Though the title might suggest a contemporary J-horror, The Long Hair of Death is, of course, a 1960s Italian Gothic. Whilst one of the less well known examples of the form, it serves as an ideal introduction to it through the dense network of intertextual references in Ernesto Gastaldi's script and the iconic presence of Barbara Steele.
Set in the 14th century we open with the impending execution of suspected witch, Adele Karnstein, for the sorcerous murder of the local lord, Franz Humbold. It's the usual damned either way trial by ordeal scenario, whereby death will provide absolution. (“Adele Karnstein the hour has arrived. The lord will save you if you are innocent. Be strong and have faith.”)
An almost unrecognisable Umberto Raho as the local witch-finder, here beautifully isolated by the all-encompassing blackness.
Desperately seeking a stay of execution, Adele's elder daughter Helene (Steele) pleads with the new lord, Franz's brother (Giuliano Raffaeli), for a stay of execution. She has evidence that the killer is one of the Count's own household.
Taking advantage of the situation, the Count demands that Helene first submit to his carnal desires. (“What can a man ask of a beautiful woman like you? There is only one thing that I want.”) She does. Unfortunately her mother is burnt at the stake anyway since the one presiding over the execution, the old count's son and the new count's nephew, Kurt Humbolt (Giorgio Ardisson), is the real murderer. As she dies, Adele swears vengeance on her persecutors.
Burn witch burn!
Later, as the distraught Helene flees, she is ambused by the Count, who murders her and throws her body into the river to conceal his own crimes. Helene's death is duly adjudged a suicide.
Left orphaned but exonerated through the deaths of her mother and sister, the young Elisabeth Karnstein adopted by the Count as one of his household in a display of magnanimity which further helps to conceal his family's crimes whilst also allowing him to feel that he has made amends for his own. Unfortunately for the Count, Elisabeth is reminded of her family's heritage by the family's housekeeper, Grumalda (Laura Nucci), who also lets her in on the secret of where her mother and sister's remains are hidden.
Time passes and Elisabetta (Halina Zalewska) grows into a beautiful young woman. Unable to come to terms with his crime and Kurt's revelation of his guilt, the Count has become ill, leaving Kurt in the position where he can do more or less as he wishes, including forcing Elisabeth to marry him.
But, as a plague sweeps across the land as Adele had cursed, a new woman comes into the Humbolt family's life in the form of the mysterious and beautiful Mary Karnstein (Steele). Almost immediately, Kurt resolves that she will be his, with Mary reciprocating his advances. This, however, only leads them to a new problem: what to do about Elisabeth. A dose of poison provides the cure, but then Kurt begins to wonder if his ex-wife is indeed ex...
The usual mirrors drawing into question identity and reality
To now itemise some of the intertextual connections:
The land ravaged by plague aspect recalls The Masque of the Red Death and thus the Corman Poe cycle, although the Christian rather than Satanic rituals that ensue are perhaps more reminiscent of Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
The family name of Karnstein and the arrival of Mary recall Carmilla and, through it, Mastrocinque's film Crypt of the Vampire. Though one of those rare-seeming Italian Gothics those in which Steele does not appear one nevertheless also gets the impression that the role of the vampire revenant was written with her in mind by Gastaldi, whose scenario there also incorporated a family curse for good measure.
The relationships amongst the Humbolt family are reminiscent of those amongst the Menliffe family in The Whip and the Body – itself another film featuring a more obvious Steele stand-in in the somewhat similar looking Daliah Lavi – as is the role played by the Harriet Medin White like family servant here. The film, directed by Bava and scripted by Gastaldi, also happened to feature a villainous black sheep of the family named none other than Kurt.
The return of characters from beyond the grave in search of revenge also alludes to Bava's Black Sunday and Freda's Hitchcock diptych of The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock and Lo Spettro – both penned by Gastaldi – albeit with a pre-modern tendency to inherently accept of supernatural in a manner that somewhat alien to these films and others with similar later settings, including Margheriti's own Castle of Blood which, whilst not written by Gastaldi, purports to be a Poe adaptation and even incorporates the author into its telling.
Beyond this, we also have some murderous black gloves, an iron-maiden type device – as per Margheriti's The Virgin of Nuremberg – and some point-of-view shots from behind its mask, a la Black Sunday.
Hands of doom
While the film isn't perhaps as atmospheric as some of these counterparts, in that there are fewer sequences of characters wandering through the castle and its environs that exist as much for their own sake as to advance the plot, the upside of this is a less somnambulistic pace that may appeal more to those who find the Italian Gothic at times veers too far in the direction of style over all else.
Some explary moments here arise when Elizabeth and the Count 'coincidentally' decide to venture into the castle's dungeons and catacombs at the same time: As Humbolt plead forgiveness from his dead brother and sees his skeleton move: as he flees in terror the camera lingers on for a moment to allow us to see the rat which has nested within Franz's remains and caused the disturbance, thus reminding us that we cannot just replace supernatural discourses and explanations for naturalistic ones to raise a degree of ambiguity over the nature of the plague soon to descent on the Humbolt lands. Then, as Elizabeth and the Count move through the darkness, they do so cautiously but also at speed, each wary of the possible presence of the other, their haste further accentuated by Margheriti's rapid tracking shots and relatively brisk cutting. Finally, as Elizabeth exits through a secret passage once the Count has passed, she emerges before the awaiting Kurt, who duly professes his desire to marry her and thus neatly moves the narrative on to its next sequence and plot point.
Though Steele's role perhaps doesn't stretch her abilities, in that she's incarnating much the same diva type as she had done before and would do again, rather than a more fully rounded real character as in Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Rober Musil's Young Torless – as the kind of film you suspect she would like to have moved into making, post 8½ – she again brings that distinctive physicality and intensity to the role.
Giorgio Ardisson turns in an effective performance as the dastardly Kurt, the kind of villain with no redeeming qualities whatsoever whom we can be justified in hating, to further demonstrate that he was capable of being far more than just the pretty boy type showcased in Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World and Knives of the Avenger. (As he and Elizabeth are blessed by the priest on the occasion of their wedding, Kurt mockingly asks: “There are many people dying in the streets. Shouldn't you recite a prayer for them?”)
Technically the film is accomplished, with attractive black and white cinematography, solid production design and fluid camera work. Carlo Rustichelli delivers an agreeable if unexceptional score: if its tropes are at times predictable, they help further fix us within the film's distinctive world, having much the same function as James Bernard's work for Hammer in this regard.