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Barbara Steele

Videophiled: Barbara Steele and ‘The Long Hair of Death’

LongHairofDeathThe Long Hair of Death (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) – Raro Video, the American arm of an Italian home video company, is one of only a couple of disc labels with a tightly-defined mission, in this case a focus on classics of Italian cinema that ranges from auteur masterworks to genre landmarks and cult items. The Long Hair of Death (1964) is one of the latter, a moody Gothic horror from genre stalwart Antonio Margheriti (whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) starring Barbara Steele, the British actress who became the most striking and mesmerizing star of Italian horror cinema in the sixties.

The preferred genre of the prolific Margheriti (whose films were often signed with the anglicized pseudonym Anthony Dawson, as it is here) was science fiction but, being an Italian director in the genre pool of the sixties (and later the seventies and eighties), he did it all: peplum, fantasy, crime, action, westerns, and of course horror of all kinds. His Gothic horrors of the sixties are among his best and this, his second collaboration with Steele (after Castle of Blood, 1964), is a minor beauty of the genre, a medieval revenge film with an innocent burned for witchcraft, a corrupt aristocracy, a curse, a ghost, and a sweet, sweet revenge. Steele is the eldest daughter of the woman framed for murder and burned alive and as she sacrifices her maidenhood to Count Humboldt to stop the trial by fire, his cruel son Kurt (George Ardisson, looking like Italy’s answer to Doug McClure with bad attitude) ignites the “test” blaze, which is quite literally a maze of bundled straw surrounding the accused It’s a great scene, with the woman scrambling up on a cross in the center of the inferno as pyres rage around her to spit a curse upon the family, and Steele soon follows, murdered to cover up the sins of the Humboldt family. Only when her innocent young stepsister Lisabeth is grown into a young beauty (Halina Zalewska) and forced into marriage to the scheming Kurt does Steele return, this time as the embodiment of her mother. She takes the name Mary and poses as a seductive traveler who immediately becomes of object of Kurt’s obsession. She turns seductress and appears to encourage Kurt to murder his wife but her true motivations are more insidious.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

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