• Gabe Powers

The Long Hair of Death Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)

In a 15th-century feudal village, a woman is accused of witchcraft and put to death. Her beautiful older daughter knows the real reason for the execution lies in the lord's sexual desire for her mother. After confronting the lord on the matter, she, too, is killed. A much younger daughter is spared and taken in by her mother's killers. Once she is of age, as a horrible, deadly plague sweeps the land, she marries the lord's worthless son. Then, during a brutal thunderstorm, the older daughter mysteriously reappears and begins to avenge her mother's death. (From Raro’s official synopsis)



Director Antonio Margheriti (often credited as Anthony M. Dawson) spent most of his career at the mercy of subpar scripts and minuscule budgets. The state of the Italian film industry throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s dictated that his skills be mostly applied to rushed genre rip-offs, which led casual viewers to assume the worst about his filmmaking abilities. The truth is that he was one of the most talented working-class filmmakers in Italy and even his worst films display significant technical artistry. Unlike Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, he never really committed himself to a trademark genre and usually avoided personalizing his imagery, which probably accounts for his extended mainstream obscurity. With little fanfare, he made some of the best gialli (including Naked You Die; Italian: Nude... si muore, 1968), spaghetti westerns (including And God Said to Cain; Italian: E Dio disse a Cain, 1970), ‘macaroni combats’ (including Code Name: Wild Geese; Italian: Arcobaleno selvaggio, 1984), and Indiana Jones rip-offs (including Ark of the Sun God; Italian: I sopravvissuti della città morta, 1983) ever released. He even made the first space-bound Italian sci-fi movie, Assignment Outer Space (aka: Space Man, 1960). However, skilled he was at directing action on tiny budgets, his most enduring legacy probably lies within a trilogy of gothic horror films, beginning with Castle of Blood (Italian: Danza Macabra, 1963), continuing with The Virgin of Nuremberg (Italian: La vergine di Norimberga; aka: Horror Castle, 1963), and culminating with The Long Hair of Death (Italian: I Lunghi Capelli della Morte, 1964).


Of course, even these ‘signature’ works were commissioned in response to the popularity of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio, 1960). Castle of Blood and Virgin of Nuremberg share mostly stylistic and thematic similarities with Black Sunday, but The Long Hair of Death is definitely a companion piece – both films include unjust executions of vengeful witches, familial curses, and fireplaces that lead to secret passages. The screenplay, by Margheriti and spaghetti western/giallo writers Tonino Valerii and Ernesto Gastaldi, is muddled in typically convoluted period melodrama, but offers enough grand horror spectacle to counteract the compounded double-crosses and unnecessarily elaborate evil schemes (it kind of seems like they each had a different movie in mind, then added a bunch of Black Sunday stuff after the fact). Margheriti and cinematographer Massimo Pupillo (a frequent collaborator who shot all three of the director’s gothic fantasies) don’t quite have Bava’s perfect eye or his patience for meticulously designed, multi-plane compositions, but their images are still quite striking. What he lacks in precision, Marghariti often makes up for in skin-crawling imagery, specifically a shot of a rotting body covered in gnarled, greasy hair.



The aptly named British actress Barbara Steele is a key component in any post-Black Sunday macaroni horror flick. Following her star-making part in Bava’s movie, Steele became the favourite femme fatale and appeared in Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Italian: L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, 1962), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (Italian: Amanti d'oltretomba, 1965), and Massimo Pupillo’s Terror-Creatures from the Grave (Italian: 5 tombe per un medium, 1965), among others. Margheriti had also used her for Castle of Blood, but specifically cast her in a dual role here, recreating the multi-generational part she played in Black Sunday. Both films also feature gooey resurrection sequences where flesh reforms onto a skull to become Steele’s granite, bug-eyed face.



Video

Like many of Margheriti’s other early features, Long Hair of Death has had a sketchy copyright history and has been available on a number of VHS-quality ‘budget’ DVD sets (as well as Amazon Prime streaming). An official anamorphic release was never made available in North America. In fact, the only anamorphic version I’m aware of is a French release. Clearly, there was a lot of room for improvement. Raro’s new 1080p Blu-ray is the first HD release in any territory. The moody black & white photography has been framed at a more theatrically accurate 1.85:1, rather than the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of the non-anamorphic DVDs (a couple of facial close-ups look a bit vertically stretched to me). The image quality is pretty consistent throughout with only minor blotches and scratches popping up (there is some blobby water damage around the one-hour mark). The relative lack of grain and soft edges/blends leads me to believe that the disc’s producers have overdone the DNR a smidge during restoration. This apparent digital tinkering hasn’t really damaged the textural complexities or the dynamic gradations. Occasionally, over-cranked white levels and some minor edge enhancement effects are more problematic, but, again, not enough to dull the impact of this sizable upgrade.


Audio

Raro has included the original Italian and English dubs, and presents both in LPCM 2.0 mono. The dialogue is dubbed either way, so the choice between the tracks is largely an aesthetic one (Steele does not dub herself, despite speaking English while acting, and there’s a bit of narrative dialogue that only shows up on the Italian version). Both tracks are plenty loud, especially any scene that leans heavily on Carlo Rustichelli’s mournful, death dirge musical score, and share basic sound design without any major bouts of distortion. The Italian track has a slight edge in terms of overall volume, while the English dub loses some points for a couple muffled lines of dialogue.



Extras

  • Introduction by Fangoria Magazine editor Chris Alexander (3:50, SD)

  • Interview with Margheriti’s son, Edoardo (10:30, SD)

  • Interview with Italian horror writer Antonio Tentori (6:20, HD)

  • English and Italian trailers


The images on this page are taken from the BD and DVD, then sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.

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