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Director: Antonio Margheriti
Cast: Barbara Steele, George Ardisson,Halina Zalewska
Length: 96 min
Label: Raro Video/Kino Lorber
Release Date: Dec 16, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: Italian, English: LPCM Mono 2.0
Subtitles: English (optional)
- Video Introduction by Chris Alexander, Fangoria Magazine (3 min)
- Interview to Edoardo Margheriti (11 min)
- Interview to Antonio Tentori (6 min)
- A fully illustrated booklet on the genesis and production of the film by Chris Alexander
- Italian original Trailer
- English Original Trailer
When fans talk about director Antonio Margheriti you tend to hear the word ‘underrated’ bandied around a lot. For those familiar with his work—especially in Gothic horror—, it is understandable why that is the case. The sixties were a hotbed of Gothic sub-genre fare; from Hammer to Corman’s Poe to Italy’s top maestro Mario Bava, Gothic reigned supreme right up until the early seventies. On the fringes and away from the limelight, other directors were casting their hats into the ring; some good, some not so, and some brilliant but painfully ignored by mainstream audiences. Margheriti is one such director that in my opinion falls into the latter category. It is not that Margheriti was prolific in the genre, but the handful of films he made in the Gothic vein demonstrate an acute awareness of the subject matter and how to make it work on screen. Yet despite this, his films tend to stay sadly absent from discussions that focus on the ‘best of classic Gothic’—with fans gravitating toward the usual Hammer, Corman or Bava titles for examples. Now, thanks to this brand spanking new BD restoration of The Long Hair of Death (1964) aka I lunghi capelli della morte from Raro, Gothic fans, who might have not yet had the chance to dip their toe into the delightful genre work of this often overlooked director, now have the perfect opportunity to dive in and sample the delights he has to offer in this sumptuous period horror.
The Long Hair of Death builds its narrative like a serpentine web of mystery and brooding horror. With the wrongful burning of Adele Karnstein as a witch, the film opens on a dramatic note. As Adele chokes out her last breath from the top of the flaming pyre, she curses the perpetrators—The Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli) and his nefarious son Kurt (George Ardisson). This all happens as Lisabeth, Adele’s poor young daughter, watches the proceedings. Older sister Helen (Barbara Steele) has already disappeared from the scene. She tries to save her mother by going to the Count but is raped, then killed, and the crime goes undetected. Lisabeth is left without a family and taken in by her mother’s and sister’s murderers. Some years later we now meet Lisabeth (Halina Zalewska) as a grown woman. Forced into a volatile and loveless marriage with the heinous Kurt, Lisabeth is presented as deeply unhappy and still grieving for her mother. Meanwhile when the curse starts to come to fruition and the local area befalls a plague, a mysterious stranger appears one day in the middle of a storm. The family are about to find out that plague is the very least of their problems and this is just the start of it.In essence The Long Hair of Death becomes something of a melting pot of themes. We have the curse angle, reminiscent—especially with the Barbara Steele association—of Bava’s pivotal Black Sunday (1960). Barbara Steele’s sultry seductive nature, demonstrated in her part here, has a similar feel to the character she portrays in Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964). Although the two characters are coming from completely different motivational points, Margheriti’s films tend to demonstrate Steele at her most sexual onscreen; a little more on that in a moment. Then, in the third act, we have a twist that was also used in part for Mario Bava’s Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970), thus demonstrating how The Long Hair of Death may have been inspired, but was later not without its own influence on the genre. Meanwhile others have drawn parallels between the ending of this feature and that of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). While I personally feel this is loosely connected, it does make something of an interesting talking point. Alongside all this, the film also delves into some darker territory with rape, sexual coercion, and domestic abuse being key plot devices; thus revealing how the tide was beginning to turn for European horror. Just the year before, Bava had released his—then shocking—S&M-infused The Whip and the Body (1963), and The Long Hair of Death continued the trend in containing some subversive sexual themes. This was Margheriti’s third foray into Gothic horror in the 1960’s, made closely on the heels of Castle of Blood (1964), with the The Virgin of Nuremberg starring Christopher Lee being produced the year before. Both Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death were filmed in the director’s format of choice, black and white. The use of this medium presents the perfect opportunity to craft something classical and heavy on ambiance and mood—using chiaroscuro lighting and shadow rather than blood and gore to set the scene. Where the film differs from the usual Hammer/Corman offerings is in the use of exquisite exterior locations—a castle near Rome and its luscious grounds—and lavish production values that look more in keeping with a historical drama than a low-budget horror. The director demonstrates a keen eye in the little details, creating a cinematic canvass that is both beautiful and macabre. The use of outside locations for part of the film, as opposed to studio-built sets as was the norm, also gives the film an organic feel rather than the staged look often seen in the work of Hammer. The main point of criticism for those who have reviewed it in the past, as Chris Alexander rightly points out in his introduction to the film (for this release), is the pacing. I agree. However, unlike Chris, I lean toward the thinking that matters could have been improved with a slightly shorter running time. It is important to point out though that this issue tends to fade with subsequent viewings and the film certainly rewards patience if you let it.
For the main cast, horror’s First Lady Barbara Steele, as usual, puts in an incredible performance in her dual role of Helen/Mary Karnstein. The character of Mary allows the actress’s innate sexuality to brim to the surface. In fact, the first time Kurt meets Steele as Mary she has only a bed sheet covering her modesty and the way she purrs her lines out demonstrates what a formidable screen presence she is. There is a tiny flash of nudity in a later scene but this was provided by a body double for Steele. The epitome of Gothic beauty, Steele strikes out her best moves as the seductress for her part as Mary, while she is delicate and pure as her counterpart Helen. It is not surprising that of all the women to grace Gothic horror of the era, only Barbara Steele was able to compete with male icons such as Lee, Cushing, Price, and Karloff on the same standing. Polish actress Halina Zalewska makes a sturdy co-star as Lisabeth, although it must be said she can’t compete with Steele, but then who can? Italian star George Ardisson (Hercules in the Haunted World 1961) is delightful as the revolting Baron Kurt Humboldt; you literally want to ring him by the neck in some of his pinnacle moments. There are some familiar faces among the extensive and solid supporting cast. Giuliano Raffaelli is memorable as Count Humboldt in his role of a rapist and murderer racked by guilt.
This is a mostly good restoration onto Blu-Ray by Raro. The print does carry some minor damage due to age but all-in-all the picture looks great. A decent remaster of this film has been well overdue, and I envy those who are getting their first time viewing on this new format. The only drawback to the restoration (and this seems to happen all too often with Raro) is what seems like slightly too-smooth a surface texture, possibly achieved by filtering out too much film grain via DNR. This is not too egregious, though, and does avoid the dreaded waxy appearance. The BD beautifully restores the black and white gradient tones and the use of light and shadow to their rightful glory.
Again the sound is spot on, no noticeable flaws detected. Carlo Rustichelli’s dramatic score is showcased perfectly on this release. The film comes with an English dubbed track, and Italian audio with newly translated optional English subtitles.
Filmmaker, writer, editor (Fangoria, Gorezone, Delirium) Chris Alexander gives a short introduction to the film describing his own love for The Long Hair of Death and the work of Antonio Margheriti. Next, Margheriti’s son Eduardo appears in an interview discussing not just this film but his father’s entire career, in an enlightening segment for those who want to know more about the director. Finally there is an interview with contemporary Italian screenwriter Antonio Tentoro talking about his own admiration for the film. Also included are English and Italian trailers for the main feature and an essay booklet by Chris Alexander.
Worth waiting for, The Long Hair of Death is delivered mostly well-restored by Raro. Existing fans should not be disappointed in this BD edition. A smashing piece of lesser known Gothic horror that could give the big guns a run for their money, this is well worth checking out if you haven’t yet had the chance. Barbara Steele demonstrates just why she is the queen of Gothic horror in a dual role and the period setting and sumptuous production values make for quite a spectacle to behold.