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Barbara Steele, the Female Face of Gothic Cinema - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2009

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If gothic cinema ever had a female face, it was Barbara Steele's.

Being a rather unconventional, dark haired beauty with fascinating deep, dark, staring eyes who looked great in period costumes and seemed to blend right in with period architecture, Barbara Steele consequently found herself in almost constant demand in horror films during the 1960's, when gothic shockers were pretty much produced a dime a dozen - and at least among genre fans, she was quickly becoming a household name, so much so that in certain circles she is fondly remembered as the first Goth even today , as much of the goth movement's style is based on her ethereal and anemic looks - though it's highly doubtful that this ever was a conscious move on behalf of the goth movement ... or that indeed a lot of goths even know who she is.

 

Be that as it may, Barbara Steele certainly has left her brand on the horror genre, and unlike other genre-actresses from Fay Wray onwards, Steele has never been much of a scream queen, her roles often tended to have a malicious streak, she was always more perpetrator than victim ...

The ironic thing about Barbara Steele is though that she was never too fond of the horror cinema to begin with, but despite an obvious dramatic talent she rarely found success and fame outside the genre, much to her dismay.

 


 

La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday

 


Barbara Steele's career couldn't have started further away from the horror genre: Born in 1938 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, she originally studied to be a painter, but in 1958 became a contract player with the Rank Organisation. At the studio, she received her formative training as an actress at the studio-owned acting school, and she also made her feature debut for Rank, playing a small role in the (by now forgotten) comedy Bachelor of Hearts (1958, Walter Rilla) starring Hardy Krüger.

 

A few more films for the Rank Organisation followed, all equally insignificant, with Barbara in small roles, then her contract was sold to 20th Century Fox, and Steele relocated to Hollywood, where you'd think all the action would be - not for Barbara Steele however, who found herself with a good contract but no work for two years. Eventually, she began filming the Elvis Presley-starrer Flaming Star (1960, Don Siegel) - without a doubt the King's best movie - but left the set after a dispute with director Siegel to never return - leaving her role to Barbara Eden.

 


To get her career on track, during an actors' strike in Hollywood, Barbara Steele finally accepted a job offer from Italy to star in a horror flick by a former cameraman and first-time director called Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here], all of which might not have sounded too promising ... but the finished film would be her breakthrough movie, La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday (1960).

Black Sunday is the visually stunning and positively creepy story about a witch (Barbara Steele) who tries to be reborn in a younger incarnation of herself (also Barbara Steele), and quite apart from being a masterpiece that granted its director Mario Bava almost immediate cult-status, it was also a perfect vehicle for Barbara Steele, as it didn't only make perfect use of her good but slightly eerie looks, it also provided her with a dual role which gave her opportunity to show her acting range ... and especially her performance as villainous witch captured the attention of audiences and film producers alike ...

 


 

Gothic Queen of the 1960's

 


Thanks to Hammer-movies like Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), gothic horror films were welcomed with open arms by distributors pretty much all over the world in the early 1960's, and thus, Black Sunday had no difficulties finding worldwide distribution - and quite some success along the way as well. And of course, this elevated Barbara Steele from a nobody to star status (at least with a certain audience segment), so much so that Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here] signed her on for his next gothic shocker, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), an entry into his Edgar Allan Poe-series.

Just like Black Sunday, The Pit and the Pendulum doesn't show Barbara Steele in a mere victim role, instead she plays a woman who wants to drive her husband (Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here]) to insanity with the help of her lover (Anthony Carbone) ... and unfortunately, the two of them succeed a little too well, as hubby becomes mad enough to think he's his own torture-happy dad, and utlimately, Barbara Steele ends up in an iron maiden ...

Though not quite the masterpiece that Black Sunday was, The Pit and the Pendulum, still an eerie and creepy film, sees Steele in another pivotal role, especially the scenes where she plays her character coming back from the dead (it later turns out to be all only fake) are central to her goth girl image.

 

While in the US, Steele also made an appearance on the series Adventures in Paradise (1960) and filmed an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Beta Delta Gamma (1961, Alan Crosland jr), but it was upon her return to Italy that she starred in yet another gothic classic, L'Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock/The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) by Riccardo Freda.

In this one, Steele for once shows none of her malicious streaks and is allowed to play the innocent victim, a woman at the mercy of her necrophile and quite mad husband (Robert Flemyng), in a film that's slightly reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), but stylish and atmospheric enough to more than just hold its own - as a matter of fact, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is nowadays rightly regarded as one of the masterpieces of 1960's Italian horror there are.

 



With three films under her belt that would before long be regarded as classics of gothic cinema, Barbara Steele wanted to break away from the horror mold, to avoid being typecast for the rest of her life, and her first attempt was Il Capitano di Ferro/Rampage of Evil/Revenge of the Mercenaries (1962, Sergio Grieco), a pirate adventure starring Gustavo Rojo, but this film came out at a time when Italian adventure flicks in period settings came a dime a dozen, so the movie failed to leave a lasting impression with the audience.

 

Of far bigger importance is of course Steele's next film, Federico Fellini's (1963), starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée. Of course, basically revolves around Mastroianni as Fellini's (semi-)alter ego, a film director with a sudden lack of inspiration, and Barbara Steele can only be seen in a supporting role - yet she managed to get quite a few favourable reviews for her first important performance away from the genre that has made her a name.

 


Flix.com

However, other non-horror-performances after brought her less acclaim, and films like the romantic/erotic comedies Le Ore dell'Amore/The Hours of Love (1963, Luciano Salce) and Le Voci Bianche (1964, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa), the dramas Un Tentativo Sentimentale/A Sentimental Attempt (1963, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa) and I Soldi (1965, Gianni Puccini), the anthology-movies I Maniaci/The Maniacs (1964, Lucio Fulci [Lucio Fulci bio - click here]), Les Baisers (1964, Bernard Toublanc-Michel, Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Francois Hauduroy, Charles L.Bitsch, Claude Berri) - Steele was in Hauduroy's episode - and Amore Facile (1964, Gianni Puccini), the crime film Tre per una Rapina (1964, Gianni Bongioanni), and the spy flick Le Monocle rit Jaune/The Monocle (1964, Georges Lautner) - during which Steele allegedly earned disrespect from lead Paul Meurisse for being a horror actress - did little to further Steele's career and are by now largely forgotten.

 


With her horror films she made during the same time on the other hand, Barbara Steele maybe didn't gain much critical acclaim, but they were met by an appreciative audience, and most of them haven't lost their appeal to this day - even if they hardly ever came close in quality to her earlier films.

  • Lo Spettro/Lo Spettro del Dr. Hichcock/The Ghost (1963, Riccardo Freda) is a sequel to Freda's earlier masterpiece The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in name only and is inferior on a quality level to the earlier movie - but it's still a good shocker/murder mystery with Steele's having her trademark malicious streak to it, and the surprise ending contains so many (totally plausible) plottwists it's going to make your head spin. The finale alone, which leaves Barbara Steele totally paralyzed but maniacally laughing all the same is almost worth watching the movie alone, but the rest of the movie is also decent genre fare that shouldn't disappoint.

  • Flix.com


    Flix.com


  • Danza Macabre/Castle of Blood (1963) and I Lunghi Capelli della Morte/The Long Hair of Death (1964) are two effective gothics by one of Italy's top genre craftsmen, Antonio Margheriti [Antonio Margheriti bio - click here]. In Castle of Blood, Steele plays a ghost doomed to relive the night of her death for ever and ever, while in The Long Hair of Death, Steele plays another scheming wife (a role she has perfected in earlier gothics) and her sister, a burnt witch coming back from the death.



  • 5 Tombe per un Medium/Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965, Massimo Pupillo) tells the tale of a deceased man who summons the souls of plague victims to have his revenge on those who wronged him in his lifetime. Barbara Steele as his cheating wife is among them.
  • In Gli Amanti d'Oltretomba/Nightmare Castle (1965, Mario Caiano) on the other hand it is Steele who comes back to life to have her revenge on her husband (Paul Muller).
    (By the time Nightmare Castle came out, Steele's roles in the horror film have gotten a bit predictable I suppose, she's always the cheating wife who either has revenge on her hubby or her hubby has revenge on her.)

  • Flix.com

  • In La Sorella di Satana/She-Beast (1966), Steele plays a woman who dies in a car accident but comes back to life possessed by a witch, and she turns into a homicidal monster. While the plot of this film sounds silly as can be, British first-time director Michael Reeves, back then still in his early 20's, actually turns this into an entertaining (and well-made) little shocker - even though it might still be a far cry from his later masterpiece Witchfinder General (1968).
  • Incidently, Un Angelo per Satana/An Angel for Satan (1966, Camillo Mastrocinque), Steele's very last Italian gothic (so far?), bears more than a little resemblence with her first gothic Black Sunday plotwise. Here like there she plays an evil witch who has been killed and her latter-day look-alike, whom the witch wants to use as a vessel to return to life. However, on a pure quality level, An Angel for Satan is no competition for the earlier movie.


Finally, in 1966, another opportunity came along for Steele to prove herself as a serious actress as opposed to a genre favourite: Der junge Törless/Young Törless, German arthouse director Volker Schlöndorff's first film. Based on the novel by Robert Musil, the film is set in a boarding school for boys just before World War I and serves as a parable for the origins of fascism. Of course, Barbara Steele only plays a supporting character in this one, but her performance as prostitute awakening the boys' sexual desires is nevertheless memorable - plus the character in Young Törless was one of Steele's favourite roles.

 


Unfortunately, just like after , Steele didn't get the serious roles in more high-brow movies she would have wanted and deserved. It started with what was probably the best of the bunch of films she made immediately after Young Törless, L'Armata Brancaleone/For Love and Gold (1966, Mario Monicelli), a fairly intelligent comedy about an unlikely knight (Vittorio Gassman), whose adventures are slightly reminiscent of those of Don Quixote. Barbara Steele plays a sadomasochistic Byzantine princess in this one.

Other films from the late 1960's though are far less entertaining or remarkable, like Fermate il Mondo ... Voglio Scendere (1968, Giancarlo Cobelli), La Amante Estelar (1968, Antonio de Lara), or the TV-movie Honeymoon with a Stranger (1969, John Peyser) - with the horror film Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968, Vernon Sewell) being probably the worst of the bunch, a film allegedly based on a story by H.P.Lovecraft in which she plays a witch (in green bodypaint). The film by the way doesn't only waste her talent but those of horror heavies Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], Christopher Lee and Michael Gough as well ...

 


 

Decline in the 1970's

 

It was in the late 1960's that Barbara Steele met screenwriter James Poe, and the two fell in love and eventually got married. When scripting They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969), Poe wrote the role of Alice LeBlanc specifically with her in mind - but director Sydney Pollack begged to differ and eventually gave the role to Susannah York. After this disappointment, Steele took a five year break from the big screen, and her only acting assignment during that time was an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, The Sins of our Fathers (1972, Jeannot Szwarc) set in 19th Century Wales - as if to be in tune with Steele's gothic roles.

 

Steele's main problem might have been though that by now she was way too identified with the gothic genre, and her ethereal and slightly unworldly looks only emphasized that - but gothic cinema had pretty much run its course by the beginning of the 1970's - at least temporarily -, and the lack of genre productions might have meant a lack of offers ...

 


In 1974, Barbara Steele finally returned to the big screen, in Caged Heat, the Roger Corman-produced debut feature by Jonathan Demme [Roger Corman bio - click here], a women-in-prison flick starring Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith, Ella Reid and former Russ Meyer star Erica Gavin. Barbara Steele as wheelchair-bound warden only plays a supporting role in this one, but her half-crazed performance still left quite an impression.

 


After that, it was off to Canada for Shivers/They Came from Within/The Parasite Murders (1975), David Cronenberg's first horror film, about parasites turning the inhabitants of an appartment complex in sex-crazed and/or cannibalistic maniacs. Barbara Steele has a supporting role as a lesbian on the prowl.

 


While David Cronenberg is nowadays regarded an arthouse director, and deservedly so, Shivers, despite a decent diretorial effort, was rather lowbrow, a typical sex/horror hybrid with just a few original ideas to make it stand out from much of the competition.

I Never Promised You a Rosegarden (1977, Anthony Page) on the other hand, the story of a institutionalized 16 year old girl (Kathleen Quinlan) who can't seperate fantasy from reality, is more high-brow (or is at least intended to be), even though Roger Corman had his hands in production. Unfortunately though, pretty much all of Barbara Steele's scenes in that film wound up on the cutting room floor ...

 


Pretty Baby by Louis Malle followed in 1978, the story of a photographer (Keith Carradine), who, while photographing the prostitutes of a brothel, becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old whore-to-be, played by Brooke Shields. Barbara Steele though does little more than add a bit of colour to the background, as the film focuses on Carradine, Shields, and Susan Sarandon playing Shields' mother.

 

Barbara Steele can also be seen in another movie by a French director from 1978, Yves Boisset's drama La Clé sur la Porte/The Key is in the Door, starring Annie Girardot, but as with many of her attempts to break into arthouse/highbrow cinema, her role Steele's role is to small to really impress.

 


 

The Many Small Comebacks of Barbara Steele

 


While for some reason, Barbara Steele never really made it in more serious films, the genre that made her big, horror, always welcomed her back with open arms, and it shouldn't at all be a surprise that it was another Roger Corman-production [Roger Corman bio - click here] that reintroduced her to the genre that seemed to love her unconditionally, Joe Dante's Piranha from 1978. In this horror-satire about piranhas attacking an US-American holiday ressort that can be seen as a parody of the much weaker Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg), Steele plays the mad scientist who started it all, and the malicious face she shows throughout the film proves why she is one of the top actresses of the genre.

 

Silent Scream (Denny Harris) from 1980 is one of the better and less gory slashers that came out in the early 1980's, and it features not only Barbara Steele but also Yvonne De Carlo, both playing essentially psychos.

Even though she had a meaty role in Silent Scream and dominated the scenes she was in, Barbara Steele was quick to realize that slasher movies were not her thing (much less than other horror movies), which is why she abandoned the horror genre altogether for the remainder of the 1980's.

 


Instead, Barbara Steele got into the production side of filmmaking, starting with The Winds of War (Dan Curtis) in 1983, a TV-miniseries about the lives of several characters entangled with the events leading to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 starring Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw, Jan-Michael Vincent, Topol, Ralph Bellamy and Peter Graves, among others. That series, produced by Dan Curtis with her acting as associate producer (plus, she had a small part in it), brought Steele quite some critical acclaim and was nominated for four Golden Globes and 13 Emmys (three of which it won, cinematography, costumes and special visual effects).

 


A sequel to The Winds of War followed in 1988, War and Remembrance, directed by Dan Curtis and Tommy Groszman, with Barbara Steele in the producer's chair and Dan Curtis as executive producer. This miniseries was even better received, winning three Golden Globes (best mini-series and two of the series' supporting actors, John Gielgud and Barry Bostwick, winning their award in a tie). Plus, at the Emmys, Barbara Steele was actually able to accept the award for Outstanding Miniseries (the series also collected the awards for best editing and best special visual effects by the way).

The series as such immediately follows the events of The Winds of War, with the USA entering World War II as a reaction to the attack of Pearl Harbor, with the fates of all the main characters chronicled. War and Remembrance once again stars Robert Mitchum, plus Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner, Topol, Ralph Bellamy, before-mentioned John Gielgud and Barry Bostwick, plus Sharon Stone. And once again, Barbara Steele reserved a small role for herself.

 


Steele's association with producer Dan Curtis on The Winds of War and War and Remembrance eventually lured her back to the horror genre, as she accepted a role in the TV-series Dark Shadows (1991), a primetime remake of a daytime horror soap from the 1960's and early 70's. Steele plays a doctor in this series trying to cure the lead character (Ben Cross) of vampirism - without success of course. In a storyline set in the 18th century, Steele also plays another character.

While the series was long-awaited by fans of the original and initially a big hit even, the Gulf War, which was breaking out at the time of the series' original airing, caused massive rescheduling and confusion of fans until the series had lost all momentum, and eventually it was cancelled after just one season.

 

In 1994, Barbara Steele's career took her to Austria to star in another genre film, Tief Oben/Deep Above by Willi Hengstler [Willi Hengstler interview - click here], a highly original and bizarre mix of gothic motives and musical, zombies and romance, set in front of the pittoresque Styrian Alps, and all done tongue-in-cheek fashion. As a matter of fact, the film is so unusual, even surreal (while totally entertaining), it has to be seen to be believed ... but unfortunately that's the main problem of the film, as it never got a proper release in any medium. 

What a shame indeed!

 


While Deep Above might be highly unusual and original, Barbara Steele's next film - from 1999 - is just the opposite, The Prophet, an action flick directed by Fred Olen Ray starring Don 'The Dragon' Wilson produced by Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here]. Now one has to admit that by Fred Olen Ray-standards, The Prophet is pretty decent, it features relatively high production values and some well-executed action sequences, but it's neither as campy (and therefore as funny) as some of his much cheaper flicks, nor is it a good enough action flick to stand out of the crowd. And while Barbara Steele gives an ok performance as a CIA-agent who has experimented on children, then tries to eliminate her test persons and has to face the consequences at the hands of Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, her cardboard character role is anything but demanding.

 

The Prophet, Steele's last film so far, has been released 10 years ago, but the interest in the actress hasn't waned since, her status as a horror icon hasn't diminished, and most of her key performances are readily available on DVD nowadays. Also, she has finally come to terms with her horror image and now has a rather self-ironic attitude towards it.

Plus, around the time of this writing, a new film starring her is supposed to be released, Her Morbid Desires (2009, Edward L.Plumb), a horror comedy that plays with the reputation of many a genre star, including Ray Harryhausen (in an acting facility), Tippi Hedren, Kevin McCarthy, Wiliam Smith, Cassandra Peterson alias Elvira, and Brinke Stevens. And if that proves nothing else, it at least shows how important Barbara Steele still is to horror fans and to the horror genre as such.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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