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Ghostly Revenge From Beyond the Grave, Twice:

Two Horrors of Barbara Steele

by Tony Nash

(The Month of Hammer Horror Intermission #2)

(All opinions are of the author alone)


(The Italian language versions of the films will be discussed)

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La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon/The Mask of Satan/Back Sunday) (1960) PG-13 **** ½

Barbara Steele: Katia Vajda/Princess Asa Vajda (as Barbara Steel)

John Richardson: Dr. Andre Gorobec

Andrea Checchi: Dr. Thomas Kruvajan

Ivo Garrani: The Prince Vajda

Arturo Domincini: Igor Javutich/Javuto

Enrico Olivieri: Prince Constantine Vajda

Antonio Pierfederici: The Priest

Tino Bianchi: Ivan, a Servant

Mario Passante: Nikita, the Coachman

Written by: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, Mario Bava, Marcello Coscia, & Dino De Palma, from the tale by Nikolay Gogol (as Nikolaj Gogol)

Directed by: Mario Bava

Synopsis: A doctor and his mentor accidentally bring a long dead witch back to life after visiting her tomb prison. When the mentor mysteriously vanishes, the young doctor takes up residence with the local royal family the Vajda’s where he discovers the witch was their ancestor, who swore revenge when her brother had a mask hammered onto her face and she bled to death. The daughter’s uncanny resemblance to the witch has her father worried the curse is neigh, and strange goings on begin to happen.

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I Lunghi Capelli della Morte (The Long Hair of Death) (1965) PG-13 *** ½

Barbara Steele: Helen Karnstein/Mary Karnstein

George Ardrisson: Baron Kurt Humboldt

Halina Zalewska: Lisabeth Karnstein/Adele Karnstein

Umberto Raho: Father Von Klage (as Robert Rains)

Laura Nucci: Grumalda (as Laureen Nuyen)

Giuliano Rafaelli: Count Humboldt (as Jean Rafferty)

Nello Pazzafini: Monk, a Servant (as John Carey)

Jeffrey Darcey: Embougr, a Messenger

Written by: Ernesto Gastaldi (as Julian Berry), Tonino Valeri (as Robert Bohr), & Antonio Margheriti

Directed by: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson)

Synopsis: In the 15th Century, a woman is wrongfully accused of witchcraft and burned alive. Her eldest daughter, believing the patriarch of the royal family seduced her to prevent her giving testimony to clear her mother, is thrown from a cliff by the man when she vows to expose him and the real culprit. The younger daughter, taken in by the remorseful servants, grows up despising the family. Not long after, a horrible plague in retaliation for the wrongful death hits the village. When the son reveals to his father he committed the crime the dead woman was executed for, the father rages because of him the village is doomed. Days later a mysterious beautiful woman arrives, and the plague suddenly ends.

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What makes these two films intriguing is that they feature the same actress in two very similar roles that offer similar goals and destinations, but the paths diverge completely on the why and motivations of the characters. In both films a woman comes back from the dead to avenge her murder and the murder of someone she cared about, but the circumstances leading to the deaths are totally different and what will be in store for them at the completion of their plot differ as well. The second film isn’t a remake of the first film nor do they share the same storyline, but they do share a theme and a similar time settings of the Old World. Madness and intrigue are some of the things that help push characters and story along, but are in some cases not always for the same things.

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In Maschera del Demonio, Barbara Steele plays a 16th Century witch and her 19th Century descendent, the witch is killed by her brother the prince for having devoted herself to Satan and for engaging in a perverse relationship with a half-brother. In Lunghi Capelli della Morte, Steele plays a young woman in the 15th Century is murdered trying to prove her recently executed mother was framed by the royal family for witchcraft and murder. Now in the first film Steele is playing an evil woman who intends on reclaiming her birthright through regeneration, but not before slaughtering the direct descendents of her treacherous brother. The second film has Steele as an ordinary good woman trying to save her mother from a fate she doesn’t deserve, and in the process of realizing the royal family’s willingness to take secrets to their graves ends up drowned, and later re-summoned to life to exact her family’s just revenge. While these two women are both out for revenge, what differentiates them is one is out to reclaim a birthright so she can rule the world in the name of Satan and the other is allowed to return to life to make sure the wrong done to herself, her mother, and sister is made right and the guilty will pay, with their life if necessary.

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The people behind the deaths also act for radically different as well. While Princess Asa’s brother the Prince genuinely wants to rid his kingdom of Asa’s evil, he also has his own agenda at play. Since he and Asa were (from the looks they give each other) jockeying for power, his condemning her as a witch also eliminates her as a political rival for the rule of the people, so in a way he’s killing two birds with one stone, making his actions one part justice and two parts covert scheming for his own ends. While it’s clear Asa was a danger, that the brother uses the people’s fear and superstition as a means of furthering his own ends causes a conflict of interest for the viewer as we never really know if the Prince was truly acting for the people or himself. Count Humboldt initially has no idea his son is a pervert and a killer, and really kills Helen out of pure fear that his standing as a just ruler of his people will be jeopardy upon the revelation he took advantage of the young lady which would lead to accusations he knew the truth and stopped it. His complete remorse upon the truth coming out makes him somewhat sympathetic as he really didn’t know. Baron Kurt on the other hand, is the prime example of inbred sexual deviancy, lust, and greed, having no remorse whatsoever he murdered his Uncle to get his inheritance and allowing an innocent woman to die for the crime. He even laughs that his father won’t expose him as it would destroy the family’s standing in both the community and the Church, leading to revolt among the people.

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Another key difference is one has a male hero, and the other doesn’t. John Richardson, who can be considered the romantic lead for Barbara Steele in the first film, but the second film’s technical male lead in Giorgio Ardrisson is actually the antagonist. That one helps the heroine and the other is the man she must stop is a very intriguing contrast as it offers a unique differential in how the heroine of Italian Horror can be both the damsel in distress and the courageous bringer of justice.

The acting in the films by some of the varied cast is fine as well.

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Barbara Steele offers three diverse and interesting performances. Her most nuanced performance is as Princess Asa Vajda, the witch. Steele is very animated, aggressive, intelligent, and self-assured in the role, giving audiences a clear idea of why Asa was to be feared. She comes off as very powerful and intent on fulfilling what she sees as her destiny, and really does let nothing or no one stand in her way, working her magic and hypnotism from her grave. One of the more interesting villains to come out of Italian Horror, it’s a shame Mario Bava and the writers couldn’t find a way to give Asa more time in the story and character development, though the little said about her is enough to give viewers a clear idea of what she wants to accomplish. That she grabs viewer attention is interesting to note too, as while audiences don’t necessarily want her to succeed, her presence and charisma have them wanting more of her. Princess Katia is a little more of a subdued character, but Steele still manages to keep her interesting by having her be sensitive, and clearly upset that her destiny might be to die so Asa can be reborn and take over the world. That she’s susceptible to emotions and the feelings of others make her integral to the story as this personality and trait make her the perfect target for demonic possession. As Helen Karnstein, Steele plays her as totally innocent and genuine in her goodness until her life is taken for fear she’ll ruin a prominent family in her village. When she’s allowed to return from the dead to exact her just revenge, she plays a mysterious woman who is crafty and stealthy, always playing hers and her mother’s murderer’s paranoia.

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Giorgio Ardrisson (credited under his stage name George Ardrisson) is incredibly demented and delirious in the role of Baron Kurt Humboldt. Normally known for his charming rouges who are generally good men, Ardrisson shows he was more than a pretty face with his role as the slimy and repulsive Baron who committed murder for money, then allowed an innocent to take the blame. While he starts the character as full of himself, Ardrisson displays well Kurt’s slow decline into madness and paranoia when he’s sure his actions have been discovered. By the end of the film he’s reduced to a complete rambling wreck on the verge of collapse. What Ardrisson does to keep the character a slime ball is have him also be something of a sexual predator, apparently lusting after the family ward since she was a child, then marrying her when she comes of age, making viewers wonder if there wasn’t a little inbreeding within the family that led to Kurt behaving so vilely or if he was just nuts. Andrea Checchi gives a very understated performance as Dr. Kruvajan, the mentor of the hero. Checchi gives one of the few accounts in Italian Horror of an otherwise good man who somehow gets sucked into the machinations of the evil Asa and becomes one of her undead servants. Checchi has Kruvajan not really wanting to be undead, but having no choice and even has him try to warn his protégé of the danger he faces in sticking around.

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While having more of a difference to each other rather than things in common, the idea of a woman coming back from the dead to enact revenge on those who killed her runs rampant throughout both and is the central context of both. Maschera del Demonio is the far superior film but Lunghi Capelli della Morte is still a fine atmospheric effort in spite of its clunky plot. The lighting of both is the highlight as it accentuates the atmosphere both Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti intended the films to have. Two totally different films about ghostly revenge with totally different leading ladies who want different things to complete their quest and both having fine points in their storytelling that make them separate and unique.

(For anyone looking for something different, these are the two films to go with. I found both very well made, though Mask of the Demon was clearly the better film, Long Hair of Death having some continuity and story errors, but nonetheless still well made. The Arrow Video release of Mask of the Demon offers one of the best transfers of the visuals and offers the Italian audio with translated English subtitles and both English dubs. It’s Region B, so viewers will need region free players or a portable Blu Ray player. Kino Video has Blu Rays of the film, but only the English audio versions. 88 Films transfer of Long Hair of Death is excellent and again offers the Italian audio with translated English subtitles, and the English dub. Again this is a Region B release that requires region free players. Raro Video in the US offers a nice edition that includes both audio options)

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Compare-Contrast, Film: Special Topics