The Long Hair of Death (1964)
aka I Lunghi Capelli Della Morte
Directed by Antonio Margheriti as Anthony Dawson
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi (as Julian Berry), Tonino Valerii (as Robert Bohr), and Antonio Margheriti
Starring Barbara Steele, George Ardisson, Halina Zalewska, Umberto Raho, and Laura Nucci
Black Sunday catapulted actress Barbara Steele and director Mario Bava to international attention. The story of a vengeful witch returned from the dead made a lasting impression with its stylish sets and star’s gaunt beauty. It was so popular that it established the “Barbara Steele” role, which in The Long Hair of Death is conveniently played by Barbara Steele herself.
In this one Steele plays Helen Rochefort, the eldest daughter of Adele Karnstein (Halina Zalewska). Accused of murdering Count Franz Humboldt, Karnstein is put on trial for witchcraft. Said proceedings consist of shoving her into a thatch structure and setting it on ablaze on the assumption God would spare her if she were innocent. With her death inevitable, the Karnstein matron professes her innocence in the Count’s death and curses the remaining Humboldt family. Though missing for years, Helen had secretly returned to plead her mother’s innocence. She had been letting the new Count (Franz’s brother) paw at her in return for a delay to find the real killer, and she swears to avenge her death. Helen’s declaration seems to be for nought, as Count Humboldt immediately chases her to a waterfall and throws her to her death. The only Karnstein left is little Lisabeth, who is the only one told by a servant that Adele Karnstein’s ashes are buried in grave marked with Helen Rochefort’s name, along with the body of a young woman who drowned in the waterfall.
It’s certainly a heck of a way to jumpstart a movie. Treachery, murder, immolation, curses, and a shared grave: it’s the trappings of a fine gothic horror. (If only the whole thing were told in a collection of letters found behind a secret panel in an abandoned chapel!) Unfortunately, this is an Antonio Margheriti gothic horror, so there are long stretches of people walking around with candles between the good bits. (Danse macabra, aka Castle of Blood, suffered from the very same problem.)
That Steele returns as the mysterious Mary is hardly a surprise. If you’re ripping off Black Sunday, you need her to come back from the grave. What is unexpected is that Zalewska also comes back, although not as an avenging spirit. With Adele out of the picture, Zalewska plays her daughter Lisabeth, now a young woman. A good portion of the second act is taken up with her awkward and unfathomable marriage to Baron Kurt Humboldt, the son of Count Humboldt. Kurt is horrible, and Lisabeth loathes him as both a man and a Humboldt. That’s only in the odd scenes; in the even ones she loves him, because he’s her husband. Zalewska tries gamely to sell her shifting loyalties, but the relationship never makes any sense.
The arrival of Mary begins Kurt’s downfall, but it’s a more of a downcrawl held up by occasional rest stops. There are seductions and betrayals and even some gaslighting to get through before the climax. And, of course, there’s a lot more candlelit walking to watch. I want to say that it’s all worthwhile, because the ending is really strong, but that’s really up to your tolerance for bad pacing. If you’re like me, however, you were already on board at the mention of Barbara Steele — in which case the rest of this review was just so much meandering by candlelight.