This 1964 Italian horror film takes place in a feudal village in the 15th century. It’s a time of fear, corruption, and ignorance, which is a dangerous combination. The village is ruled over by the corrupt Count Humboldt (Giulliano Raffaelli). With his villagers panicking about every day problems like poor crops, banditry, and disease, the Count understand that the best thing to do is just blame it all on a witch. Of course, it doesn’t do much good to blame a witch unless you also burn her and that’s exactly what the count decides to do Adele Karnstein. When Adele’s daughter, Helen (Barbara Steele), goes to the castle to make an appeal for her mother’s life, the Count responds by raping her and then tossing her over the edge of a cliff.
Adele’s other daughter, Lisabeth (Halina Zalewska), is adopted by the Count and grows up in his castle. Eventually she is married off to the count’s evil and greedy nephew, Kurt (George Ardisson). Knowing fully well what Kurt’s family did to her mother and her sister, Lisabeth is not all happy about the arrangement but what can she do? She has absolutely no one to help her.
And then, one night, lightning strikes Helen’s grave. Not only does the grave fly open but Helen is now suddenly walking around the village and heading for the castle. Except, of course, she is now calling herself Mary. When Mary arrives at the castle, Kurt is immediately taken with her, so much so that he starts to plot the murder of Lisabeth. However, is it possible that this is all a part of Mary’s plan?
Meanwhile, the black plague has once again struck the village and again, the villagers are starting to demand a sacrifice….
Obviously, the main reason to see The Long Hair of Death is for Barbara Steele’s performance in the dual roles of Helen and Mary. In the early 60, Steele appeared in several Italian gothics and she almost inevitably always seemed to play a character who, after being unjustly killed by a member of the upper class, returned from the dead to get revenge. (This was a template that was set down by her best-known Italian film, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.) While I’ve read that it’s a role that Steele got tired of playing, that doesn’t change the fact that she was very good at it. Steele’s characters always returned to punish the men who had previously used and abused her, which is one reason why her performances remain popular to this day.
That’s certainly the case with The Long Hair of Death, in which the entire film is basically leading up to Kurt being punished for both his sins and the sins of his uncle. George Ardisson gives a wonderful performance as Kurt, effortlessly going from arrogant and lecherous to terrified and helpless without missing a beat. Director Antonio Margheriti plays up the story’s gothic atmosphere, giving the film an occasionally dream-like feel. He emphasizes not just the villainy of the Humboldts but also the superstition of the villagers, making clear that evil cannot prosper without ignorance.
The Long Hair of Death is hardly perfect. The middle part of the film drags and the low-budget is occasionally a hindrance. (The village often looks like it’s made out of cardboard.) But the film comes alive whenever Barbara Steele is on-screen and the ending is a brilliantly macabre. Lovers of Italian gothic horror will find much to appreciate about The Long Hair of Death.