BRIDES OF HORROR – Scream Queens of the 1960s! 🎃 Part 4: The Dark Goddess-This Dark Mirror

 BARBARA STEELE   – BLOODY WELL BELOVED

The role Barbara Steele plays in the legacy of Italian Gothic cinema of 1960s achieving cult status, is arguably her most recognizable contribution to the sub-genre of the horror film. She’s been christened The High Priestess of Horror, Queen of Horror and The Dark Goddess, the latter, the implication being her prowess is proof there’s a link between beauty (a woman’s power) and evil. Steele’s persona suitable as a femme fatale, and the sum of her work extremely feminist.

According to journalist Maitland McDonagh, she is The Face that Launched a Thousand Screams. She is the sadomasochistic Madonna of the “cinefantastique”; the queen of the wild, the beautiful and the damned.”

“Of all the stars of horror cinema, Barbara Steele may have come the closest to pure myth {…} she suggests a kinky and irresistible sexual allure” – (David J Hogan)

“With goldfish-bowl eyes radiating depraved elfin beauty, and what she calls herold, suspicious Celtic soul’burning blackly within, Steele played the princess in a dark fairytale.” ‘They sense something in me’ she once said of her fans, but surely it was true of her directors also. Steele followed with ‘Maybe some kind of psychic pain. The diva dolorosa of the 1910s, reincarnated as voluptuous revenant.’ – (from David Cairns and Daniel Riccuito for Sight and Sound)

“Angel Carter (1982) named the three surrealist love goddesses as being Louise Brooks first and foremost followed by Dietrich and third Barbara Steele. With regards to Steele however, not all the following descriptions emanate from surrealists caught in the grip of amour fou” (obsessive passion).- (The Other Face of Death: Barbara Steele and La Maschera Del Demonio by Carol Jenks from NECRONOMICON edited by Andy Black)

“The very symbol of Woman as vengeful, alien and ‘other’.” (Nicholls 1984)

“Steele perfectly embodies both the dread and the desire necessary to imply alluring and transgressive sexuality.” (Lampley-Women in the Horror films of Vincent Price)

“It’s not me they’re seeing. They’re casting some projection of themselves, some aspect that I somehow symbolizes. It can’t possibly be me.” Barbara Steele quoted-(Warren 1991)

“You can’t live off being a cult.” Barbara Steele

“When did I ever deserve this dark mirror?”

 

For a star to attain such cult status, it’s interesting to note that she only appeared in 11 horror films between 1960 and 1968. Nine of the Italian films were released by exploitation companies, with poorly dubbed and edited versions. Barbara Steele stated they were “hardly worth creating a cult around” quoted in (Crawley 1983). Steele actually appeared in other genres during those years, including comedies, historical pictures, and melodramas.…

Barbara Steele during the filming of ‘Fermate il mondo… voglio scendere!’ (‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!’) in Rome, Italy, 10th January 1968.

There would be several roles that never materialized including working with Fellini 15 years after “8 1/2. The director discussed casting her as a Venetian alchemist in his troubled production of the lavish “Casanova” (1976), but this never happened. French art house filmmaker Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad 1961) was interested in casting her in a horror film, that did not happen, and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up 1966) approached Steele for a horror film, that would never come to pass..

According to Daniel Riccuito in a feature for Fangoria in 2015, he makes a valid point we could easily contemplate, suggesting that our fascination with Steele’s cult status minimizes her authenticity when she is referred to as a ‘scream queen’. I would agree.

Indeed, a recent profile of the actress in Fangoria poses the question: “Why do we saddle her with diminishing monikers like ‘scream queen’?”

In Barbara Steele’s case, much like Marilyn Monroe who is viewed through the lens of sex symbol, bestowing the title of Scream Queen might be an honor considered by her passionate fan base, it can also be a curse for an actress of formidable intelligence, acutely cerebral and worthy of an established movie career. Steele’s otherworldly beauty has been objectified by the genre that embraced her uniqueness yet her acting skill, never led her to become an idolized Hollywood star, a beloved character actor or mainstream celebrity.

Somehow she metamorphosed into a figure of fantasy and myth, chained to an archetype and recreated as an icon. One thing’s for sure, she has no competition for her unique style and mesmerizing sorcery, though there are many other genre superstars that’s true, I would never dismiss that. Barbara Steele is the ultimate enchantress. Queen of shadows and the divine who suffer eternal.

Steele has said that the heroine or anti-heroine on screen could have been anyone, but she is very very wrong about that. Within the collection of her work, there could be no one else.

Carol Jenks cites Lucy Hughes Hallett in her study of Cleopatra throughout her historical incarnations as cultural icon, focusing on silent actress Theda Bara. Jenks refers to Steele as a similar romantic archetype of ‘insatiate lust and cruelty’, the ‘killer-Cleopatra.” In early Hollywood, Bara was the manifestation of an American diva who ‘put the vamp in vampire.’ Steele’s dark siren image would be invoked by Cinema magazine 1964 in relation to Bara – “on her own high-heeled, porcelain skinned, vamp-eyed way to stardom as a modern Theda Bar” quoted in (Beck 1978)

We share our gaze of Steele’s intelligent, fearsome, folklorish sensuality, her unconventional exotic likeness, sable mane, angular cheek bones and far-reaching piercing green wild eyes, haunted gaze and eyes that Critic Raymond Durgnat claimed her very ‘eyelids snarl.’

This would allow her to become a transformative representation of the monstrous feminine and heroine alike. Steele has the ability to cause both pleasure and pain synchronistically, in many of her films, there is a “sadomasochistic dance of death.” (Carol Jenks)

Ironically, it is her striking features, or what Phil Hardy refers to as ‘delirious intensity’ that sets her apart from other stars, making her the inimitable embodiment of sensuality and paradox. Joe Dante describes this duality referring to Steele as a “sexy monster.” According to Don G. Smith (The Poe Cinema, Steele possesses a “wicked sensuality.”

“… but at the core of her appeal, inescapably is her ability to express a tantalizing sort of evil, and a sexual ambivalence that is at once enticing and ghastly{…} she has come to personify with more edge and clarity than any other genre star-the link between sex and death.” – (David J. Hogan)

Most often Steele is studied for her looks, “her physical features are often described, or otherwise an appraisal of her beauty is offered. For example, Kim Newman describes her face as haunted…{…}

…Barbara Steele’s status as a cult star is reflective of the formative films which thrust her to that position: a status filled with dualities…{…}…Steele’s continued cultivation of her own cult persona – as one who rejected Hollywood from the beginning of her career, quite literally – means her more recent career is defined by films which either implement her as an icon, or are an homage to her work.”– (Nia Edwards-Behi article in Routledge Press)

Although it is her association with horror that resulted in Steele’s cult stardom, she seems to, at times, vilify it, as her career in Italian horrors often literally reduced her to silence by wiping out the authenticity of her speaking voice. It is a sin that we do not have the benefit of her whisky n’ honey tone to accompany all that gothic iconography. She also takes issue with the absence of psychological realism in those horror films, with no characterizations, merely circumstances.

Born in Cheshire England, Steele showed an interest in visual arts, which she followed all the way to London’s Chelsea Art School and to Sorbonne. Steele longed to be a professional painter, returning to England at 19 and winding up painting sets for a regional theater troupe. Her professional acting career started as a teenager, on the repertory stage.

Barbara Steele signed a contract with the Rank Organization in the late 50s, who sent her to starlet school for elocution, dance and singing but the British studio system was in trouble and the rise of Hammer was yet to come. Rank had cast Steele in smaller roles in dramas like Basil Dearden’s volatile Sapphire 1958, Bachelor of Hearts 1961 and Young Törless 1966. But Rank didn’t know what to do with the “tall, slender girl with the hungry eyes.” (McDonagh) and eventually sold her contract to Fox studios.

When she arrived in Los Angeles – ““I was greeted by a coterie of people on the steamy tarmac – one of them holding a stricken-looking black panther on a leash from one hand and an electric prong in the other. I was obliged to stand there, holding the leash of this creature for their welcoming publicity shots, implying that this was some kind of image they decided to have of me.””

Promo shot from Don Siegel’s Flaming Star 1960.

In  Hollywood, she was initially cast in the Elvis Presley film Flaming Star 1960, but walked off the picture when she clashed with director Don Siegel. At least that’s once version of the story. She told one interviewer that they had wanted a hip-swinging blonde (believing that being blonde was cliche) with a Mid-western accent that would say things like ‘howdy’. They weren’t looking for a tall willowy brunette. So was it a disagreement?, did she convince Fox she was not right for the part?, essentially a few days after shooting began, the studio announced that she was ill, and was replaced by Barbara Eden.

When Hollywood led to a disappointing career she had the fearless resolve to head to Italy after England and America failed to offer her anything promising. That was a Fox’s missed opportunity. Steele could certainly act, unfortunately she was seldom sought after by the studio system.

British cinema didn’t know what to do with her. Italy had ideas. The memory of arriving in Rome, “where everyone is singing an aria,” is still strong: “Here I am, English, and I felt I’d been born in the wrong place and the wrong temperature. And the moment I got to Italy it was like coming back to the essential womb…” – David Cairns and Daniel Riccuito for Sight and Sound BFI

From Tony Crawley’s interview for Halls of Horror 1983 : “During which time, they obviously tried to change you into another plastic doll on the factory conveyor belt.”

Barbara Steele: Right! They had this preconceived idea that women were all glossy lips. They’d say: We’d better pin your ears back. We’d better make you blonde. You don’t have any décolletage. Then came the orders: Don’t be seen around with him because… Don’t walk around the lot in high heels – they thought I was too tall and they all feel terribly short there. It was such a joke. All those fantastic clichés you read about in Day of the Locust. Except it was so much more of a cliché than you imagined it.

Barbara Steele quote: “I love the small problems of life. It’s this that is important. I would love to make a beautiful love film. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a beautiful love film. Myself, I adore love. Perhaps the French directors are too preoccupied with these problems. It’s not like that here [in Italy] or in the USA. In the United States, I had a contract with Fox. It was a very unhappy period in my life. Finally, I never made a film for them. I was paid. I was bored and suffering a lot not being able to work. The only film I shot in America was The Pit and the Pendulum 1961 for AIP. My contract with Fox was dreadful. Rank, with whom I was under contract, didn’t know very well how to use me. Then, they sold my contract to Fox. In the USA, they wanted to change me completely. I was too big. I should be a brunette or a blonde. And, then, life is so artificial. I arrived without much but left with nothing. I was completely demoralized.”

Steele became enamored with Italy, having an idealized vision of the country that embraced her during the 1960s, in contrast to the cold reception she got from her native born England while under contract to Rank. The studio who sold her contract saying she was “too exotic looking to be believably cast as the girl next door.” (Lucas 2007), then to find herself under a stifling contract with Fox in America. In 1961 she wound up starring in one picture, The Pit in the Pendulum, playing Vincent Price’s unfaithful, treacherous wife. In an interview she said she couldn’t take the rejection and auditioning process of Hollywood. (Gregory 2009)

Mario Bava, however promised her a starring role in his upcoming directorial debut. A film initially called Mask of the Demon, based on Nikolai Gogol’s fable The Vij. He had seen a photoshoot she had done for a 1958 issue of Life Magazine, submitted by Fox Studios. Bava fell in love with her uncanny aura.

A choice Cairns and Riccuito say was “clearly based not on experience but on physiognomy and lighting possibilities. My camera will like this face.” “Yes, but it’s always more than a face,” Steele insists. “It’s an energy. I know that film – I don’t know about tape – is like a succubus, it sucks in energy. Some people look magnificent, and they don’t have it, and they don’t galvanise you.”- (Barbara Steele)

Director Mario Bava and Steele on the set of Black Sunday.

And so began her flirtation with a very impressive transgressive filmography. As Maitland McDonagh succinctly humored, Steele went back to Italy to play ‘witches and bitches.’

“I was very young when I did Black Sunday, it was right at the beginning of my career, and so I was terrified on that set. Maybe some of that terror and intensity translated onto the screen.” Interview with Film Comment Magazine.

Mario Bava’s introduced dreamlike cinematic fantasies to the cinema of horror. Steele said of the director “I think that the strongest point of the movie is its visual look… Bava, was a shy, elegant man, like a very quiet businessman in a way and unobtrusive but nurturing. There was a very kind mood around him that was unaggressive. He was really lovely.”

Steele philosophized about the power of Black Sunday, ““that film is so porous, and to my mind so occult, that I think film itself absorbs odd energies like a living skin.”

Bava had worked as a cinematographer in Italy during the fifties, having shot Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri 1956, and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster 1959. He was offered the chance to direct an adaptation of Gogol’s story, after he took over directing for Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon 1959.

Black Sunday, it’s Italian title La maschera del demonio, was his first foray into the genre as a director, who also worked as the cinematographer on the film, his complete vision, is a moody black and white horror film that plunges you into a sense of uneasiness, contrasted by equal parts aesthetic beauty and terror. It is darkly poetic with “brilliant intuitions of the spectral.” Black Sunday became one of the most noteworthy films that signaled a shift in the genre of the postwar era, Bava’s film and future work would fuse together opposing elements of beauty & horror, sexuality & violence, life & decay, innocence and corruption, faith & depravity.

In Black Sunday the evil vampire-witch Asa commands Dr. Druvajan to “embrace me; you will die, but I can bring you pleasures mortals cannot know.”

Bava’s film delivered Steele as “mesmeric” she has a “spiky, whiplash strength” (Durgnat 1970).

The producers at Galatea urged Bava to shoot the film in technicolor but he refused as the atmosphere he desired could only be visualized in black & white. Steele felt the same way, telling interviewer Christopher Dietrich, “I think that black and white movies are much more subjective… they reach the unconscious on a much more profound level than films in color, especially in the horror genre. You put your own reading into black and white, whereas color is so literal that it’s less intimate”

The story takes place in 17th century Moldavia, Asa (Steele) with a wildness in her eyes, is tied to a stake, her punishers whipping the witch’s naked back. Like Whale’s villagers in Frankenstein 1931, the burning torches bloom in a foggy landscape. Asa, her dark eyes wide and deep, curses her tormentors swearing revenge on their descendants. The executioner, a Herculean hooded figure bears a hideous bronze mask armed with sharp spikes on the inside. With one powerful blow from his sledgehammer, he drives the mask into the condemned witches face. It is a shocking moment that transports the ‘horror film’ in the history of the genre. Asa’s lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) comes to the same gruesome end.

The evil Javuto also shares a startling sequence rising up through the eruption of earth in the graveyard clawing his way out, wearing the same outrageous mask. Once resurrected, Asa and her demon lover, threaten to ruin her descendent Katia (Steele in her dual role) spiritually and physically, possessing and stealing her soul, driving her to all sorts of wickedness. Katia’s good self is being hunted by the monstrous version of herself (Asa) through possession.

Arturo Dominici as the evil Igor Javutich in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday 1960.

“Who but Steele could have looked so hauntingly seductive with nail punctures dotting her face?” (McDonagh)

Two hundred years later, two doctors Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checci) and Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson) traveling to a medical conference break down near the abandoned ruins of an old chapel of castle Vijda.

Walking through the crypt, they discover the tomb of the witch of old legends. The bronze mask placed on her face for all eternity, to show her true face, the face of Satan. The cross, visible through the glass covering would keep her corpse nailed down forever.

Asa’s is laid out in her tomb, the grotesque bronze mask still bound to her face. After a monstrous bat attacks Kruvajan, the glass on the tomb becomes shattered. He removes a triptych from the body, a souvenir of the witch. He then pulls the mask off her corpse, to reveal the smooth skin, her visage the remnants of a bewitching face that has endured the deep spike punctures in her flesh. Her lips still full and soft, with hollow eye sockets and scorpions crawling from within. “Those empty eyes seem to be looking at us.” Kruvajan cuts himself on a sliver of the glass, the blood drips onto the waxen body of the vampire-witch.

The film submits a series of memorable trademark images widely symbolized as the mood of the 1960s horror genre. Outside the crypt, In contrast to the jolting current of energy that will soon revive Asa, her descendent appears like a still life. The two men come across the jaw-dropping beauty, the young princess Katia, flanked by two heedful mastiffs. This striking impression of Steele that has endured, is suggestive that Katia herself may be an enchantress, guarded by her two familiars.

She is the striking image of Asa, being Asa’s great-granddaughter. There is an instant electricity between Katia and Andrej. He is spellbound by her beauty and the sadness in her eyes. Steele is a commanding presence only diminished by the unfortunate dubbing of her voice.

After Kruvajan’s blood drips into the vacant eye sockets, they begin to fill up with a ferocious liquid, like molten blood, which then glows viscid white. When he is drawn to the tomb later on, her eyes have filled in completely, staring with evil vitality. Mario and his father Eugenio Bava are responsible for the mesmerizing special effects.

With Kruvajan trapped inside the crypt, there is a sudden force of energy as the tomb explodes and Asa becomes reanimated, the breath surging through her body, she drags her claws along the stone tomb, and in a demonic voice, “Kruvahan I’ve been waiting for you!”

Barbara Steele & John Richardson Characters: Katia Vajda / a href /character/ch0106059/ Princess Asa Vajda/a & Dr. Andre Gorobec Film: Black Sunday House Of Fright Mask Of The Demon Revenge Of The Vampire The Demon S Mask The 1960 Director: Mario Bava 11 August 1960 Die Stunde, wenn Dracula kommt La Maschera del demonio, IT 1960.

Black Sunday is a stylish dark reverie during 1960s genre, much like Franju’s Eyes Without a Face that same year, presenting an unsettling aesthetic combining shared elements of dread, terror and beauty of horror. The film brought recognition to Barbara Steele, her presence, her first starring role in Bava’s masterpiece reverberated throughout a freshly imaginative genre, establishing her on-screen persona. That identity would recur with surreal determination in the other Italian gothic nightmares that followed.

Barbara Steele would star as Vincent Prices’s duplicitous wife Elizabeth Barnard Medina in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum 1961 for American International Pictures who had distributed Black Sunday in the U.S. The tagline for the film would proclaim that she was “more blood-chilling than in Black Sunday.”

The Pit and the Pendulum 1961. Daniel Haller’s vivid polychromatic art direction and production design transforms all of Roger Corman’s adaptions of Poe.

Barbara Steele was not happy with the fact that she was dubbed throughout Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum. He felt her British accent would not ‘blend’ with the other American actors. Interesting how Vincent Price has a distinctive voice, that precipitates a mist, urbanely droll that is not typically American.

Starring as Elizabeth, Steele would create a feminist affirmation for herself and the transference of gender roles. With the reversal of her gender performance and Price’s Nicholas the notions of masculine gender are flipped. He displays ‘feminine’ weakness and Elizabeth assumes the ‘masculine’ characteristics by becoming sexually aggressive, exhibiting sadomasochistic and murderous tendencies, the act of a ‘man.’ Something prior to his discovery of her plot to drive him over the edge, he either knowingly or subconsciously shies away from. Steele’s power to subvert the role of an ordinary femme fatale is seen in her fascination with the Medina’s collection of torture devices. Nicholas relates this as a ‘haunted fascination’ Elizabeth developed before she died, “as if the aura of pain and suffering which surrounded (the devices) was leading her to sickness and to death.”

In this way “Elizabeth’s dominant tendencies identify her as the ‘masculine’ partner in the relationship. By the same token, Nicholas’ physical and emotional indecisiveness make him ineffective and submissive coding him as the more “feminine’ partner. Yet this reversal of gender assumptions does not last, it is violently and fatally suppressed When Nicholas personality is replaced by his father, resulting in a brutal re-assertion of psychosexual norms.” – From Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price by Jonathan Malcolm Lampley

John Kerr is an Englishman Francis Barnard who travels to Spain looking for answers to his sister Elizabeth’s sudden death. He arrives at the seaside Castle of Don Nicholas Medina and is greeted by Catherine (Luana Anders) Nicholas Medina’s loyal sister. Nicholas is a “tortured soul, unbalanced and a greatly wronged man.” who is indulging himself in his morbid manner of grief. Who else but Vincent Price could inhabit a role like this.

Nicholas first explains that Elizabeth died from an unknown illness “something in her blood” but it isn’t long before Francis learns the truth, from the family physician Dr. Leon (Carbone) that she died of fright. Nicholas’ father Sebastian (a dual role for Price, shown in flashback) was one of the notorious grand Inquisitors, who tortured his unfaithful wife in his private torture chamber, and entombed her alive, when he discovers she’s having an affair with his brother Bartoleme. Nicholas witnesses this violent act as a little boy, and now has a dreadful fear of premature burial.

Elizabeth is set on obliging her husband Nicholas’ madness with a bit of a push, so she can inherit his wealth while carrying on with her lover, the family doctor. At the beginning of the picture Elizabeth has supposedly died of fright, but Nicholas is obsessed with the feeling that she has been entombed alive like his mother.

But his unfaithful wife and her physician playboy have faked her death, and they orchestrate ways to torment him with her disembodied voice and traces of her roaming the castle. Nicholas begins to hear her calling to him and he hears the telltale sound of her playing the harpsichord.

Still not satisfied with the mystery behind his sister’s death Francis insists her body be exhumed to uncover the true nature of her death. When the tomb is opened, it appears that Elizabeth was interred alive, this revelation pushes Nicholas closer to the edge.

They find her mummified body, skin stretched tight and waxen in the rictus of fear and macabre grimace of panic. Her bloodied nails evidence the clawing at her unquiet grave proving she had in fact been buried alive. Stephen King called it “the most important moment in the post-60s horror film.”

Elizabeth’s ghostly voice “a terrifying mixture of malicious coaxing and playful seduction” (Mark A. Miller) lures Nicholas down to the family crypt. Their plot has worked, they have driven Nicholas irreversibly mad. She appears in the torture chamber, triumphant, and Elizabeth revels at his fractured mind.

“I have you exactly as I want you-helpless…is it not ironic, my husband, that your mother was an adulteress… your wife an adulteress?”

Her lover, Dr. Leon enters and the two embrace. Nicholas, emerges from his temporary oblivion, summoning a spirited maniacal zeal, throwing Leon in the pit and locking Elizabeth gagged, inside the Iron Maiden. He now believes, he is Sebastian Medina, his malevolent father, gradually conjuring his mannerisms, ‘a sadistic cripple, wild-eyed and wicked and quite quite mad.” (Meikle)

The climax to his madness, leads him to strap his brother-in-law Francis to an altar while a giant pendulum swaying to and fro lowera itself little by little until it teases the cloth of his shirt, leaving trickles of blood. This is a moment in my early childhood excursion into horror films that stopped me breathing, as does the look in Steele’s wild eyes as she recognizes the inevitability of her death.

Catherine (Luana Anders) comes to Francis'(Kerr) rescue and Nicholas falls from the stairway to his death. When the room is sealed up for good, and the heavy door echos shut, the camera closes in on the eyelet of the Iron Maiden. Barbara Steele’s eyes reveal her panic. This time she truly will be entombed alive.

The film also leaves open, questions about a supernatural undercurrent. When Nicholas talks about the instruments of torture in the family chamber, he describes the Medina legacy as “my birthright- and my curse.” it’s implication that the family is under a supernatural influence. Another line that follows this tone, “If Elizabeth Medina walks the corridors of this castle, it’s her spirit, not herself.” And, it could be interpreted that once Nicholas undergoes his transformation, becoming his father Sebastian, it might be a case of possession as opposed to a psychological split in his personality.

Both the film and Steele would leave an impression on the American audience and the press, even drawing the attention of influential columnist Louella Parsons, but she would not appear in another American film for almost fifteen years.

Barbara Steele would work in Italy for the rest of the 60s, it would prove to be her most prolific contribution of her career which would remain fluid over the next two decades. She worked primarily with directors Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti, cast in a series of shockers, that featured taboo subject matter that Hollywood wouldn’t touch, like necrophilia, sadism, deviancy, demonic possession and “physical and spiritual rot” – (Hogan). “The films drift on dream logic. Torture chambers, desecrated tombs, necrophilia. The deletions of the censor merely add to the sense of demented unravelling.” (David Cairns and Daniel Riccuito)

What makes her so influential as the “Queen of Horror” was her ability to achieve prominence as both a villainess and heroine, on the same level with her contemporaries, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Boris Karloff.

Steele recognizes that the strength of her reigning darkness is not merely a projection of the beholder. – “It comes from within” – and has a vital connection to her true self: “I was made for horror. I don’t want to wear crinoline, I’m just a big blade.”

And though her acting career transcends the boundaries of that genre, “Of course, I made tons of films that weren’t horror stories,” Interview with (Gregory 2009) but acknowledges that she’ll never be remembered or talked about for those films. Steele will no doubt remain the mesmerizing ‘face’ of horror. A genre with an undying, devoted fandom.

From the beginning her performance as Asa Vajda and Katia Vajda in Bava’s The Mask of Satan (‘La Maschera del Demonio’, 1960) inescapably bound her to cult stardom.

“…Steele’s characters and performances have been used as a sort of figurehead in the re-appraisal of the Italian Gothic cycle with a more feminist approach, by writers such as Carol Jenks and Patricia MacCormack. Jenks writes about Steele specifically in relation to her role in The Mask of Satan, using it as an example of her body of work in Italian horror, and the way she is fetishised both by filmmakers and critics (Jenks 1996). MacCormack has written of this fetishisation of Steele’s image. “ – (Nia Edwards-Behi from The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema 2020 edited volume Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton)

That ‘face, those eyes, potent, beguiling and inscrutable, became the criterion of expectations to follow, marrying Steele to all her subsequent work that would later translate as remarkably allusive, transforming her into a hypnotic deity. Her roles in Italian Gothic horror films were a confluence of the monstrous feminine and wide-eyed victim, a face that Maitland McDonagh referred to as ‘simultaneously alluring and alarming, never cute‘ in films with recurring themes of possession and revenge. Her sexuality in many of her films, is engaged in the converging identities of Barbara Steele “the sinner and the sinned against.” – (David J. Hogan)

[on her career in the documentary A-Z of Horror (1997)] I usually played these roles where I represented the dark side. I was always a predatory bitch goddess in all of these movies, and with all kinds of unspeakable elements. Then what is life without a dark side? The driving force of drama is the dark side. These women that I played usually suffered for it, and I guess men like that.

In 1957, Ricardo Freda’s I Vampiri was considered his first Italian horror film. Hammer, in my opinion making a huge mistake ignoring Steele’s sphinx like beauty, as their Gothic heroine, going with a more traditional British actress, having found her penetrating magnetism a little too ‘exotic’.

Riccardo Freda ‘rhapsodized that “in certain conditions of light and color…her face assumes a cast that doesn’’t appear to be quite human.”’(Maitland McDonagh)

After Hammer’s successful run of Gothic horror pictures, and the international success of Bava’s The Mask of Satan, released with it’s American title Black Sunday, the Italian Gothic movement thrived in Italy, but truly drew its breath in foreign markets and in the U.S.

Tim Lucas says of Bava’s work that his- “unique sensibilities would evolve a new visual vocabulary of Gothic cinema” (Lucas 2013: 56)

TRIVIA: Barbara Steele was slightly injured by Vincent Price while filming her last scene from The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) when he quite aggressively grabbed her by her throat – she shrugged it off because the scene came off so real.

In 1962, the year following The Pit and the Pendulum Barbara Steele worked with Riccardo Freda in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, starring as Cynthia (Cinzia) Hichcock, the new bride of Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), a 19th century researcher and surgeon, who conducted unnatural experiments in sexual regeneration on his first wife Margaretha (Maria Tereza Vianello). Margaretha would submit to his compulsions to make love to her while, appearing dead after being injected with his experimental anesthetic. But she dies after Hichcock accidentally overdoses her.

Despairing, Hichcock leaves his ancestral home, but returns after 12 years, with his new wife Cynthia. Soon, she is terrorized by the apparition of Margaretha, and Hichcock obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, also sees the specter roaming the grounds of the estate.

Becoming more deranged, he wants to experiment on Cynthia in the same manner, possessed by the spirit of Margaretha, who died under those mysterious circumstances. He reveals his darkly deviant sexual urges and necrophilic fetish to his new wife.

There’s a very queasy scene that exposes his ghoulish perversion, in the autopsy room, Hichcock fixes his gaze on the corpse of a naked woman wheeled in on a gurney. It’s obvious he becomes aroused.

This grim horror story plunges Steele into a world of induced deathlike paralysis surrounded by elaborate sets and Freda’s bold reds and greens. The Horrible Dr. Hichcock 1962/64 is perhaps the most infamous of Steele’s Italian Gothic horror movies from that period in the 1960s, due its pervasive taboo theme – necrophilia.

The tagline for the film –“His secret was a coffin named DESIRE!”

Screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi spoke about being influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. He borrowed from several different films, the poisoned glass of milk from Suspicion 1941, the new wife being haunted by the memory of the dead wife pays tribute to Rebecca 1940 not to mention Hitchcock/Hichcock’s menacing housekeeper Mrs. Danvers/Martha.

A year later, Steele reprised her role as Margaret Hichcock in Freda’s The Ghost aka Lo spettro” (1963), a quasi-sequel to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock aka ”L’orribile segreto del dr. Hichcock” (1962). As wife Margaret, Steele once again schemes with her lover, Dr. Livingstone to poison her husband, a paralyzed surgeon who flirts with mysticism.

“Freda made a bet one day at lunch with a producer, Pietro Pupillo. He said he could write a script and shoot a movie in a week. He wrote it in a day; we had a day of preproduction and he shot it in three days. One night I slept on the set because I knew we would be shooting again in four hours.”

“I like working with a certain sense of urgency. It has its pluses because it creates an interesting energy, a kind of nerving sort of charge, a crisis energy on the set which I really think the film pick up on. I think that film on some subconscious level picks up this magnetism, this energy, when its’ really happening. Somewhere I think it translates.” – (Bill Warren for Fangoria 1991 interview Princess of Darkness)

Steele was cast as Gloria Morin the young mistress of a middle-aged Italian film producer, in Italian auteur Fellini’s 8 1/2 in (1963). Steele, whom Fellini affectionately called “Barbarina,” left an impression with that fashionable floppy brimmed hat. Using her training in dance, performed that unforgettable twist scene, which might have led to an homage with Uma Thurman’s dance sequence in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994. Steele dressed in chic black and white, her signature eyes accentuated with dramatic makeup, adds a flavor of surrealism, to the directors fondness for creating character in his films. After her small but visible role in the vanguard’s picture she hoped it would open the door to more influential roles but that didn’t happen. She remained instead in the doorway of ‘the horrors.’

Halfway through the filming of Hichcock she recalls, “I got this mad call from Federico in the middle of the night, saying, ‘We’ve got this great sequence [for you].’ I said, ‘I can’’t; I’’ve got another third of this film to shoot in the next two days!’ So I lost a great sequence in “8 1/2, because of “Dr. Hichcock”.””

In 1964, Steele possessed the screen in two more Gothic horror films for director Antonio Margheriti: the atmospheric Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death.

After her brief tour of ‘art’ house cinema with Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), she returned to the genre that madly embraced her when she was cast as Elisabeth Blackwood the tortured ghost In my personal favorite, Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood aka La Danza Macabre 1964.

Alan – “We must escape together.”Elizabeth – “No please I can’t go back… your world’s not mine…Alan…I can’t!” I can’t!”

Castle of Blood was filmed in only 10 days. Steele recalls how exhausting she was, “It meant sometimes working eighteen hours a day.”– (interview Diva of Dark Drama by Mark A Miller for Filmfax 51 1995)

Steele recalls working with the volatile director, “Margheriti was very assertive, emotional, and aggressive. I liked him very much, but I had such collisions with Margheriti it’s very strange that I worked with him twice we had total conflict all the way. I guess he wanted a certain rage and energy from me.””

In a tavern Alan Foster (George Rivière) is a young journalist meets Edgar Allan Poe who tells a fantastic story about a castle where the ghosts of victims who died violently stalk the living. Alan mocks the unbelievable tale and is challenged by Poe’s friend Sir Thomas Blackwood who makes a $10,000 wager that he won’t survive a night in the haunted castle on All Soul’s Eve ‘The Night of the Dead.’

Alan becomes tangled in a macabre web of former crimes of passion that are reenacted by the intimidating phantoms who stage their deaths one night out of the year.

Steele is central to the story as she first appears to Alan as a seemingly corporeal beauty, who is the mistress of the castle. She is not quite dead and not quite alive, existing in the thrall of the Night of the Dead. After Alan and Elizabeth make love (another bow to necrophilia) he lays his head on her breast and is startled to find she has no heartbeat.”Your life is today but mine is the past.”  “I am dead, Alan.”

Margrete Robsahm as Julia who is madly in love with and murdered by Elizabeth in Castle of Blood 1964.

Elizabeth, tries to save Alan from the other ghosts who need human blood in order to celebrate their Danse Macabre. When Alan tries to escape with his beloved through the garden, she withers into a skeleton. But he joins her, impaled with an iron spike through his skull, having made it all the way outside the cursed grounds, when an uncanny wind ironically slams the gate shut just before sunrise.

Margheriti remade a colorized version of the film in 1971 as Web of the Spider with Michele Mercier in Steele’s original role.

But it lacks the never-ending gothic darkness of his black & white ghost story. There’s an emphasis on the films’ narratives surrounding the atmosphere of uncanniness and sense of disquiet, perversity, senuality and eroticism rather than outright monstrosity or extreme violence of other Gothic 60s Italian terrors.

In Margheriti’s second film, The Long Hair of Death aka I Lunghi Capelli della Morte 1964 in the 16th century she plays Helen Karnstein, wife of Count Humbolt (Guiliano Raffaeli) who is burnt at the stake falsely accused of a murder his son Kurt (George Ardisson) committed.

Steele plays a dual role as the Count’s wife and her daughter Helen. Having witnessed their mother’s horrifying execution, her two daughters Helen and Lisabeth (Halina Zalewska) aim their vengeful spirit at the cold-hearted men who tortured their mother. The role blends the European style of Gothic eroticism with the vengeful menace of the horror genre in the 1960s.

In 1965 Steele shot in the same villa as Nightmare Castle, on location in Italy a film by American director Ralph Zucker, Terror-Creatures from the Grave aka Cinque Tombe per un Medium, she plays Cleo, the wife of a murdered occultist who has cast an evil spell, summoning creatures called “scourge spreaders” to avenge his death.

Following Terror-Creatures, Steele starred in Nightmare Castle aka The Faceless Monster aka Gli amanti d’oltretomba” 1965 the complicated script is shaped once again around Steele’s dual/duality, of the dark haired, disfigured, libidinous Muriel and her virtuous blonde half-sister Jenny.

Steele transforms herself from the cold and calculating Muriel to the neurotic, terrified Jenny who ultimately becomes a destructive force that inflicts a grisly revenge on the doctor.

“I loved the duality of it” enthused Steele “First to play the victim and then use that energy to turn it into the revenge part, that’s good. It’s got power. It’s good to have both, because we all need justification in our lives… Duality makes drama, and not just in horror films.” -Barabara Steele

Barbara Steele and Paul Muller in Nightmare Castle 1965.

When Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller) catches his wife with her lover (Rik Battaglia) he uses his enthusiam for experiment with electricity, savagely tortures them, dripping acid on Muriel’s face and bashes a red hot poker in her lover David’s face. The lovers are tortured on an electrified bed, then shackled to a wall and brutally whipped. Duilio Giustini’s makeup for Muriel’s liquified visage and David’s bloody scars is effectively grotesque and shocking.

Rik Battaglia and Barbara Steele in Nightmare Castle 1965.

Arrowsmith murders them, cuts out their hearts drops them into a large glass jar and places their cremated ashes in an ornate pot that is kept in the house. The creepy doctor also injects a serum of his wife’s blood into his mistress, the dried up housekeeper Solange (Helga Liné) which restores her youth.

Helga Liné as Solange in Nightmare Castle 1965.

Muriel’s half-sister Jenny, unstable and newly released from an institution becomes possessed by the spirit of Muriel once she arrives at the house. She is terrorized by nightmarish visions of the mutilated lovers. Arrowsmith marries Jenny then tries to drive her insane, in order to get his hands on the fortune Muriel has left to her half-sister.

There are some very macabre moments in the film, particularly when Jenny witnesses Solange brazenly watering the potted plant containing Muriel’s ashes, starts dripping blood. She hears the uncanny reverberation of two heartbeats, and there’s an invasion of diabolical laughter after a ghostly wind blows open the door. The best moment perhaps is when Barbara Steele materializes, her raven shock of hair first obscuring her disfigured face, only to be revealed to the frightened Arrowsmith.

Barbara Steele and Marino Masé in Nightmare Castle (1965).

In 1966 Steele made her final meditative, melancholic and psychosexual Italian horror film, directed by Camillo Mastrocinque’s An Angel for Satan. She plays a woman seemingly possessed by a malicious spirit. Yet another dual role, as simultaneously playing the deviant temptress Belinda, who possesses the dark-eyed innocent Harriet De Montebruno. Her spirit, having languished for 200 years within a marble statue is unleashed once the ancient relic is recovered from a mysterious lake, and restored by Robert (Anthony Steffan). Ilda (Marina Berti) hypnotizes Harriet, causing her dark side/light side transformation. Once taken over by Belinda, Harriet becomes a sexual animal who destroys the descendants of the villagers who tormented her.

The film is Steele’s most misogynistic for it amply proposes that contact with female sexuality inevitably leads to destruction and that men are very nearly destined to be the victims of beautiful women. – (David J. Hogan)

Also in 1965, she appeared in The She-Beast aka Revenge of the Blood Beast aka La Sorella di Satana, as another woman possessed by the spirit of a witch. Directed by Michael Reeves (The Witchfinder General 1968, The Sorcerers 1967 with Boris Karloff), who filmed Steele over the course of only four days. Two hundred years after the witch Vardella is put to death by religious zealots, after an English couple on holiday, Ian Ogilvy as Phillip and Steele as Veronica crash their car, the spirit of Vardella takes possession of Veronica.

But in 1968 Steele had become weary of the genre, underwhelmed by her role in 1968, British production, The Curse of the Crimson Altar, along-side such horror legends Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. The film is loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House.

In director Vernon Sewell’s meandering Crimson Cult (Christopher Lee considered it the worst film of his career) Barbara Steele would exist to remain the established visage of the film with the role as Lavinia Morley, queen of the devil worshippers, Though it was merely a cameo for her. Steele was slathered in a nauseating blue green body paint, a headdress with Ram’s horns and no dialogue at all. After this disappointing experience working in horror films, she went back to Italy, turned off by the genre.“I swear I’m never going to climb out of another coffin as long as I live.”

Barbara Steele married the America screenwriter James Poe, became a mother and hoped the tides would change for her acting career. The well respected Poe, wrote the screenplay for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958 and To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 and the nihilistic They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Supporting her desire for more substantive roles, Poe adapted the role of Alice LeBlanc for Steele but the studio was not interested and eventually fired Poe. The part went to Susannah York.

Steele never found the satisfaction she had working in her beloved Italy, after returning to Hollywood, calling it “a ghastly mistake” (Gregory 2009)

She began working in American Television, in between films, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode ‘Beta Delta Gamma 1961’, tv series I Spy and TV movie Honeymoon with a Stranger 1969 cast as Carla another villainess. In 1972 she starred as the Widow Craighill in Rod Serling’s tv series Night Gallery episode ‘The Sins of the Fathers 1972.’

Richard Thomas and Barbara Steele in Night Gallery episode ‘The Sins of the Father.’

In the 70s, having attained the stature of icon of the horror genre, Steele caught the attention of radical, new indie filmmakers who began to court her. She was already starting her departure from working until In 1974 she was cast as the tyrannical, sadistic and sexually repressed women’s prison warden McQueen in the exploitation cult film Caged Heat directed by Jonathan Demme (who would go on to direct the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. Caged Heat was his directorial debut, released under Roger Corman’s AIP. Steele was walking along Sunset Boulevard, when Demme begged her to accept the role (Steele 1994).

 

The next year Steele reunited with the horror genre, appearing in director David Cronenberg’s (who referred to Barbara Steele as a ‘horror queen”) his signature body horror and a ‘kinky brand of nihilism’ (Hogan) centered Shivers 1975 aka They Came from Within – a shocker that borders on black comedy, in which phallic parasites penetrate the residents of a Toronto high rise infecting them with euphoric levels of sexual desire and amplified urges. The infection acts as a parasitic aphrodisiac, creating sexually aroused zombies who erupt in mass erotic mania.

The first viewing of this film, (which I saw under the title They Came from Within) during it’s quiet theatrical release left me exiting the theater wanting to vomit, after the scene with one of the tenants regurgitating some bloodied viscid parasite off his balcony, onto an elderly woman’s umbrella.

Steele plays the solitary Betts, an elegant loner who desires to be Janine’s (Susan Petrie) lover, and has a highlight scene – sipping wine, is ‘invaded’ between her legs, by one of the grotesque slugs in the bathtub. While seducing Janine, Betts transmits the parasite through a kiss, the slug squirms from her throat into Janine’s mouth. The scene is a visually repulsive memo that creates an inclination to vomit. I had that nauseous grumble in my stomach the entire time I sat in the theater!

Shivers was quite the oddity for me as a fan of horror films. There really had been nothing like this picture at the time, and I remember it gave me a jolt, by it’s persistent queasy unease and bizarre technique in the way Cronenberg presented the story. How our bodies become monstrous.

Steele tells the story about her being cast in Shivers, recalling that Cronenberg brought her marigolds, investing time trying to convince her to play the part of Betts in his film. (Steele 1994)

Above 2 images-and Barbara Steele here with Dick Miller in Piranha 1978.

As a long time fan of Steele, director Joe Dante cast her in his wildly satirical, (thanks to John Sayle’s script) horror film Piranha 1978, another production by the influential Roger Corman. With jaw clenching moments of fright, piranhas infiltrate the water system and are unleashed on the population of a lakeside tourist community. Steele chic and shifty plays the devious scientist Dr. Mengers, behind the covert scientific experiments at the secret government research facility. Mengers shows up to investigate the gruesome slaughter of the locals, after the killer fish they were breeding escape.

In 1978 Steele plays prostitute Josephine in 1917 New Orleans in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby.

She then appeared as the mute disturbed Victoria Engels who prowls around her locked attic, only to descend like a phantom to thrust a butcher knife into her victims in one of the odd offerings, a squalid psycho slasher movie at the end of the 70s, The Silent Scream 1979, which is a spin of ‘The Shuttered Room’ / ‘Jane Eyre’ narrative.

Steele expressing a desire for change -“I had to stop this [acting] nonsense and have an adult existence,” she remembers. I wrote something that sold then I got into development. I have a really great eye for material, actually. That sounds frightfully pompous, but I really do have this phenomenal voodoo about it…. I started covering material and making readers’ reports, things like that. I worked at MGM and Paramount.” At this point, Barbara Steele had essentially retired from acting and started working behind the camera.

In the 80s and 90s she worked primarily in television. Steele worked as an associate producer, appearing in one episode of the epic mini-series The Winds of War (1983) and producing War and Remembrance (1988) winning her a Primetime Emmy award. She was later named Vice President in charge of development for Dan Curtis Productions, where she scouted out European locations and assisted in casting. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times Steele expressed her ability to identify with other actors.

“I wanted to hire every actor I saw” she said “but since I obviously couldn’t do that, I wanted to serve them all tea and crumpets and spent time with them. I know how important it is for an actor to spend ten minutes, in a producer’s office instead of two, how reassuring.”

In a 1980 interview with Penthouse magazine – “When I do horror films, I feel like I’m committing something against myself I’m always playing these stylized roles, full of tension, and I am very intense. And I understand why I get cast in them. But most of these roles are very negative-destructive and negative. I’ve had to force myself to play them, and people see me as -I”m not just this predatory woman, this dark seductress. I can sit down and have a cup of tea on Tuesday and pick a bunch of wild flowers like anyone else.”

Barbara Steele and Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins in Dan Curtis’ revival of Dark Shadows.

In 1991 Steele continued to work in television collaborating with Dan Curtis who explored the storm of made-for-tv movies, producing some of the best creepy themed stories. She starred in the short lived revival of Dark Shadows that dealt with the same supernatural tropes and the vampire saga of Barnabas Collins and his reappearance in modern day Collinwood. Steele reintroduces the role of Dr. Julia Hoffman made famous by Grayson Hall in the 70s cult gothic horror soap. The show only lasted a year.

Perhaps underlining Steele’s aversion to Hollywood is her refusal of a cameo in Tim Burton’s 2012 feature film version of the series (Conterio 2015: 86), and her claim that the film was “overdone and – overwrought” (Salmon 2016: 16)

She gives an arresting performance as Ann, a strange and eccentric older woman and ‘collector’ who develops an unwholesome motherly relationship with a wily young girl while estranged from her own daughter (Heather Langenkamp –A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984) in The Butterfly Room 2010, a contemporary horror film that knocked my socks off. Steele has adopted a new-career as a producer. The film not only features Langenkamp, but other cameos by horror scream queens, Adrienne King from Friday the 13th and PJ Soles from Halloween 1978.

In recent years Steele has been cast in The Boneyard Collection 2008 a low-budget anthology film that features stars who played a role in shaping their cult status in classic horror films like Tippi Hedren in The Birds 1963 and Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956. In 2014 she appeared in Ryan Gosling’s surreal Lost River.

No matter what appellation is bestowed upon Barbara Steele she will remain a deity.

SOURCES:

Maitland McDonagh for Alliance of Women Film Journalists 2006

Nia Edwards-Behi from The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema 2020 edited volume Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton

Patricia MacCormack -Barbara Steele’s Ephemeral Skin: Feminism, Fetishism and Film

Jenks, Carol. 1996. “The Other Face of Death: Barbara Steele and La Maschera Del Demonio,” Necromonicon The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema edited by Andy Black

Dark Romance Sexuality in The Horror Film – David J. Hogan

Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price -Jonathan Malcolm Lampley

The Horror Reader edited by Ken Gelder

Horror Film Reader Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini

Vincent Price The Art of Fear -Denis Meikle

E. Ann Kaplan, “Is the Gaze Male?”

Tony Crawley interview Halls of Horror 1983

An interview with Barbara Steele, Diva of Dark Drama, “ by Mark A Miller,

Filmfax 51 July August 1995, The Dark Queen by Alan Upchurch, Film Comment, 1993.

David Cairns and Daniel Riccuito for Sight and Sound (BFI) 2020

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying hail to the Dark Queen!

 

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