Maitland McDonagh on Barbara Steele
The Face that Launched a Thousand Screams: Barbara Steele
By all rights, Barbara Steeles face should be kittenish: the high, wide forehead; the huge, round eyes; the tiny tapered chin. But its nothing of the kind. Its a pale, angular mask as hard and polished as her name. Steeles face is simultaneously alluring and alarming, never cute. Critic Raymond Durgnat once declared that Steeles very eyelids snarl, and the late Italian director Riccardo Freda, who worked with her twice, rhapsodized that in certain conditions of light and color her face assumes a cast that doesnt appear to be quite human. Only in horror films, of course, is that something about which to rhapsodize.
And so Steele, an actress of formidable intelligence, talent, beauty and high-minded (if sometimes eccentric) standards became a not a star, not a beloved character actress or a household name (except, of course, in a few select households), but a cult icon. She is the sadomasochistic Madonna of the cinefantastique; the queen of the wild, the beautiful and the damned; and to her fans – lets call them Steelers – the one and only true Mother of Darkness.
Steeles peculiar career is inextricably bound up with the golden age of horror allItaliana; her double role in Mario Bavas directing debut, the haunting Black Sunday/La maschera del demonio (1960), was her fifth movie credit but the first of any consequence. In later years she would sigh that though Black Sunday was undoubtedly a masterpiece of poetic horror, it was a cinematographers vision through and through; the girl on screen could have been anyone. In this Steele is thoroughly mistaken; the girl onscreen could have been no-one else.
In the years that followed Black Sunday, she made seven more Italian horror films: Riccardo Fredas The Horrible Dr. Hichcock/Lorribile segreto del dr. Hichcock (1962) and The Ghost/Lo spettro (1963); Antonio Margheritis Castle of Blood/Danza macabra (1963) and The Long Hair of Death/I lunghi capelli della morte (1964); Mario Caianos Nightmare Castle/Gli amanti doltretomba (1965); Camillo Mastrocinques An Angel for Satan/Un angelo per Satana (1965); plus Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave/Cinque tombe per un medium (1965), directed in Italy by American abroad Ralph Zucker. Steele appeared in other movies during those years as well, comedies, historical pictures, dramas she even made a brief but memorable appearance in Federico Fellinis 8 1/2?, as the young mistress of an middle-aged Italian film producer; she does a mean twist while wearing a very big hat.
But those other movies arent not why we revere her. She could act, but was seldom called upon to do so. Most of Steeles roles simply demanded that she be. Rarely did we hear her own voice – she was even dubbed in The Pit and the Pendulum, an American movie! We dream of her haunted gaze and her razor-sharp cheekbones floating eerily in the perpetual gothic darkness; we cherish her creamy, marble-white bosom and her lethal legs. Who but Steele could have looked so hauntingly seductive with nail punctures dotting her face? And who but Steele could have brought such haughty grace to films with such kinky underpinnings? If she wasnt married to a necrophiliac she was possessed by one wanton witch or another; if she wasnt a vampire seducing the living, she was being importuned by some Sapphic seductress. Steele made a minor specialty of two-timing wives who paid dearly for their indiscretions, winding up locked in iron maidens (1999s Sleepy Hollow leaves no doubt as to the impression Steeles Pit and the Pendulum demise made on a young Tim Burton) or otherwise tormented to death.
Her regal manner notwithstanding, Steele comes from Liverpool (if from Wirrall, what passes for a posh neighborhood around those parts). Or perhaps not shes told interviewers she actually entered the world aboard a ship half way into port – particularly in her early years, Steele had little use for the niceties of interviews, and loved to provoke. In any event, she was born in the lull between Christmas and New Years, on December 29, 1938. She grew up during the war years and began acting as a small child, appearing at the age of seven in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She studied piano and dance, but her real love was art; Steele went on to study painting at Londons Chelsea Art School and later in Paris, at the Sorbonne. She returned home to England and found work painting sets for a regional theater troupe, but inevitably, the willowy 19-year-old wound up treading the boards instead of painting them. She appeared opposite Robert Morley in some no-doubt inconsequential comedy, and later toured in George Bernard Shaws Arms and the Man and John Van Drutens frothy Bell, Book and Candle, about an enchanting witch (Kim Novak made the role famous in the 1959 movie version). By the time she was 20, Steele had been snapped up by the Rank Organization and shipped off to its famous starlets school to study elocution, singing, dancing and the like.
But having groomed and polished Steele, Rank had no idea what to do with the tall, slender girl with the hungry eyes. She had a one-line role in a slight comedy called Bachelor of Hearts (1958), and a small part in Basil Deardens problem picture Sapphire (1959), playing the friend of a murder victim who turns out to have been a light-skinned black girl passing for white. She made equally unmemorable appearances in the 1959 remake of The 39 Steps and Your Money or Your Wife (1960) before Rank sold her contract to 20th Century Fox, and she was off to America. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, she later wrote, 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. Little did she know that this was to be the good part of her Hollywood sojourn.
Having ridden out a good part of her Fox contract tanning on the beach (she took a brief break to appear in an episode of the forgotten TV series Adventures in Paradise), Steele was called in for a part in Flaming Star (1960), an atypical Elvis Presley picture atypical in that it had a story and wasnt entirely awful directed by Don Siegel. Halfway through my first interview, she told one journalist, who was probably startled by her candor, they told me they needed a hip-swinging blonde with a Mid-Western accent Im tall, thin, brunette and obviously miscast. So they dyed my hair and got some one to give me lessons in saying things like Howdy, pardner. Maybe she argued with Siegel, maybe she convinced Fox that she really wasnt right for the part and was released; either way, a few days after the picture commenced shooting the studio announced that Steele had the flu and replaced her with Barbara Eden, later the star of the spectacularly vapid TV comedy series I Dream of Jeannie. Unchastened and not content with not playing the Hollywood career game, Steele didnt play the Hollywood spin game either. They told me not to give any interviews to the press, she told the same journalist. When I told them I was going to see you, they said it was alright but I should be sure and say I had three other pictures lined up for the future. Asked what they were, she chortled, Who knows? Anyway, Im not sure Ill do them even if they are lined up. After bemoaning the fact that being blond made her feel like a big cliche, Steele wound it all up by saying, Maybe youd better write that I got a virus and withdrew from the Presley movie. Itll be a lie, but Ive a feeling it will save us both a lot of trouble. Good copy, not very career savvy. Steele fled to Europe.
And then along came Black Sunday. Bava, a cinematographer making the transition to director, had seen Steeles photo in a pile of pictures Fox submitted to Italys Galatea Film, the American studios partner for upcoming biblical epic Esther and the
King (1960); the film starred Joan Collins, another dark-haired graduate of the Rank starlet school, and was shot by Bava for director Raoul Walsh immediately after Black Sunday was completed. Bava saw the potential in Steeles uncanny looks [she] had the perfect face for my films, he later observed and cast her in the dual role of Princess Katia, a witch whos burned at the stake after having a golden mask nailed to her face, and as Katias sweet-natured descendent, whom she possesses and drives to all manner of wickedness. Though Steele felt a bit underused as an actress, she slipped willingly into the haunted spirit of Black Sunday, the picture that later prompted her to theorize that film
is so porous, and to my mind so occult, that I think film itself absorbs odd energies like a living skin. She further recalled that even while it was being shot, the lushly black and white production was was so monochromatic that nobody, not even a crew member, wore a single color on the set – hypnotically beautiful, shrouded in fog, luminous and incandescent, with all the elements of a religious manifestation.
And despite the inherent spookiness of the shoot, Steele had nothing but soothing memories of Bava, the soul of courtesy and gentility, like a ghost, a man in silent shoes. I could barely feel his presence. Perhaps his tranquil manner so impressed her because she
had reservations about the wild and crazy Italian film industry; Bava later recalled that Steele was superstitious, afraid of Italians. She refused to come to the set because someone had told her I was using a special film stock that, when developed, made the
actors look naked! Maybe she misunderstood someone who told her I did camera tricks, or something like that. I reassured the poor woman by saying that if Id had such an invention, Id have made millions long ago.
Black Sunday was acquired for US distribution by exploitation specialists American International Pictures, which promptly hired Steele to star opposite Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), one of the better entries in its successful
Edgar Allen Poe series. There she perfected the art of screaming on cue ([it] takes a certain amount of concentration, she told Hyams, who apparently couldnt resist coming round for another dose of her caustic wit) and found time to charm gossip columnist Louella O. Parsons, an aging dragon who was once the scourge of Hollywood; and
even in the 60, long past her heyday, it didnt pay to offend her. Pasons declared Steele a lovely girl, even after Steele weaseled her way out of Parsons attempt to get her to bad-mouth her friend Charlie Chaplin (who was driven out of Hollywood and into Swiss exile in 1949, amidst red scare hysteria that the likes of Parsons had helped stir up). But Steele still wasnt planning to stay in California, though she hung around long enough to appear in a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Beta Gamma Delta. She declared Hollywood one great big scrambled neon egg where [e]veryone seems to walk around carrying their money on their backs. Plus ca change, and all that. Ill stay in Hollywood for good, she declared, when people out here listen to what comes out of peoples mouths instead of looking at their measurements. Then, as now, there was no chance of that and so off she went, back to la bella Italia to play witches and bitches.
Which brings us to the year of Fellini and Freda. First there was Fellini, who was working on 81/2, about a movie director named Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) and his surreal adventures as he tries to come up with his next picture. 81/2 was a long time aborning; actors were on call for months, hanging around the Fellini carnival and waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Steele, whom Fellini affectionately called Barbarina, got to bring all that dance training of hers to bear on her twist scene; naturally, she thought she was awful. What Im doing is so bad! she lamented at the time. It might be better, though, if I had five brandies under my belt. And then she waited; finally Fellini released her to work with Freda, a man who wasted no time when there was film to expose. And
what exposure The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock was! Films about necrophilia lie pretty thin on the ground, and Freda cast the coolly beautiful Steele as the innocent second wife of pervy Dr. H (Robert Flemyng), who likes his women very cool indeed; for once she was the victim rather than the victimizer. They worked 18-hour days, charged with Sambucca and coffee. If the dolly broke down, Freda would merely drag the camera on a carpet. Nothing would stop this man, Steele marveled. Naturally, maestro Fellini called while she was in the thick of things. I got this mad call from Federico in the middle of the night, saying, Weve got this great sequence [for you]. I said, I cant; Ive 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. And yet in the end she loved both directors.
Freda is very seductive and intimate with his actors, she recalled before his death in 1999, at age 90. He takes them aside, gives them little cookies and drinks, and tells them theyre beautiful and wonderful He was [also] ornery, emotional, violent, fueled with a passionate energy and a compulsive gambler I understood his frustration and rages and operatic deliveries. His whole life was a mini opera. And on top of it, without Freda Steele might never have had her brief, incandescent career in horror. It was, after all, Freda who revived the genre in Italy with his Lust of the Vampire/I vampiri (1957), and it was he bailed on Caltiki, the Immortal Monster/Caltiki il mostro immortale (1959), leaving his cameraman Mario Bava to finish the picture and paving the way for Bava to helm Black Sunday. In 1963, Steele appeared in Fredas loose sequel to Hichcock, The Ghost, which she claimed Freda wrote and shot in a week after a producer named Pietro Pupillo bet that he couldnt. Freda, who kept race horses, wagered a particularly valuable one and kept it; shooting, Steele swore, took a mere three days and what little rest she got, she took on the set. This was the film on which Freda noticed that Steele had eyes worthy of the surrealist painter De Chirico and that odd, inhuman cast to her face. Perhaps he was simply sleep deprived.
Steele liked Fellini for more or less the same reasons she liked Freda: Everyone on Fellinis set feels so adored and so special, she said. Its totally immaterial to him whether youre Marcello Mastroianni or an extra whos working 300 feet in the background I think that everybody thats worked with him would always like to work with him, have dinner with him, take a walk through a meadow with him – it really doesnt matter! Sadly, they never did another film together, though 15 years after 8 1/2? Fellini invited her to lunch to discuss playing a Venetian alchemist in his lavish Casanova (1976). The production was famously troubled and the part never panned out, but what a glory it could have been.
Meanwhile, Steele was living la dolce vita. Her name was linked with those of novelist Alberto Moravia and actor Peter OToole. She painted and hosted swanky soirees that got written up in newspapers. She gave interviews and said zany, free-spirited things, though she swears she never declared, I want to fuck the whole world. Ive never said that in a million years. I was 23 years old, living in Rome and loving my life. What I said to the interviewer was, Id like to have a love affair with the whole world, or something equally idiotic. And this was translated as I want to fuck the whole world! It was the most vulgar and horrifying thing. Sharp-tongued Steele may have been, heedless and provocative and undiplomatic, but she was never vulgar. Bearing that in mind, coupled with the notorious shall we say enthusiasm of Italian journalists, and it seems only fair to take Steele at her word.
Having worked with Bava and Freda, it was perhaps inevitable that Steele would find herself in cahoots with Antonio Margheriti, for whom she made Castle of Blood and the fabulously named Long Hair of Death. Castle of Blood (whose much ballyhooed relationship to the work of Edgar Allen Poe amounts to the writers brief appearance as a character) is a variation on the old dark story about the poor dope (George Riviere) who, for whatever foolish reason, agrees to spend the night in an old dark house. Steele played the beautiful woman with a dark secret and did what was for the time a very racy lesbian scene, which no doubt accounts for part of the films enduring appeal. Castle of Blood is the source of much confusion, because Margheriti remade it a few years later as Web of the Spider/Nella stretta morsa del ragno (1971), using the same script and even the same score. Steeles version was in atmospheric black and white, while the remake which Margheriti himself admits was a dreadful, mercenary mistake is in color and stars James Franciscus, Klaus Kinski as Poe and, in Steeles role, French actress Michele Mercier, who played Rosy in The Telephone segment of Bavas Black Sabbath/I tre volti della paura (1963).
Barbara was wonderful, recalled Margheriti. [S]he wasnt easy she had a very strong personality – but she is an actor and the people who work in this profession are all crazy [But] I had absolutely no problem with her. Castle of Blood was quite a scandal when it opened here in Rome because of its lesbian love scene, but she did it without making any fuss. Steeles own recollections were a little less serene. Margheriti
was very assertive, emotional, and aggressive. I liked him very much, but I had such collisions with Margheriti its 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.
While Castle of Blood is a truly haunting ghost story, the best thing about The Long Hair of Death is its baroque and weirdly evocative title. A period horror tale, its plot is legendarily confusing; the salient point is that Steele returns from the dead to wreak havoc. Even Margheriti admits that the screenplay was very badly written and a lot of things were not really fixed in it. On the set, a lot of things turned out to be stupid or
impossible, so we had to invent a lot and improvise every day There was hardly any time to think, to invent, or to write something down properly, because we had to shoot, shoot, shoot Something is wrong with that film. Its not hard to see how an atmosphere like that might have produced friction between a strong-willed director and an equally strong-willed star. But Steele, as always, looks marvelous.
The following year, 1965, brought three more Italian horrors for Steeles resume. In Mario Caianos excessive Nightmare Castle, Steele scored another dual role: a cheating wife tortured to death by her husband and the wifes look-alike sister (shes a blond, of course, because shes the good one), whom the husband marries so he can keep his hands on her family money. No good comes of that scheme; his dead wife and her lover return from the grave in search of vengeance. In Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave shot at the same villa as Nightmare Castle Steele played the mistress of a doctor who died under the inevitable mysterious circumstances; its he, not she, whos back from the grave looking for you know the rest. Like Castle of Blood, Terror-Creatures has caused no small confusion among Steelers; its surfaced in several different versions, has a slew of names, including Cemetery of the Living Dead, The Tombs of Horror and Five Graves for a Medium, and was directed by an American first-timer named Ralph Zucker. People often figure Ralph Zucker for another of those pseudonyms behind which Italian directors were always hiding, and many sources attribute Terror-Creatures to Massimo Pupillo (The Bloody Pit of Horror), who sometimes called himself Max Hunter. But as consummate Steeler the late Alan Upchurch documented, Zucker was a real person who knocked around the Italian film industry in various capacities and died in Los Angeles in 1982. Somewhere in between films, Steele found time to appear in episodes of TVs Secret Agent (Man on the Beach) and I Spy. Finally, Steele made Camillo Mastrocinques An Angel for Satan, in which shes possessed by the spirit of a 200 year old slut; the film marked the end of her Italian idyll.
There was The She-Beast/Il lago di Satanas the next year, a dreadful film that helped launch the short-lived career of English director Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers, Witchfinder General); it was shot in Italy but set in Eastern Europe and featured Steele as a tourist possessed by yet another vengeful witch. She played a prostitute in Volker Schlondorffs Young Torless (1966), her most mainstream credit since 8 1/2? and perhaps her favorite among her roles. And in 1967 she appeared – to striking but wasted effect in the English-made Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult, wearing a golden-horned headdress and painted green. The film was loosely based on H.P. Lovecrafts Dreams in the Witch House, and allowed Steele to work, however briefly, with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. And by 1970, Steeles European career was over. French art-filmmaker Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour) once met with Steele about doing a horror picture, but the project never materialized. Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, Red Desert) also approached her about a horror project that would have starred Steele and Monica Vitti (Modesty Blaise). That never got off the ground, she recalled, but what a treat it would have been!
Steele married screenwriter James Poe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lilies of the Field) and returned to the US. They had a child (not filmmaker Amos Poe, who was born in Israel in 1950). Steeles husband wrote a role for her in They Shoot Horses, Dont They? (1969), but it went to Sarah Miles. The marriage didnt last, though she and Poe remained on good terms until his death in 1980. Steele worked here and there. She appeared in Sins of the Fathers, a 1970 episode of the Rod Serling TV series Night Gallery.. Movie geek Jonathan Demme, who was making his directing debut with a women-in-prison picture called Caged Heat (1974) found Steele on Sunset Boulevard, where shed just bought a slinky dress for a party and was wondering idly why second-rate imitations of herself like Martine Beswick (though she was too well brought up to refer to Beswick that way) always got to wear such sexy, fabulous costumes, while she wound up costumed in a series of ghastly flannel nightgowns. He offered her the part of a lesbian warden, complete with a fantasy sequence in which she was decked out in a top hat and fishnet stockings. David Cronenberg tracked her down and asked her to play a sophisticated lesbian in his first feature, They Came from Within/Shivers (1975); she didnt want to, but he won her over with marigolds, music, wine and the promise that shed only have to work five days. Steele did a role in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977). I was supposed to play a goddess. We shot twenty minutes of film on the fantasy sequences, but they were cut because they didnt integrate with the rest of the movie.
Longtime horror fan Joe Dante persuaded her to play the part of Dr. Mengers in his Jaws spoof/knock-off, Piranha (1978). Steele discovered the novel on which Louis Malles notorious Pretty Baby (also 1978) was based, and played a small role in the film as a prostitute in 1917 New Orleans. But she was looking for a change; she had learned something about screenwriting from Poe and, wisely, managed to forget anything she remembered about the way they did it in Italy. 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. In 1980, Steele made her last feature film appearance for almost 15 years, as a mute madwoman in the seedy Silent Scream.
Steele had begun working for Dan Curtis in 1978; Curtis was the man who thought to combine horror and soap opera in TVs long-running Dark Shadows (1966-1971), and pioneered the made-for-TV horror movie boomlet of the early 70s. But the high point of Steele and Curtis work together had nothing to do with horror at least, not the supernatural kind. Curtis acquired the rights to Herman Wouks epic novel The Winds of War, which he planned to produce and direct as a TV miniseries. He put Steele to work on research, then asked her to take on more responsibility. At first I didnt want to do it, she demurred, daunted by the scale and projected length of the project. I thought it was too much. Five years? No thank you. Youre never home, you cant get any consistency in your life, you cant have a personal life. But Curtis, Wouk and screenwriter Earl Wallace persuaded her to come aboard for pre-production only. In for a penny, in for a pound Steele spent five years working on the 15-hour, $52. million Winds of War, an epic family drama set against the backdrop of WWII; she eventually earned a producers credit. Eyes wide open, Steele signed on for its sequel, the 32-hour, $104. million War and Remembrance (1989); she also played a small role in each film. Steele shared an Emmy Award for War and Remembrance with Curtis.
Finally, in 1991, Steele returned to her horror fans. Having worked for Curtis for so many years, she knew that fans were banging on Dans door forever to try and revive Dark Shadows. Curtis finally gave in, and he in turn knew better than to ignore the presence of a bona fide horror icon on his payroll. And so there was Steele in the Dark Shadows revival, slipping into Grayson Halls old role, Dr. Julia Hoffman, as though it had always been hers. She imagined Hoffman, creator of a serum that could cure vampirism, as sort of a deranged alchemist, recalling, perhaps, the Fellini role that got away. Despite its color cinematography, handsome production values and Steeles commanding presence, the new Dark Shadows lasted only a year. One more sad bit of proof that you cant go home again.
Unlike many lesser horror figures, Steele never reveled in her cult status. For years she fought it aggressively, refusing genre-oriented interviews and shunning the fan-boy circuit. More recently, shes started making occasional convention appearances; sometimes shes aloof and distant, other times shes as nice and accessible as can be. Her devoted fans take her however they can get her, clutch their signed photographs and write worshipful encomiums such as this. Steeles assessment of her enduring allure is as cool and astute as you would expect: Its not me theyre seeing. Theyre casting some projection of themselves, some aspect that I somehow symbolize. It cant possibly be me.
The quotes from and about Steele in this piece were taken from the following sources. An asterisk marks the items that any true Steeler will want to read for him- or herself:
Barbara Steele, Brunette and Happy, by Joe Hyams (New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 20, 1961
Barbara Steele Does a Walkout, by Joe Hyams (New York Herald Tribune, Sept. 19, 1960)
*Cult Memories, by Barbara Steele (The Perfect Vision, Vol. 6, Issue 23; Oct 1994) This essay was excerpted and adapted as an introduction to Bizarre Sinema! Horror allItaliana 1957-1979 (Glittering Images, 1996), but the original version is
From the Desk of Barbara Steele, by Jane Anderson (Hollywood Reporter Magazine, Jan. 1989, pp. 14-16
*Karma, Catsup & Caskets: The Barbara Steele Interview, by Christopher S. Dietrick with Peter Beckman (Video Watchdog No. 7, Sept/Oct 1991, pp. 46-59)
Margheriti: The Wild, Wild Interview, by Peter Blumenstock (Video Watchdog No.28, 1995, pp. 42-61)
Princess of Darkness, by Bill Warren (Fangoria No. 102, May 1991, pp. 15-19, p.68
The Two Hundred Days of 81/2?, by Deena Boyer (The Macmillan Company, 1964, pp. 71-73; 75-76; 97-98)
Steelers will also want to read the chapter on Steele in Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror film, by David J. Hogan (McFarland and Company, Inc., 1986); devour issues 7 and 49 of Video Watchdog, which are largely devoted to Steele (she has the front and back covers of both); and visit the heavily illustrated Silent Scream: The Unofficial Barbara Steele Film Site
Originally published in Fantasy Females (Stray Cat Publishing, 2000)