Do we have any choice in electing Barbara Steele as the ultimate Cult Siren, as she can take her rightful place besides the mostly male Pantheon of classic horror players: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, John Carradine… Ms. Steele’s presence with these gentlemen is surely not scandalous: here’s the only woman who enjoyed a cinematographic career in the horror field on par with these guys.
In fact, I have a strange confession to make: when I was a wee lad, I was scared of her. Yeah. Not that she is unattractive, for from it, but I couldn’t stand her piercing gaze, from these astonishing dark eyes which gave the impression of hiding a deeply disturbed soul. Check out some of the photographs included here and tell me if I’m wrong.
So? Here was Barbara Steele’s trademark: she could play the most innocent virgin or the most vicious witch, and we could always note how “troubled” she felt. Thus, the destiny of her many characters remained unsure, which in my eyes made her a most fascinating actress. How could we forget these large eyes, high cheekbones, cruel mouth? Let’s note that she was active in many classic productions (as in “good”), not always the case for some of our future and current guests (mostly those active in more recent years), whom I hope you’ll visit soon.
Barbara Steele was born December 29, 1938 (some source claim 1937), in Trenton Wirrall, in England, and I have no clue where it’s situated. Legend claims that she wanted to be a painter, but found herself (after studying in a theater repertory company) in a British comedy in 1958 entitled Bachelor of Hearts, where she had only one line of dialogue. It’s in the Mario Bava B&W masterpiece Black Sunday that Barbara became a sensation in 1960. This movie was the coming of maturity for the golden age of Italian horror and it still impresses today. Barbara, in her first fantasy role, plays two characters: a ressurrected witch and her pure descendant, Katia.
The film’s first scene in quintessential horror stuff: evil Asa is condemned to be burned at the stake for witchery and a masked executioner nails a spiked mask on her features as she is tied up wearing light clothing. Bava’s visual genius is here exposed in all its splendor. This was is first official assignment, he who had worked at co-directing (with or without credits) some other motion pictures.
Barbara was soon called by another active director of the period, prolific American Roger Corman, who was on the verge of his greatest success with his Edgar Allan Poe series. For The Pit and the Pendulum, once again, Barbara played an ambiguous character, in a key supporting role… her final fate still gives the shivers. Vincent Price was the star of this excellent production, he too working with a double faced character.
Back in Europe, Barbara began shooting regularly many horror productions in Italy (who more often than not had macabre and subtly sexual overtones, as in The Horrible Dr. Hichchock, where the doc seems to enjoy the pleasures of necrophilia!). Violence was a big part of these stories, as our actress was dutifully whipped, strangled or cut in pieces (when she was not doing all these deeds herself to others). Sadly, nearly all the English versions of these pictures dubbed Barbara’s real voice by another actress, a common situation for any European productions. Barbara still found the time to work with future horror maestro Lucio Fulci.
Some different roles still came her way: a French comedy with Paul Meurisse Le Monocle rit jaune; 8 ½ a classic Fellini; Young Toerless, etc. But after 1968’s The Crimson Cult, Barbara was appreciative of the fact that her husband James Poe was thinking of her when adapting the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? for the screen. But when director Sydney Pollack decided to give the part to Susannah York, Barbara decided to take a break from films for a few years. In 1974, she played a crippled prison warden in Caged Heat, still a highly-regarded Women in Prison film that I find oddly boring. Barbara was soon part of David Cronenberg’s first full-length movie, They Came from Within, shot in Quebec. She also played a nut in the slasher Silent Scream in 1980.
Out of the blue, Barbara became a TV producer, her main glory being part of the team responsible for The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance (playing small roles in each). For the last, she even won an Emmy for her producing work. At that time, dumbfounded before my television set, I exclaimed: “But it’s Asa!” when I saw her go on stage to reclaim her statuette. Barbara was also part of the 1991 Dark Shadows revival.
Barbara Steele’s attraction remains the mystery surrounding each of the character that she played. Even today, I look at her work and asks myself: “Does she wants to kiss me… or kill me?” Her cold sensuality remains shielded against time. Like the majority of actresses in this site, she doesn’t seem to age much. Who knows if it’s not too late to admire her in a future quality production in the horror field?
1958 Bachelor of Hearts 1959 Upstairs and Downstairs 1960 Your Money or Your Wife; Black Sunday 1961 The Pit and the Pendulum 1962 The Eye of the Monocle; The Horrible Dr. Hichcock 1963 8½; A Sentimental Attempt; The Ghost; The Hours of Love; Rampage of Evil; Les baisers 1964 The Maniacs; Castle of Blood; White Voices; The Monocle’s Sour Laugh; Amore facile; The Long Hair of Death 1965 Nightmare Castle; I soldi; Tre per una rapina 1966 L’armata Brancaleone; The She-Beast; Young Toerless; An Angel for Satan; Terror-Creatures from the Grave 1968 Handicap; Fermate il mondo… voglio scendere; Curse of the Crimson Altar 1974 Caged Heat 1975 The Space-Watch Murders; They Came from Within 1977 I Never Promised You a Rose Garden 1978 Pretty Baby; Piranha; The Key Is In the Door 1980 Silent Scream 1994 Deep Above 1999 The Capitol Conspiracy 2008 Her Morbid Desires