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An Englishman’s Guide to Italian Gothic: The Long Hair of Death (1964)

Long Hair of Death

*Contains spoilers*

“You went to the extreme of murder, all for the sake of possessing me. It’s a pity that you did everything… for a body that’s dead. Well Kurt, look at that body, look well at the body that is really me!”
Barbara Steele as Helen/Mary Karnstein in The Long Hair of Death (1964)

Antonio Margheriti’s 1964 monochrome Gothic The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte) has the immediate disadvantage of following on directly from Castle of Blood (Danza macabra, 1964), widely considered to be one of the director’s finest films. If not the finest, even if the later likes of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) and Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973) seem more popular today. In fact, such is the beguiling beauty of Castle of Blood that some critics have tended to consider it an “anomaly” in the director’s vast and variable body of work. Here’s Alan Frank, writing in his classic 1973 tome Horror Films

…despite pedestrian direction and abominable dubbing [Castle of Blood] managed to provide some chilling sequences, not least of all its climax. […] What was perhaps surprising was that Margheriti/Dawson, at best a very pedestrian director of everything from costume pictures and sword-and-sandal epics to thrillers and Westerns, was for a while the subject of something like cult attention from a group of British intellectual film critics, before their usual short span of attention drew them on to discover another cult figure for a time. At his best, Margheriti was competent, with no particular personal style, and at worst, which he often was, he must have been glad to have had a pseudonym or two to hide behind. [106]

Harsh words. It’s odd that Frank writes about Margheriti in the past tense when the director still had a good many more filmmaking years ahead of him. It’s just one example of a critic seizing on Margheriti’s very versatility as a stick to beat to him with. Frank also clearly has an axe to grind with that “group of British intellectual film critics,” whoever they may have been. And that English dub was hardly Margheriti’s fault. 

One does have to concede wild fluctuations in quality throughout Margheriti’s massive oeuvre but, as with most of his contemporaries, it wasn’t as though he had the luxury of just deciding to eschew other genres and exclusively become some grand auteur of the fantastique. The realities of the industry, and his position within it, meant that his projects consisted in the main of whatever was put on the table by trend and bottom-line-conscious producers and studios. For most, that was what being a working director meant, and still means. Other detractors have cited the early involvement and direction of some scenes by Django (1966) director Sergio Corbucci as the reason for the “anomalous” high quality of Castle of Blood, despite it being mostly Margheriti’s work up on screen. 

Whatever the case, we do find follow-up The Long Hair of Death (1964) to be the lesser of Margheriti’s three Golden Age Gothics, in terms of both atmosphere -building and shock value, with Margheriti working from a script that he didn’t much care for. “They wanted to do more of a historical picture with horror elements,” the director told John Martin in 1995. “I don’t know if that was the right idea. It’s not a bad picture, but it’s not Danza macabra – that’s a ten times better picture!” A reasonable assessment, but Long Hair nonetheless remains one of the better non-Mario Bava offerings of what we now call the “Golden Age” and worthy of some love of its own. 

Where Castle of Blood took Poe as its supposed inspiration, named after a non-existent Poe story and even going so far as to include the author himself as a character, The Long Hair of Death puts one more in mind of early Gothic melodramas like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), situated as it is in a cod-medievalist, mostly castle-bound milieu; although thankfully it eschews such silliness as a giant knight’s helmet falling from the sky to crush someone, as in the latter. However, Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (US, 1961), both starring Barbara Steele, are clearly the film’s true influences. Just like Castle of Blood, it exists primarily as another vehicle for our raven-haired young Queen of the Gothics, riding on the coat-tails of those two wonderful classics. “The Pit and the Pendulum was a big influence on Italian horror films,” Long Hair screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi told Roberto Curti (for the latter’s excellent Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1957-1969). “Everybody borrowed from it.” [125] 

Barbara Steele in The Long Hair of Death (1964) [Click to enlarge]

Despite Gastaldi and co-writer Tonino Valerii’s naming of key characters as “Karnstein”, no other gleanings from the fertile imagination of Sheridan Le Fanu are apparent, reminding one of the various randomly-named “Renfields” of Jess Franco’s films. The use of the name seems to stem from the fact that Gastaldi and Valerii had also worked together on a loose Carmilla adaptation in that same year; Camillo Mastrocinque’s Terror in the Crypt (La cripta e l’incubo, 1964), starring Christopher Lee. 

The insanely prolific Gastaldi had already made an indelible mark in the Italian Gothic cycle with Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr Hichcock (1962), leading to Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) and Margheriti’s own The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), but his most significant collaborators would later prove to be Sergio Martino and Luciano Ercoli, on a clutch of superior gialli starting with The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970) respectively. Tonino Valerii had worked as assistant director and uncredited screenwriter on the same year’s seismic A Fistful of Dollars. Passed over in favour of Margheriti by producer Felice Testa Gay to take the directorial reigns of The Long Hair, Valerii would shortly instead make his debut with western Taste of Killing (1966), and go on to distinguish himself with A Day of Anger (1967) and a superb giallo, My Dear Killer (1972), before re-teaming with Gastaldi once more, along with Sergio Leone, for My Name is Nobody (1973).      

“Our story takes place at the end of the fifteenth century,” an on-screen caption informs us as the film opens, to the ominous tones of Carlo Rustichelli’s traditionally Gothic theme. Rustichelli here replaces the last two films’ Riz Ortolani, going by the name of “Evirust” and sadly to slightly lesser effect, great film composer though he was. He also provided the atmospherics for Bava’s Blood and Black Lace in that year, and the odd cue from that score is recycled here.  

And so, thrust as we are into this middle-ages, Mittel-European milieu, we find ourselves visiting a dungeon set, looking familiar from many a peplum (a concurrent genre cycle, just about running its course) of the day, to find one Adele Karnstein (Halina Zalewska) accused of witchery and the murder of the local Count; in fact she’s due to be burned at the stake. Adele’s eldest daughter, Helen Rochefort (Steele) races to find the late Count’s brother and successor, the new Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli, of Blood and Black Lace and Margheriti’s Gamma 1 sequence), in an effort to persuade him to spare her mother’s life. “What can a man ask of a beautiful woman like you?” asks the Count when confronted with Barbara Steele. “There is only one thing that I want.” Our corpulent Count does indeed get his wicked way, but also manages to miss the execution and fails to make good on their exchange. 

Laura Nucci in The Long Hair of Death (1964) [Click to enlarge]

Adele’s public burning is witnessed by her smaller daughter Lisabeth (child actor unknown), and the opening of Black Sunday is strongly evoked as the burning witch curses her condemners and calls to Lisabeth to avenge her. Chief among these condemners and the main object of Adele’s fury is Humboldt’s son, Baron Kurt Humboldt – a real piece of work played by the late, great Giorgio “George” Ardisson (1931-2014). 

The good-looking young Turin-born actor had spent the past few years emerging as a familiar filone face, clocking up decent roles in Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World and Erik the Conqueror (both 1961), and featuring as none other than Zorro in Zorro at the Spanish Court (1962). The year after Long Hair would see him really hit his stride, appearing in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and kicking off the most visible portion of his career in the roles of “Agent 3S3” and other Italian 007 “equivalents”. This particular cycle would only last around three years, however, so a move to westerns (including another Zorro) followed, but heading into the seventies Ardisson’s career trajectory can basically be seen to represent the exact fate of the entire European film industry in macrocosm. 

Judging by both Adele and the camera’s intense attentions, it’s clear from the outset that Ardisson’s Kurt Humboldt is to be a central focus of what is to come, and the twitchy, gloating, almost William-Shatner-esque performance he provides over the course of the film ensures that he is just that. He shares a similar jock-like physicality and virility with the typecast American actor, and at times reminds one of Kirk himself; in those episodes where the character is supposed to be possessed by some evil alien force. It’s a compelling presence, for sure, offering us a “man you love to hate” in place of a male hero. He is Long Hair‘s equivalent to the dastardly “Lord Manfred” of Horace Walpole’s novel, and something of a pantomime villain as a result.  

Following Adele’s execution, the exploited Helen manages to track down Humboldt Snr. once again, finding him out with his hunting dogs. With no witnesses in sight, he casually pushes her to her death down a waterfall, quipping that her “secret is safe,” for good measure. With no living relatives, young Lisabeth is taken to live in the castle, under the care and tutelage of an elderly nun, Grumalda (Laura Nucci). It’s in a scene between these two that we get a beautiful continuous take, tracking along with them as they talk at a child’s eye view, before the breathtaking backdrop of the real tenth century Italian castle used for exteriors (Castello Massimo in Arsoli, Rome) and its leafy environs. Roberto Curti, in the book cited earlier, calls this “the film’s most patent stylistic bit,” but has to wonder if it “had less an aesthetic function than a time-saving one.” [125] The film was supposedly shot in three weeks flat. 

Cut to a few years later, and the adult Lisabeth is now played by Halina Zalewska, meaning she’s the very double of her late mother. This striking Polish actress’s career never really took off, but she also featured in two instalments of the Gamma 1 series, War Between the Planets (1966) and The Snow Devils (1967), and would reappear in Steele’s final Golden Age Gothic, An Angel for Satan (1966). Here she acts as a “safer” counterpoint to the bewitchingly exotic and decidedly “unsafe” Steele. 

Some heavy age-make-up informs us that the years have not been kind to Humboldt the Elder, and the sight of Lisabeth ensures that he’s “constantly reminded of her evil mother.” “This is what’s destroying you,” points out priest Von Klage (the wonderful Umberto Raho, returning from Castle of Blood), indicating Humboldt’s perpetually refilled goblet of wine. A smirking Kurt then swings in and merrily admits that it was he that murdered Humboldt’s brother, and laughs that he thought all along that Humboldt had accused the witch to protect him. Fearing the old flames and pitchforks routine, Humboldt is now completely racked with whimpering remorse. Lisabeth steals into a secret passage set into an impressive fireplace – another swiping from the successful Bava “formula”, as seen in Black Sunday and The Whip and the Body – only to find the old Count in the crypt. In one of the film’s eeriest jolts, his dead brother’s corpse seems to undulate in front of his horrified eyes – he flees in anguish, too soon to see that some rats had simply made a home of his brother’s rotting shell. 

In defiance of Adele’s curse, Kurt is soon forcing himself on Lisabeth, and the next morning is declaring his intention to marry her. Of course, once the big day is done and dusted, he finds Lisabeth unresponsive and making no secret of her contempt for him; in fact her perceived “revenge” on Kurt is to keep him trapped in a loveless marriage for the rest of his days. “Revenge” perhaps, but it must be said a completely self-effacing one. Just when we begin to think we’re just watching some kind of bodice-ripper rather than a horror picture, the curse makes itself known (and hence, the supernatural) in the form of a plague ravaging the surrounding towns. A raging thunderstorm marks the plague’s eventual end, a storm that also violently rips open the coffin of the late Helen Rochefort née Karnstein. Steele’s face regenerates from a rotten skull, just as it did in Black Sunday, but not only is the uncredited special effects work not as effective as Bava’s, but the scene as doesn’t carry half of the drama, with Rustichelli’s music cue lacking the impact of both Roberto Nicolosi and Les Baxter’s versions for the previous film.

The reanimated Helen dramatically presents herself at a service to mark the plague’s passing, now calling herself “Mary”. Kurt never saw Helen in life, but the sight of her in the doorway makes the terrified Humboldt go into cardiac arrest – the next service Von Klage has to conduct is his funeral. Kurt, however, is immediately besotted with the new arrival, meaning that Lisabeth is now simply an obstacle. There seems to be no kinship or recognition between the two sisters whatsoever, with “Mary” happily scheming with Kurt and Lisabeth openly despising Mary. Before long, Kurt is slipping some poison onto Lisabeth’s bedtime drink, but when the scheming pair returns to move the body it isn’t there – is Lisabeth still alive? And who knows about their crime? 

The Long Hair of Death (1964) [Click to enlarge]

The remainder of the action, including some pretty but admittedly dull stretches of wandering around the castle’s corridors, is chiefly concerned with Kurt’s spiral into drinking, paranoia and blind panic as he feels the net tighten around him. Of course, our villain at this point still has no idea of his new lover’s ghoulish origins. When discussing a thanksgiving celebration for the townspeople for the passing of the plague, Mary helpfully suggests the inclusion of “the burning of an effigy. The people would like that.” 

The sozzled Kurt suspects a plot to expose him and Mary as murderers to the assembled people, but in trying to escape the ceremony races towards the final reveal. In what is easily the film’s most effective scene, a ghostly Mary shows Kurt her true form – a festering worm-ridden corpse – and that Lisabeth is indeed alive; the sisters had plotted together. Laughing insanely when faced with the back of the large wicker effigy, he is lured and sealed inside it by Mary, his cries muffled, just as it is set afire for the edification of the townsfolk. Von Klage happily gives Lisabeth the honour of lighting the pyre when she emerges. “Burn, as my mother did,” she says as she applies the torch to the pyre. 

While this climax can clearly be seen to prefigure that of Robin Hardy’s infinitely more famous The Wicker Man (1973) it offers little of the sheer stomach-lurching horror of that iconic sequence. Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie might have been something of a bible-bashing prig, but nobody in their right mind would suggest he deserved such a fate. Ardisson’s character has been uniformly despicable throughout the film – horrific as his end is, it somehow doesn’t seem quite enough. As viewers, we also knew damn well all along that Mary was the resurrected Helen out for revenge, so while her reveal is effective it’s no news to us. Some further twist or turn was surely required somewhere. As DVD Savant’s Glenn Erickson has pointed out, “Its supernatural tale leans in the direction of a simple vengeance soap opera; it plays rather slowly.” With this, Erickson has perhaps nailed the root of the problem with The Long Hair of Death; its sequence of events is simply too straightforward and uncomplicated, and no amount of nice Gothic atmospherics – including an unusually generous amount of screen-time for Barbara Steele – can really cover that up. Unlike with Castle of Blood and most of Bava’s films, repeat viewings sadly yield diminishing returns. 

However, that isn’t to say there isn’t a great deal of pleasure to be had in the first viewing or two. There is. It’s an authentic product of its genre and cultural moment. The Gothic atmospherics still cast their spell, even if they do fail to mask a relatively threadbare plot, and any sixties Gothic featuring Steele should be dutifully viewed as a matter of course. File as a companion piece and smaller sibling to Castle of Blood. That isn’t too terrible a thing to be. 

The Long Hair of Death would be the final of Antonio Margheriti’s Golden Age Italian Gothics – and hence also marks the last time he’ll be the focus of this particular column. After this he would launch back into his beloved SF with the Gamma 1 films, and like Ardisson find success in westerns and the brief Bond-inspired Eurospy phenomenon, working through the genres as he always had. A brief return to Gothic horror came in 1971 with Web of the Spider (Nella stretta morsa del ragno), a scene-for-scene colour remake of Castle of Blood with an all-new cast. He would later consider this “a mistake”, as do most fans of the original. However, even though he would continue to work in almost every genre imaginable in the decades to come, he would always return sooner or later to horror or SF, and be considered a specialist and craftsman in those genres by the Italian film industry until his passing in 2002. By the critics, less so, but Margheriti thankfully never let this get in his way. 

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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