Even non-horror fans agree that one of the genre’s most beautiful cinematic apparitions is that of the stunning English actress Barbara Steele. I try to use the word “icon” sparingly, but, in Ms. Steele’s case, it certainly fits. The statuesque actress is fully the female equivalent of Karloff, Price, Cushing, Lee and others (but looks way better in a shroud). For us panting dudes, no one has ever quite made evil so seductive and appealing. Her piercing eyes visually define her surname, her raven tresses are exactly what Poe must have had in mind when writing of Morella and Lenore (in a lovely, ironic touch, the movie goddess, long considered the celluloid bride of the telltale author actually married Poe – well, writer James Poe; one of the myriad of trivial snippets I affectionately store in the brain that make my mostly meaningless existence palatable).
Steele’s emergence as a horror siren was the typical Hollywood “being in the right place at the right time” (or wrong time) scenario that seems to be the cornerstone for making film legends.
Put under contract to 20th Century-Fox in the late 1950s, she was magnificently miscast as Elvis Presley’s all-American squeeze in Don Siegel’s super 1960 western Flaming Star. To make her more “yankee,” she was given a blonde wig; to make her more ‘Murican, they coached her in oater drawl, the result being a mishmash of y’all with a distinctive Birmingham accent. The fact that Barbara Eden, a natural blonde and bona fide American, was sitting on the sidelines soon dawned on the dim producers who immediately replaced Steele, with the codicil of walking papers.
The thesp walked (or rather swam) all the way to Italy where she hooked up with novice director Mario Bava (who had seen her in a Life Magazine photo piece), about to helm his first feature, an adaptation of Gogol’s Viy, a tale of terror that had the inventive moviemaker hiding under his sheets for endless nights during his youth.
Steele’s participation in the project, now titled La Maschera del Demondo (The Mask of Satan), quickly became its prime source of hyperbole. The movie exploded into instant blockbuster territory. AIP’s Sam Arkoff saw the Italian cut and snapped it up for a song ($100K, more than the pic’s budget). Under its new moniker, BLACK SUNDAY, it became American-International’s highest-grossing picture to date (the date being 1960). Steele, in turn, was asked to return to the States to costar with Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s next Poe adaptation, Pit and the Pendulum. For no discernable reason, like BLACK SUNDAY (which although was an Italian production, had the cast speaking phonetic English), Steele was dubbed in the Corman opus (thus denying her growing fanbase the delights of her quite fetching British accent). Pit was another AIP smash, and Steele, suddenly in great demand, returned asap to Italy, where she began a string of memorable macabre outings including The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock, The Ghost, and Castle of Blood (to say nothing of a breather stint in Fellini’s 8 1/2 .
By 1968, the actress, in her own words, “had it.” Her famous quote, “I never want to climb out of another fucking coffin again!” was simultaneous humorous and sad for the lady’s now legions of worldwide buffs. She spent the 1970s in a slew of exploitation flicks (some for Corman, including Caged Heat and Piranha). Then, like giallo queen Edwige Fenech, she turned her talents toward the opposite side of the camera, wearing the hat of producer (Steele coproduced the groundbreaking 1980s mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance).
It’s with thumbs-up excitement that I discovered that Kino Lorber had spectacularly re-mastered and released two Steele masterpieces on Blu-Ray, the aforementioned BLACK SUNDAY and, in conjunction with Raro Video, the 1964 classic THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, possibly the woman’s best non-Bava horror show.
So much has been written about 1960’s BLACK SUNDAY that for me to gush on about it now would simply be a waste of time. Suffice to say that it is one of the most influential horror movies of all time (it remains Tim Burton’s favorite horror pic, and was used as a visual blueprint for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; in addition, Richard Donner studied the picture in prep for The Omen).
The movie, filmed in luxuriant black-and-white resonates with oodles of goth atmosphere in its telling of a traveling foreigner who, in the mid-19th century, happens upon a village cursed two hundred earlier by Princess Asa Vajda, a witch. The sorceress (also by accounts, a vampire – tests were actually made with Steele-fitted fangs) was not only burned at the stake; she had her head encased in a mask imbedded with metal spikes (ergo, the Italian title). Ouch.
A disruption of her grave site sets Vajda free, and she begins her revenge infection, targeting several specific members of the townsfolk, the remnants of the ancestors who did the demon dirt.
The gore (for its time) was truly lip-biting. Of course, Steele is Asa (and her reanimated witch/vampiric counterpart, Katya), and she’s sensational. The brilliant camerawork is by Bava himself (having begun in the industry as a d.p.). The design of the movie is such that it is as much an integral part of the flick’s success as Steele, to say nothing of the excellent supporting cast, including fellow Brit John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garraini, Arturo Dominici and Enrico Olivieri. The music by Roberto Nicolosi is excellent, but sadly mostly absent from the American cut, underscored by the overrated Les Baxter, whose work is at best serviceable; at least Baxter had the smarts to use several strains of the original moody Nicolosi soundtrack.
The script by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei with uncredited assist from Bava, Marcello Coscia and Dino De Palma (English dialog by George Higgins), hits all the right shock points, and, when attached to Maestro Bava’s terrific direction (it’s no wonder that this movie put him on the map), unleashes a breathtaking supernatural rollercoaster ride that 57 years later still has fans and genre buffs concurrently gasping in terror and in awe. LSS, BLACK SUNDAY is one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
The production was not without its choice moments. Steele, admittedly, was a bit standoffish due to her belief that Bava was obsessed with seeing her naked, and would, at any moment, spring a hastily added nude scene upon her (he didn’t, but probably wanted to). The mixed languages of the cast proved a bit awkward as well (script additions/revisions were delivered to the set daily).
But it obviously all paid off. BLACK SUNDAY has been scarifying and thrilling international audiences for decades, a gorgeous cinematic nightmare that you seemingly can’t wake up from…nor want to.
The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of BLACK SUNDAY, as indicated, is the AIP cut, so, no complete Nicolosi score, and short of about three minutes (the Anglicized version also smoothed over an implied incestuous relationship between Steele’s and Dominici’s characters). As it made box-office history in the U.S. (where it was top-billed with Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors), it’s an important addition to any horror library. Understandably, completist collectors might want to seek out the uncut Mask of Satan (now also available from Kino); in any case, this beautifully re-mastered 1080p widescreen edition is a definite keeper. A bonus supplement is a Kino/Bava trailer gallery, a savvy move if ever there was one.
In a bravura nod to BLACK SUNDAY, 1964’s I Lunghi Capelli della Morte/THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH once again showcases Steele in a dual role comprising resurrection vengeance.
This template for making the perfect goth horror pic, produced during Italy’s horror Golden Age, relates the unsavory goings-on of the degenerate royal Humboldt family. In a greedy quest for power, the immoral son Kurt (George Ardisson) has murdered his uncle and blamed Adele, a local beauty (Halina Zalewska) a single mother with two daughters, for the crime (little do they know that she’s a member of the spectrally-gifted Karnstein family). Kurt’s father (Giuliano Raffaelli), even more of a scumbag than his spawn, craves Lady K, but nevertheless condemns the innocent woman to be burned as a sorceress. Adele’s stunning oldest daughter Helen (Steele) begs for her parent’s life, to which the aged Count retaliates by raping and murdering the girl. Adele, meanwhile, dies cursing the village and all who accused her; Helen’s corpse is thrown into a river and later buried next to her mother’s ashes. And it’s there the two hold an unseen supernatural kaffeklatsch.
The years pass, and the remaining now-orphaned child, now full-grown (also played by Zalewska) becomes the next predatory target of the Humboldts. Kurt weds her, and on their honeymoon night, the mysterious, erotic and incredibly sensuous Mary (in reality, the reanimated spirit of Helen) returns, seduces her sister’s groom, and begins to accelerate the promise made by her mother decades ago. Unlike Steele, it ain’t pretty. As they say, revenge is a dish served best cold – and it doesn’t get colder than Mary’s wrath of violence and terror in THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH. She is, to put it mildly, one helluva we-otch.
As one might surmise, LONG HAIR is motivated by both sexual politics and Machiavelian tactics. The lifestyle of the revolting and decrepit Humboldts plays out like a satanic bitch-slap to the Borgias, to fascism and to the undeserving rich. And it’s intentional, a theme long addressed in the works of Bertolucci, Leone, Pasolini, Visconti and others. We’ve seen it in westerns, period melodramas, and even comedies. To see it in horror is not only a revelation, but aptly just. Steele, of course, is amazing in her two roles as Helen and Mary; can’t decide which one is more alluring. That said, we can’t not mention some of the other fine performers either, particularly Zalewska, Ardisson and Raffaelli.
The script is by the movie’s director, Antonio Margheriti, and future director Tonino Valeri (from a story by the marvelous giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi), and it’s ruthless in its depiction OF the ruthless – and their delicious punishment. The music by Carlo Rustichelli is another plus; but a key factor of LONG HAIR‘s success is the fantastic black-and-white photography of Riccardo Pallottini. This must be specifically mentioned, as for ages, the American prints of this title have been nothing short of godawful. Thanks to Kino Lorber and Raro Video, those days are now over. The new Blu-Ray of LONG HAIR OF DEATH is a knockout, resplendent in its 1.85:1 1080p hi-def widescreen glory.
The major behind-the-scenes star of this macabre triumph is the underrated director Antonio Margheriti (often credited as Anthony M. Dawson). This is without question my favorite Margheriti movie, and, quite possibly his finest effort; the sense of foreboding evil creepily waifs through the entire 94-minute running time.
Kino and Raro have jam-packed the Blu-Ray with stupendous extras, including interviews with Eduardo Margheriti and Antonio Tentori, an intro by Fangoria’s Chris Alexander, the Italian and English trailers, plus a fully illustrated booklet. The movie is accessible in either the original Italian (w/newly translated English subtitles) or in an acceptable English dubbed version. Your choice.
A joyous celebration of the Queen of Horror, BLACK SUNDAY and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH are guaranteed to Steele your heart, if not your soul.
BLACK SUNDAY. Black and white. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 PCM Linear mono audio. Kino-Lorber Classics. CAT # K1570. SRP: $19.95.
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 PCM Linear mono audio [Italian w/English subtitles; English dub track]; Kino-Lorber/Raro Video. CAT# BRRVD-083. SRP: $29.95.