Barbara Steele, The Woman Who Haunted Herself
Barbara Steele’s face is one of the most beautifully haunting in cinema, her cheekbones catching the light, framed by long rectangles of jet-black hair. Her huge eyes flashing menace or dread. Her mouth, sensual or cruel, promising a kiss, or delivering a sneer of contempt. Her slender wrists and distended fingers soothingly caressing, or offering a chalice of poison. Whether rising from a coffin or the elegance of a four-poster bed, Steele’s grace and menace on screen was unmatched: the horror genre has had no stronger female icon, before or since.
Though Steele made films in all genres, including Fellini’s 8½ (1963), where she famously twisted with her fiancé Mezzabotta (Mario Pizu), the knockabout medieval comedy L’Amata Brancaleone (1966 – which anticipates such scattershot, bloody surrealism as Jabberwocky) and Volker Schlöndorff’s directorial debut Young Torless (1966), an allegorical tale of Nazism set in a boarding school, it is for her 11 gothic horrors from the sixties for which she is best remembered. Steele was born on 29 December 1937 in Birkenhead on the Wirral, Cheshire. She acted in repertory theatre, then was under contract at J. Arthur Rank Studios appearing in several Rank Organisation productions, including bit parts in Bachelor of Hearts (1958), Sapphire (1959), Upstairs and Downstairs and Your Money or Your Wife (both 1960). She then travelled to Rome, where she was cast by Mario Bava in her first horror feature, The Mask of Satan (1960), released in the US by American International Pictures (AIP) in February 1961 as Black Sunday and also known in the UK as Revenge of the Vampire for its belated release, rated ‘X’, by Border Films in June 1968.
In Mask, Steele established her schizophrenic screen persona, playing the dual roles of Asa (a witch put to death in the 17th Century) and Princess Katja, the spitting image of Asa, who two hundred years later is possessed by the resurrected sorceress. As their personalities collide, intertwine and switch, it’s difficult for the hero (John Richardson) to tell which witch is which. Director Bava, who became better known for his astonishing technicolour visuals in his later movies, pioneered a new, gory approach to exquisite monochrome horror, in which style, atmosphere and effect were much more important than plot, which is merely the thin thread by which the film’s narrative hangs. It also featured the famous scene where Asa is executed with an iron, spike-lined demon mask, hammered onto her face in a brutal precursor of her many later screen demises.
The Mask of Satan is one of the cornerstones of Italian horror cinema and the trigger film for the gothic horror craze in Italy in the early sixties. This was in conjunction with the popularity of British Hammer Studios’ bloody brand of revamped vampirism and Roger Corman’s elegant, CinemaScope Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. It was here that Steele surfaced next, acting in the second of Corman’s celebrated Poe adaptations for AIP, Pit and the Pendulum (1961), an immensely popular and influential film in Italy. Steele’s presence is again used to excellent effect, as Elizabeth, the recently deceased wife of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price), a Spanish don. Steele appears mostly in the flashbacks to her life in Nicholas’ gloomy castle, which precipitates her demise, depressed and obsessed with the castle’s torture chamber, where Nicholas’ father cruelly dismantled his victims during the Spanish Inquisition. An investigation by Elizabeth’s brother Francis Barnard (John Kerr) unearths the castle’s terrible secrets, but Elizabeth is not dead. In league with her lover, DR Leon (Anthony Carbone), she aims to drive Nicholas insane. Made for $200,000 on a 15-day shoot, Pit is one of Corman’s best films, taking $2 million in the US, though Steele’s role is really only a cameo.
Steele returned to Italy to work for director Riccardo Freda for Raptus – The Secret of Dr Hichcock (1962 – also called The Terror of Dr Hichcock) and its sequel The Ghost (1963 – originally Lo Spettro), two delirious, Technicolor gothics which proved popular in the US and further developed Steele’s cult following. In the first she played the victim: Cynthia, the second wife of the title character, Dr Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng). Set in London in 1885 (though Steele is dubbed in an American accent), Hichcock is a necrophiliac, who uses his patented serum (which slows the heart rate) on his first wife Margaretha, to replicate death during their lovemaking. Ever experimenting, Hichcock ups the dose, killing his wife, or so he thinks – they inter her in a coffin in the family crypt anyway. But when the doctor returns to his home after an absence of 12 years, with new wife Cynthia, all is not as it seems. The stylish, atmospheric pacing of these films often feature long silent passages, with Steele as the stalked victim, exploring down dark corridors with a flickering candlestick and no matches, ready for that inopportune gust of wind. In her varied horror incarnations, Steele has played both the haunted and the spectre, occasionally (as in Mask of Satan and The Night of the Doomed) within the same scenario. She falls in with evil schemes, usually a plot to murder her husband in pursuit of an inheritance, in collusion with a lover, as in Freda’s The Ghost, where Margaret Hichcock (Steele) helps her beau kill her wheelchair-bound husband, only to discover that he has left his fortune to the local orphanage.
On a roll, Steele continued to scare audiences with her sensual brand of horror. She made a brace of black and white shockers for Antonio Margheriti, the first of which is probably her best film: the spooky haunted house chiller Castle of Blood (1963 – also released as Castle of Terror and La Danza Macabra), a perfect genre piece, with gothic drapery, cobwebs, candles, misty graveyards, candles, apparitions and sexuality mixed with magic, mysticism and gore – a sort of abracadaver. Here she was Elizabeth, one of several ghosts haunting Blackwood Castle. When Times journalist Alan Foster (George Riviere) wagers he can survive ‘The Night of the Dead’ at the castle, he loses more than he bargained for. The strong cast includes Arturo Dominici (from Mask of Satan), Sergio Leone’s chief stuntman Benito Stefanelli and Steve Reeve’s ex-Hercules stunt double Giovanni Cianfriglia in supporting roles. In her second film for Margheriti, The Long Hair of Death (1964), she again made a spectre of herself, in the dual roles of Helen Karnstein (killed when she’s pushed over a waterfall) and her reincarnation, Mary, the survivor of a coach crash. Temptress Mary vengefully brings down the house of Humbolt, who executed her mother (an accused witch), finally burning alive the chief villain Kurt (George Ardisson) inside a wooden effigy of death.
But through over familiarity and typecasting, Steele’s career had peaked. In the Night of the Doomed (1965 – Nightmare Castle in the US), directed by Mario Caiano (as ‘Alan Grünewald’) she again played two roles: the wicked, dark-haired adulteress Muriel Arrowsmith and her blonde, mentally fragile sister Jenny. Accompanied by a miserable organ fugue from Ennio Morricone and featuring the most shocking, sadomasochistic of torments, involving firebrands and electricity, Doomed has two of Steele’s meatiest parts. It is in this film where she appears with the long cascade of black hair, concealing one side of her face, hideously scarred from torture. The one facet of Steele’s performance that occasionally shatters the illusion in these gothics is her voice. Her lines were post-synchronised in the dubbing studio and she was rarely allowed to use her own voice in the English dub – the substitute vocals are often flat and monotonous, in contrast to her vivid performances. A rare chance to hear her own sensual, and very ‘un-Hollywood’ voice, is her role as Jenny in Doomed.
The She Beast (1966), helmed by future Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General director Michael Reeves, was a very low-budget film, with Steele only available for one day’s work – appearing for 17 minutes at the beginning of the film and two minutes at the end, as Veronica, who with her newlywed husband Philip (Ian Ogilvy) is honeymooning in Transylvania. They are involved in a car accident and Veronica is drowned in a lake, whereupon she is possessed by the spirit of Vardalla, a witch put to death in a ducking stool (‘the seat of chastisement’) in 1765. In Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965 – aka Five Graves for a Medium), she was underused as Cleo Hauff, a widow whose deceased husband (the medium of the title) has summoned plague victims from the dead (heralded by the squeaky wheels of the corpse collectors’ death cart) to avenge his own murder. Fittingly it was presented in the US by Pacemaker Pictures. Her last Italian gothic was An Angel for Satan (1966). Again essaying two roles for the price of one, as heroine Harriet and her possessor Belinda, she co-starred with future spaghetti western star Anthony Steffen in a familiar tale. She was then cast, with Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, in the gory Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), her only British horror movie (a Tigon British-AIP co-production). As Lavinia Morley she appeared in perhaps her most famous guise, much used in the film’s publicity, as a green-faced witch, with plumed head-dress and rams horns.
Following a quiet spell, during which Steele reportedly mentioned that she didn’t want ‘to climb out of another fucking coffin again’, she appeared in several cult movies in the seventies, her casting a reflection of young filmmakers’ infatuation with her sexy sixties scream queen image. She was the warden, Superintendent McQueen, in Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), Betts in David Cronenberg’s bloody Shivers (1975 – aka They Came from Within) and government agent Dr Mengers in Piranha (1978), Joe Dante’s scary, tongue-in-gill Jaws derivative, made with verve, imagination and a great cult cast. Steele later moved into producing, with The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988) teleseries.
But Steele’s legend is forever branded on cinema history with her sixties horror movies. The Mask of Satan, Pit and the Pendulum, Raptus – The Secret of Dr Hichcock and Castle of Blood are her finest films and are among the best of the genre. Steele stares like no other, with those wide marble eyes, her aquiline features alabaster as she glides across the screen, a spectre of lost souls. Her image is a melding of the dreamily lovelorn and the morto viventi: Kate Bush meets Vampira. A silent, timeless beauty, for Steele the eyes most certainly have it.
This article originally appeared in Issue #11 May 2008 of ‘Cinema Retro’.