Friday, November 20, 2015

The Long Hair of Death

The Long Hair of Death (1964)
Dir. Antonio Margheriti
Written by Tonino Valerii, Antonio Margheriti, story by Ernesto Gastaldi
Starring Barbara Steele, George Ardisson, Halina Zalewska

Unfortunately, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is not about an evil Rapunzel who strangles people with her pony tale. It’s Italian, so that was not out of the question; if it had been Japan, they’d have just done it, no questions asked, and you know it  (in fact, there’s a 2007 film called EXTE with that exact premise). But no, sadly, it was not to be. Instead, this is a pre-giallo black-and-white affair, a relic of the brief flowering of Italian Gothic Horror that began with Riccardo Freda’s I VAMPIRI in 1957 and took off with Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY in 1960. By the mid-1960s, they would be superseded by the more titillating, explicit sex and violence of the giallos, but in the meantime we got films like THE WHIP AND THE BODY, NIGHTMARE CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE GHOST. Classy, atmospheric affairs which achieve their horror through suggestion and subtext rather than gory bloodletting, but which still pack just enough debauched insanity peeking through the cracks to leave no doubt that they could only be from the mind of Italy.

As is customary in this sort of film, we begin with Barbara Steele. John Lennon once said, "if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.’” Well, if you tried to give 60’s Gothic Horror another name, you might call it 'Barbara Steele.’ There’s something about her eerily luminous presence which animates a comfortable majority of these films. She has a distinct kind of beauty, of course, which is part of it, but there’s also something magnetic and compelling about her persona, a mysterious sort of charisma. Her eyes are sharp and alert, but strangely unreadable. It gives her performances a haunting, ambiguous and fluid quality which is perfect for the shifting, baroque nightmare world of the gothic thriller. We never know quite what she’s thinking, but that doesn’t make her any less compelling a performer. A rather rare ability. Plenty of gothic thrillers were being churned out during the 60s --by Hammer, Amicus and their lot in England, and Roger Corman in America-- but with the possible exceptions of Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, I don’t think there is another performer who so perfectly captured the essence of this curious type of horror. Having a lead as potent as Steele is crucial, because by their very nature these films can be a tad lethargic and turgid. Without resorting to histrionics, she manages to make these slow-moving tales of repellant intimation seem lively and engrossing, through the sheer power of her presence. To see what I’m talking about, just compare her to poor Halina Zalewska (THE UGLY ONES) in this one. Zalewska gives a perfectly fine performance in arguably the lead role, but barely registers next to Steele’s alien magnetism. It’s simply the perfect alchemy of a particular talent and a particular cinematic vibe, and the combination is rather electric.

Anyway, we begin the movie in the olden days of Castles and such. Helen (Steele) is pleading for the life of her mother, who is about to be burned to death as a witch by the sadistic Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), courtesy of his even more contemptible son, Kurt (George Ardisson, “Dolores’ model,” JULIET OF THE SPIRITS). Humboldt agrees to listen to her concerns that mom has been falsely accused, and then rapes her and burns the old woman alive anyway. Not cool, bro. But it gets worse; unable to save her mom, Steele knows that she’s on the outs with the rich guys, and tries to flee. But really for no discernable reason other than sheer nastiness, Kurt kills her anyway and throws her body in the river. Steele’s daughter Lisabeth, now an orphan, is left in the care of her mother’s killers, and, years later as an adult (now played by Zalewska), literally can’t refuse Kurt when he sadistically demands she marry him.

Wait, years later? What about the revenge?

Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.

One night, out of the fuckin’ blue, Barbara Steele shows up again, fresh from the grave, not looking a day older than when she died. The Count and his son are understandably rattled by this development, but Steele claims her name is Mary, and she doesn’t know anything about any “Helen” or have any idea why they’d look similar. She has a whole backstory that seems to check out, and no obvious connection to Helen or her past. We’re pretty sure she’s back for some sweet saucy revenge, but her exact plan is unclear, and everyone seems to accept that it’s just a happy coincidence that this new lady is an exact double of their former victim. Kurt, obviously still very pleased with himself for murdering this woman years ago and then bedding her orphan daughter, is predictably obsessed with this doppleganger for his previous conquest, and resolves to seduce her and make her his new wife. That’s a problem, because of course he’s already married to Lisabeth -- so Mary and Kurt hatch a plan to kill her off without anyone suspecting foul play.

Wait, again, what about the fuckin’ revenge? Helen comes back from the dead only to kill her daughter and fuck her murderer? What the shit is this?

Don’t worry hombre. There’s gonna be some revenge, and it’s gonna be a doozy. But to explain, I’m going to have to reveal the ending, which is a great one. So I recommend you go and watch it first and then come back here. So, SPOILERS ahoy.

(SPOILERS) So, here’s the thing. This has to be one of the most convoluted and ridiculous revenge plots I’ve ever heard of, but I love it. See, Mary’s been playing the long, long, long con all along. She and Kurt conspire to murder Lisabeth in the most labor-intensive way imaginable: they poison her, but just enough to render her unconscious so they can carry the body through the castle, down a flight of stairs, into the crypt, and put her in a casket, and seal it off with wax (suffocating her), and return an indeterminate amount of time later wearing different and nicer clothes to pick her body back out of the crypt, carry it back upstairs, and set it back in bed so it will appear that she simply suffocated to death in her own bed while lying upright for no reason, all without anyone else noticing, which they reason will allay all suspicions. (There is a certain brilliance to this plan, because come on, who would guess they would go through all that effort, when all they had to do was poison her slightly more at the outset to achieve the same result?)

Fair enough, that all makes perfect sense, wink wink, but still, I don’t see how this brings us any closer to our revenge.

Ah! That’s the great part. Once Lisabeth is dead, they keep seeing her around. The body disappears from the tomb, and Kurt starts to panic that she’s returned from the grave as a ghost. But as you’ve no doubt already guessed, just like every single other goddam gothic horror movie from this period, they’re gaslighting him. Lisabeth and Mary are in cahoots, and they’ve faked Lisabeth’s death so Kurt will panic and they can trick him into a horrible death. But here’s the thing -- Lisabeth, remember, is not a real ghost, they set the whole thing up. But Mary IS a ghost! She’s the spirit of Helen, who returned from her grave and set up this whole elaborate secret identity, just so she could enact this ridiculous gaslighting plot by pretending it’s her daughter who’s the ghost! So, to summarize: An actual ghost set up a convoluted gaslighting plot to fake a haunting by her living daughter! Man, you can’t make this shit up. It’s all in good fun, though, and it’s totally worth the long, long, long, long wait for revenge, because Kurt’s ultimate fate is by far the most satisfying comeuppance in Gothic Horror history. Usually these guys just get shot or something and don’t really get to squirm. Here, Kurt gets some time to really think about just how bad he fucked up -- the camera lingers on his eyes as he waits, helplessly, for a horrific death which he knows he richly earned. It’s a hilariously convoluted way of getting there, but I guess Barbara Steele knew what she was doing because movie revenge just doesn’t get a whole lot better than this (END SPOILERS).

Anyway, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH is a pretty quintessential example of early 60’s Italian Gothic horror. As with most of its peers, it’s handsomely photographed and nicely acted in the arch, stilted style of the time. It has a sweeping, moody score by Carlo Rustichelli (KILL BABY KILL, DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE, SEDUCED AND ABANDONED), which, combined with the torchlit castle sets and vivid black and white, produces exactly the kind of perverse melodrama you want out of something like this. And of course, as with most of its peers, it does get a little draggy in the middle, at least in part because of its unnecessarily overbusy plot (I don’t understand why the film bothers to establish the older Count Humboldt or Helen’s mother as characters; they’re unnecessary roles that just diffuse the conflict).

Still, little details give it personality and, I think, elevate it enough to put it in the company of the best examples of this subgenre. It’s one of Steele’s very best performances, playing to her strengths by offering a very ambiguous character who must command the whole movie despite her motivations being completely opaque. And Ardisson, as Kurt, crafts a splendidly loathsome villain, whose smug sadism is matched only by the brutality of his final comeuppance. Getting those two elements right goes a long way -- plenty of equally handsomely crafted Gothic thrillers feel a bit bloodless and listless. This isn’t any more narratively focused, but its central performances give it definition and purpose, even when we’re not really sure where it’s going. That pays off in the final act, which builds a momentum as feisty and diabolical as any comparable film I’ve seen, and builds to a bravura finale.

Don't get too excited, that thing on the left is an effigy, not a friendly bigfoot.

Most importantly, though, there’s an unmistakable hint of that old Italian perverse insanity bubbling just below the surface here, and occasionally bursting through into a few scenes of genuine shock. I doubt the maggot-strewn corpse which crops up here was something audiences were expecting to see at this point. Then there’s a body which ickily rebuilds itself through various stages of decay, and there’s even a little nudity thrown in (sorry fellas, I think it’s a body double) which would never have flown in a Hammer film in 1964.* It’s not exactly titillating stuff by modern standards, but it adds a shade of grotesque danger into the proceedings, powers the whole enterprise with a growling motor of madness and decay which lingers in the air, coloring even the most banal scenes of archly repressed castle life.

The same year would bring BLOOD AND BLACK LACE to Italian cinemas, the first unmistakable giallo and a definitive statement about the direction Italian horror would take for the next few decades. But it didn’t come out of nothing. As you can see from the plot here, the impulse towards the sick, the surreal, the sadistic was already deeply ingrained in the cinematic culture. Director Antonio Margheriti had already been quite a prominent figure in Italian horror (he’d already directed THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG and CASTLE OF BLOOD) and would have no problem seamlessly segueing into the increasingly manic underworld of Italian slashers over the next few years. The days of moody black-and-white castle sets were numbered by the time this one hit cinemas, but even so, the more of these early 60’s film I see, the more I’m convinced that the psychotic spirit of the giallo was present almost from the start. Like Steele’s character here, the giallo would return from the grave of 60’s Gothic horror, different, but the same. And just as hungry for blood. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH might be something of a tombstone for this era of horror  --or at least a definitive summation of it -- but Italian horror was just getting started.

*I believe, but cannot conclusively prove at the present time, that Hammer’s first foray into nudity would be THE VAMPIRE LOVERS in 1970.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Alas, I can't find any evidence of one. The poster just says "Terrifying"
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, from a story by Ernesto Gastaldi, who now that I'm looking at his output, was himself something of a icon of Italian horror, having had a hand in everything from THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK to THE WHIP AND THE BODY to YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, although NIGHTMARE CASTLE is a virtual remake.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Barbara Steele
  • BOOBIES: Yes
  • MULLETS: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: It's Italian, so yeah.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Some gross corpse effects and burnings, but nothing severed
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: There is a ghost, but it's not the castle specifically which is haunted
  • THE UNDEAD: Ghost, and also a fake ghost.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes, that bastard Kurt and his dad.
  • EVIL CULT: Ye Olde Tyme religion in this town seems pretty harsh (they cut off the hair of local women to build a Chewbacca effigy)... but there isn't much evidence that they're evil. I guess they were complicit in the burning of the "witch" at the beginning, but the movie makes it clear it was more the fault of Humbolt and his son.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Still no dolls!
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Nah, unless you want to count alive into ghost
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, not one of Steele's better-known efforts, alas.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: The more convoluted the plot, the sweeter the revenge. And also if you could manage to involve a giant flaming bigfoot effigy, that's a definite plus.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Pretty weak. There is a minor point about hair being involved in the revenge, but it's hardly worth mentioning in the title.

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