The Long Hair Of Death directed by Antonio Margheriti
In a taped interview that she gave at Toronto’s Festival of Fear 2009, cult actress Barbara Steele mentioned that of her 40-odd films, only 11 have been in the field of horror (the clip is currently viewable on YouTube), the inference being that Babs today wonders just WHY her legion of fans insists on calling her “the Queen of Horror.” By my count, however, Steele has appeared in at least 14 horror pictures, and is perhaps best remembered for the string of nine Italian Gothics that she appeared in, from her breakthrough appearance in the 1960 Mario Bava masterpiece Black Sunday to 1966’s An Angel for Satan. The picture in question here, The Long Hair of Death (just one of eight films that Steele appeared in in 1964!), is a perfect demonstration, however, of just why Steele remains the undisputed Queen of Horror to this day, despite her pooh-poohing of the title.
In the film, as in several of her others, Babs plays what are essentially two roles. In the late 1400s, in what seems like a Germanic kingdom, young Helen Karnstein (our Barbara) sees her mother burned as a witch (interestingly, NOT at the stake, but rather at the center of a ring of entwined branches). The cruel nobleman Kurt Humboldt (very well played by handsome George Ardisson) had recently killed his own uncle and blamed it on this supposed daughter of Satan, but Helen’s dreams of vengeance are cut short when Kurt’s father, the Count (Giuliano Raffaelli), kills her shortly thereafter by tossing her down a waterfall! Flash forward 10 years or so, and Helen’s sister, Elizabeth (Halina Zalewska, who looks very much to me like Kirstie Alley, of all people!), also harboring thoughts of a long-deferred vengeance, is forced into an unholy marriage by Kurt, the very man who killed her mother! And shortly after, on a stormy night, a woman named Mary, the spitting image of the deceased Helen (Babs again, natch), appears at the castle door, capturing the fickle Kurt’s heart and paving the way for poisonings, deceit and assorted mayhem…
The Long Hair of Death (the title is triply significant!) was the second collaboration between Steele and director Antonio Margheriti; their first, the truly spooky Castle of Blood, had been released earlier that same year. In both films, Margheriti exhibits a definite flair for these Gothic affairs, and he is hugely abetted here by the art direction and set design of, respectively, Giorgio Giovannini and Henry Fraser. The castle chambers and underground crypts on display in the film are things of morbid and dreary beauty, wonderfully shot in B&W by cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini (who had also served as the DOP on Castle of Blood). And while I’m name-dropping, I may as well add that the truly creepy score by famed composer Carlo Rustichelli (who, that same year, worked on Mario Bava’s protogiallo Blood and Black Lace) adds immeasurably to the sinister goings-on, despite the fact that it IS repeated at least a dozen times during the course of the picture. The film features any number of startling sequences – including several burnings and the awesome sight of Babs’ decayed corpse being reanimated in her newly opened grave by lightning – and various gross-out shots (Babs’ maggot-filled corpse face, reminiscent of the puss she sported in Black Sunday as the witch Asa, as well as a skeleton being jittered by some frisky rodents). There is also a surprising flash of toplessness on display here (again, as in Castle of Blood), probably thanks to Barbara’s body double, and I must add that the vengeance that the two sisters ultimately wreak on Kurt is a doozy, prefiguring a classic scene in 1973’s The Wicker Man by almost a decade. Essentially an exemplar of the Italian Gothic, The Long Hair of Death has both style and atmosphere to spare, and is of course stolen by the magnificent Barbara Steele, who is both captivating and beautiful in every scene that she graces. And how chilling she is, when she appears to Kurt near the film’s end and intones “You’re going to die”! Wonderful stuff, indeed! The further good news is that this film can now be found in a nice-looking print (although poorly dubbed) on a DVD from a company known as Midnight Choir … AND paired with the Steele rarity An Angel for Satan, her last Italian Gothic! Watching these two films together will certainly satisfy any viewer that, despite her denial in Toronto, Barbara Steele really IS the Queen of Horror!