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If gothic cinema ever had a female face, it was Barbara Steele's.
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
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
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
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
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
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 ...
finished film would be her breakthrough movie, La
Maschera del Demonio/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
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
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.
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 8½ (1963),
starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée. Of
course, 8½ 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.
However, other non-horror-performances after 8½
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.)
- 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 8½, 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
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.
(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.
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
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
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!
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.
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.