films share similarities whether conscious, or otherwise.

Linda Blair is really good as the take-no-shit, vigilante-in-waiting female avenger character. Her acting is a bit hammy some of the time especially when her eyes look like they're going to pop out of her head any second, but she has presence and manages to pull it all together and gets some great lines. Blair is also good in NIGHT PATROL (1984), a seriously raunchy POLICE ACADEMY clone from former female porn director Jackie Kong who helmed the H.G. Lewis tribute movie BLOOD DINER (1986).

Blair is also memorable in one of my favorite slashers, HELL NIGHT (1981) where she plays a resourceful damsel in distress. 1981 also saw Blair in a curious action drama entitled RUCKUS (aka RUCKUS IN MADOC COUNTY), a film whose trailer makes it out to be like a comedy (the comedy is only occasional) in the SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (1977) vein but deals with a Vietnam vet returning home and dealing with rednecks.

Linnea Quigley delivers probably the best performance in the entire film as the deaf-mute sister. The rape scene is really excruciating to watch especially considering she tries to scream but cannot. Quigley went on to become arguably the most popular of the 'Scream Queens' appearing in many movies of varying caliber. Some notable films are SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984), RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS (1986). Brian Frishman, who plays Wes, the boyfriend of the upper crust and arrogant Cindy, plays a slightly more intelligent version of the goofy, brainless twit he played in the comedy cult classic, MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980).

Robert Dryer as Jake is hands down one of the most ferocious portrayals of a villain I have ever seen. He does an excellent job of making you hate the character. Even when he isn't shouting or beating somebody senseless, his intense stare contains equal amounts of hate and villainy. Dryer has a face tailor made for a sadistic bastard. However, in his interview and commentary, he comes off totally opposite his character of Jake. I would go so far as to compare Dryer's interpretation to David Hess's role as Krug in Wes Craven's veritably cruel and sanguinary revenge classick, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). Hess was so convincing as Krug, people actually thought he WAS that character. Dryer comes off much the same way here. His cronies are just as evil but come off less a vile killer as Jake does.

Mike Norris (Chuck's son) did the stunt work on SAVAGE STREETS (1984). According to director Danny Steinmann, Sal Landi got a little over anxious during the disco fight scene breaking Norris's nose. Sean O'Grady, who plays a put upon high school kid bullied by the Scars, had an incredible career as a professional boxer. He was a lightweight boxing champion prior to appearing in this film. He is first seen in the sequence with the gorgeous Susan Slater.

SAVAGE STREETS (1984) is clearly an exploitation picture, but director Steinmann manages to retain some classy touches in numerous sequences as well as generally getting some fine performances out of the main performers. The best and easily the most memorable of the few films he helmed, the violence level is very high and may disturb more squeamish viewers more accustomed to the slightly less grim antics of DEATH WISH (1974). If you like your vigilante movies with an imposing nasty streak, then this one is for you.

This review is representative of the BCI 2 disc set.
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