Saturday, September 20, 2008
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964)
Antonio Margheriti directs this inky Italian gothic from a script by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, with obvious inspiration from Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH may pale in comparison, but I still find that it has plenty to offer on its own. The above image beautifully captures the despair of Barbara Steele's character, Helen, as she simultaneously mourns the death of her mother, burned for witchcraft, and seems to use still flaming embers to call upon otherworldly forces, having unsuccessfully sacrificed her virginity to the cruel count in a bid to save her mother. As a whole, Margheriti's film may not be able to match Bava's, but he still manages to give us one of the most memorable scenes in 1960s Italian gothic horror.
The plot develops this way: After Helen is murdered, we watch the accused witch's other daughter, Elizabeth, grow up to eventually marry the count's son, Kurt. Consistent with the theme of doubling that seems to run through Italian gothic horror, the same actress, Halina Zalewska, plays both the executed witch and Elizabeth, but as usual, Barbara Steele, er, steals the show with her portrayal of Helen, who comes back from the dead during a stormy night and imposes herself in the family drama taking place in the castle. Kurt and Elizabeth have a chilly relationship, and it doesn't take long for Kurt to decide that he prefers Helen, and the two plot to murder Elizabeth.
As with any good gothic horror, however, things prove to be different than they seem, and Kurt finds that his plans to live happily ever after with Helen have taken a back-seat to someone else's intentions for revenge. Moreover, as with any good Italian gothic, we see secret passageways, madness, weighty religious iconography, and most importantly, a decent allotment of rotting corpses, including some impressive re-animation scenes. Roger Corman may have gotten to these themes and tropes earlier with his Poe adaptations (including his own Barbara Steele vehicle, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM), but I still find Margheriti's film more satisfying in several ways. Somehow he makes the presence of dark magic seem very real and ominous.