Barbara Steele was a genuine horror star, by no means a scream queen but a charismatic leading lady, femme fatale beauty, gothic heroine, her enormous eyes both captivating & frightening.
In a class of her own, there is no other horror queen to match her, & is remembered down to the present day as the first fashion goth.
She upraised many a film that had little or nothing else to recommend them. As we only occasionally hear her voice undubbed, we may be missing the quality of her thespian capacity, whether grand or mediocre, for the voice is an essential instrument for actors. In her case, it doesn't matter.
The sources of her charisma are her unique beauty, the conviction in her baring lending realism to even the most improbable environments, & of course those expressive eyes. Whether victimized heroine or terrifying witch, she's a sensual snare to any viewer's vision.
It's only too bad she had a diva's temperament & a bit of a chip on her shoulder that she never escaped horror cinema into mainstream movies to which she felt she belonged.
She reportedly said of her career, when it was mostly over, "I hope never to rise from another fucking coffin." Such a slighting quip makes her all the more gothically loveable, even if she meant it otherwise.
Beloved as she became in the 1960s, & remains to this day among horror fans, it's unfortunate that she could not embrace that affection, & be glad of her considerable success. She's one of the immortals, & had she done the dreamed-of mainstream films instead of horror, chances are she'd be forgotten.
The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964) is a ridiculous but pleasingly Gothic tale set in the 15th Century, with a fun dungeon setting for the opening scene.
Soon the alleged witch Adelle (Halina Zalewska) is brought forth to the village square be executed. The public has gathered for the entertainment. Slipping away through the crowd is Barbara Steele, who sneaks into the palace.
She's the witch's eldest daughter, Helen, for whom a notice of arrest has been issued. She sneaks into the palace in order to plead her case to the cruel judge, hoping to sway him to her mother's salvation.
He however is a villain who just wants to rape the beauty even as her mother is marched forth to burn. Helen hoped at least to avenge her mother, but is herself murdered by her rapist.
For the film's decade of the '60s, the burning is quite a gruesome scene. From the pyre, Adelle curses the town & her persecutors. Left behind is another daughter, Elizabeth, now orphaned, who grows up with the burden of avenging both her sister & her mother.
As time passes, Count Humboldt, the judge's father, becomes haunted by fears of Adelle's maledictions. He has watched Elizabeth grow up to look exactly like her mother.
His son Kurt (George Ardisson), is a sadist who loves kiling innocent "witches," & is more evil than his father. Elizabeth is forced to marry Kurt, while the judge goes slowly insane.
Pestilence descends upon the city. At the height of the horrors, lightning strikes the grave of Helen, whose rotten corpse arises & reconstitutes itself. Quite a nice squence! She returns to the world under the assumed identity, as Mary.
The judge upon first glimpse of her dies of apoplexy, seeing that all the burnt Adelle's curses are coming to pass.
As the gothic melodrama procedes, Curt wants an adulterous affair with the beautiful Helen. Mary has seemed not to recall her former life as Helen as she conspires with Kurt against Elizabeth.
The gothicisms muddle onward as Curt falls deeper into decline. The environment of the tale sometimes seems to be entirely of grey stone & shadows, sarcophagi, madness, & terror, until the moment when the two sisters reveal their true natures to the doomed Kurt.
Mary/Helen is revealed as a ghostly avenger & Curt cannot escape supernatural vengeance, with a conclusion that may well have inspired The Wicker Man (1973). For an old dubbed Italian cheapie, The Long Hair of Death is kind of great.
Several years ago, I had already written a review of this film, & offer this "alternate" take when I seem to have been in a slightly less friendly mood:
In traditional Japanese ghost stories, hair is often treated as something of horror that can have a ghostly presence of its own.
The Italian shlocker The Long Hair of Death (I Lunghi capelli dela morte, 1964) seems to suppose this hair phobia is also a European phenomenon.
Set in the 19th Century, the film is cheap & cheezy, but with some cool sets & shadows. The beautiful Adele is wrongly burned for witchcraft, though her curses against her prosecutor Kurt (George Ardisson) & all the land of his father Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli credited as Jean Rafferty) do come true, so perhaps she really was a witch.
Her daughter Helen ("gothic queen" Barbara Steele) with heroic stance & visage sets out to avenge her mother.
Alas, she is killed by Count Humboldt before achieving her aim. Helen's younger sister Elizabeth (Halina Zalewska) grows up to look just like her mother.
She is forced into an unwanted marriage with Kurt, son of the count, whom she despises. But finding that she respects the covenant of marriage & is having trouble pursuing a proper vengeance, she prays at her sister's grave for assistance avenging their mother.
Soonafter lightning strikes the grave & Helen arises restored, heading for the castle, taking on the persona of Mary, a rival for lusty Kurt's attentions.
The two women seem to be at each other's throats, & eventually Kurt & Mary conspire to kill his aloof & annoyingly moral wife Elizabeth.
There follows a lot of rubbishy Gothic Romance drivel, & only the strange beauty of Barbara Steele, who always has amazing screen presence, makes this long patch of bad storytelling tolerable.
Finally the sisters reveal it was all play-acting & in reality Kurt like his entire family line is doomed.
The last few minutes strive to provide a climax but rely on the uninteresting hysterics of Kurt when he keeps encountering bits of Helen's hair sticking to him. There are some lame ghostly FX as Mary/Helen is revealed to have been dead all along; Steele's glowering stare saves it from being laughable.
It's all capped with a Wicker Man style vengeful conflagration, the final curse coming true being almost worth the tedious wait.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl