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Dark-eyed British actress Barbara Steele had the perfect face for horror. Though the Rank Organization starlet had been imported to the United States by 20th Century Fox to play Elvis Presley's love interest in "Flaming Star" (1960), Steele proved an ill-fit for the Hollywood cookie cutter and was replaced after a week of shooting. An actor's strike drove Steele back to Europe, where her haunting beauty was used to good effect in a string of Gothic horror films, beginning with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960). In the ensuing years, Steele skulked through such lurid chillers as "The Horrible Dr. Hichcock" (1962), "Castle of Blood" (1964) and "Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave" (1965), in which she brought sex appeal to characters of both pure and dark motives. Federico Fellini found a place for the slinky actress in his masterful "8-1/2" (1963) while German New Wave director Volker Schlöndorff offered Steele one of her better roles in "Young Törless" (1966), but the glut of cheap European fright flicks in which she found herself mired drove Steele back to North America. No longer an ingénue, she married a Hollywood screenwriter and cashed in on her cult credibility with meaty roles in Jonathan...
Dark-eyed British actress Barbara Steele had the perfect face for horror. Though the Rank Organization starlet had been imported to the United States by 20th Century Fox to play Elvis Presley's love interest in "Flaming Star" (1960), Steele proved an ill-fit for the Hollywood cookie cutter and was replaced after a week of shooting. An actor's strike drove Steele back to Europe, where her haunting beauty was used to good effect in a string of Gothic horror films, beginning with Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960). In the ensuing years, Steele skulked through such lurid chillers as "The Horrible Dr. Hichcock" (1962), "Castle of Blood" (1964) and "Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave" (1965), in which she brought sex appeal to characters of both pure and dark motives. Federico Fellini found a place for the slinky actress in his masterful "8-1/2" (1963) while German New Wave director Volker Schlöndorff offered Steele one of her better roles in "Young Törless" (1966), but the glut of cheap European fright flicks in which she found herself mired drove Steele back to North America. No longer an ingénue, she married a Hollywood screenwriter and cashed in on her cult credibility with meaty roles in Jonathan Demme's "Caged Heat" (1974), David Cronenberg's "Shivers" (1975) and Joe Dante's "Piranha" (1978). Finding a measure of artistic satisfaction behind the camera, Steele won an Emmy as the producer of the 1988 miniseries "War and Remembrance" while learning to enjoy her lifetime association as horror cinema's reigning scream queen.
Determining the exact date and place of birth for Barbara Steele long presented biographers with the challenge of sifting through a paper trail of overblown studio publicity handouts and the actress' own penchant for vivid fabrication. The most widely accepted birth date was Dec. 19, 1937, though some sources put the milestone weeks, a month or even a year later. Steele often claimed to have been a native of her father's homeland of Ireland, while a 1960 press release from American International Pictures spun the romantic tale that she was in fact born aboard an Irish ship entering the port of Liverpool. More reliable sources put Steele's true birthplace in the seaport town of Birkenhead, in the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in Merseyside, or slightly inland in the Birkenhead suburb of Prenton. The daughter of a successful exporter, Steele was raised in relative affluence and comfort even through the bombings of the Liverpool Blitz during World War II.
At the age of seven, Steele made her stage debut as Snow White in a school pageant. Enrolled by age 11 in a progressive grammar school, she enjoyed an unorthodox, liberal curriculum that was key to the development of her artistic sensibility. She continued her education at Birkenhead High School for Girls, the coeducational Beltane School in Wiltshire, and the King Alfred School in Hampstead, London. At age 18, Steele broke out on her own, studying at London's Chelsea School of Art, but she soon found herself drawn to acting. After taking drama classes at A. S. Neill's progressive Summerhill School, Steele began to obtain acting jobs in London and regional theatre. While appearing in a production of John Van Druten's "Bell, Book and Candle" at the Citizen's Theatre of Glasgow, she was scouted by the J. Arthur Rank Organization and offered an exclusive contract.
After making her film debut in Wolf Rilla's campus comedy "Bachelor of Hearts" (1958), Steele was slotted into a string of forgettable Rank projects, among them Ralph Thomas' 1959 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" (1935) and Basil Dearden's race drama "Sapphire" (1959). Though Steele had been selected from the theatre for grooming as a possible successor to Jean Simmons, Rank had difficulty utilizing the dark-eyed beauty, whose Gothic good looks were laced with a touch of cruelty. Rank ultimately sold Steele's contract to 20th Century Fox, who imported the actress to the United States and immediately dyed her hair blonde. Poised to make a quantum career leap by starring with Elvis Presley in "Flaming Star" (1960), Steele quarreled so often with director Don Siegel that she was replaced by Barbara Eden after a week of shooting.
With her hair still blonde, Steele was slotted into an episode of the weekly series "Adventures in Eden" (ABC, 1959-1962). In March 1960, a Screen Actors Guild strike froze production in Hollywood, nixing Steele's career advancement for the immediate future. Rather than wait out the strike, the actress flew back to Europe. As fate would have it, film production in Rome was on the rise. Italian special effects artist-turned-director Mario Bava had picked Steele's headshot out of a stack delivered to him by the William Morris Agency, finding in her beguiling but slightly unsettling beauty the ideal face to launch his breakout directorial debut. Steele was given a dual role in "The Mask of Satan" (1960), a loose reworking of a tale of the supernatural by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol - that of a 19th Century Moldavian princess and a centuries old undead witch attempting to use the young virgin as a vehicle to return to the world of the living.
As fate would have it, Steele's co-star in "The Mask of Satan" was fellow Brit John Richardson, with whom she had appeared in several Rank Organization films. By her own admission, Steele proved difficult in her first starring role. Unable to speak Italian and frequently late, she irritated director Bava with her costume and makeup demands. To tease her, Bava claimed to be using a special film stock that would allow moviegoers to see actors naked beneath their costumes. Shot for the equivalent of $100,000, "The Mask of Satan" proved incredibly influential, both within the horror genre and to the Italian film industry. After the film's release in America as "Black Sunday," Steele found herself typecast as a horror queen, a femme fantastique. AIP lured her back to the States for a prominent role in Roger Corman's "Pit and the Pendulum" (1960), as a Spanish noblewoman who conspires to drive husband Vincent Price insane and who pays for her perfidy by being locked in an iron maiden.
After appearing as a frat house tease who tricks an inebriated college valedictorian into believing he has committed murder in a 1961 episode of the macabre anthology series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1962), Steele returned to the Continent to star in Riccardo Freda's "The Horrible Dr. Hichcock" (1962). As the second wife of a widowed London surgeon with necrophilic tendencies, Steele's pop-eyed pulchritude was put to good use as her unsuspecting character is frightened in vivid Technicolor to within an inch of her life. Though Steele was firmly on the side of the angels in Freda's Gothic masterpiece, she defaulted to venality for Freda's "The Ghost" (1963), in which she conspired yet again to do in an older, moneyed husband with whom she had grown tired. That same year, Steele was cast in the minor but memorable role of a film producer's sexpot wife who dallies erotically with writer Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini's autobiographical fantasia "8 ½" (1963).
Though Steele enjoyed the reputation of having worked with Fellini, then at the height of his international popularity, it was back to business as usual for her in a string of low-budget horror potboilers. In Antonio Margheriti's "Castle of Blood" (1964), Steele was a ghostly figure who lures a young writer to his death. She played another dual role in Mario Caiano's "Nightmare Castle" (1965), as the murdered wife of a psychotic physician and the twin sister whose arrival sparks a tale of karmic comeuppance. She was a persecuted witch's vengeful daughter in Margheriti's spooky period piece "The Long Hair of Death" (1964) but was back in faithless wife mode for Massimo Pupillo's "Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave" (1965), in which she was given little to do until the final reel, by which time her character answers for her crimes at the decomposed hands of undead plague victims.
In a much-needed respite from her frequent turns as a Continental scream queen, Steele played a Socialist bureaucrat in Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's "Once Upon a Tractor" (1965), produced by the United Nations Telsun Foundation and starring Alan Bates, Diane Cilento, Melvyn Douglas and Buddy Hackett. Another atypical assignment was as a prostitute who toys with the teenage protagonist of "Young Törless" (1966), Volker Schlöndorff's allegory of the rise of Nazism. From these arty asides it was back to Gothic tropes as modern women possessed by ancient evil in Michael Reeves' "She Beast" (1966) and Camillo Mastrocinque's "An Angel for Satan" (1966). Steele made guest appearances on "Danger Man" (US: "Secret Agent," ITC, 1964-66) with Patrick McGoohan and "I Spy" (NBC, 1965-68) with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. She was reduced to a nearly wordless cameo - and painted green to boot - as a witch in Vernon Sewell's "Curse of the Crimson Altar" (US: "The Crimson Cult," 1968), starring horror kings Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.
Fed up with her lot as a horror actress, Steele returned to the United States and in 1969 married screenwriter James Poe, with whom she had a son in 1971. Her ingénue years firmly behind her, Steele returned to cinema with a series of mature performances in low-budget American films shot by promising young directors. She was a crippled but erotically-charged prison warden in Jonathan Demme's "Caged Heat" (1974) and a predatory lesbian possessed by an endorphin-pumping parasite in David Cronenberg's "Shivers" (US: "They Came From Within," 1975). The actress had small, decorous roles in Anthony Page's "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" (1977) and Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" (1978), but enjoyed a meaty cameo as a devious government agent attempting to cover up the escape of genetically altered killer fish in Joe Dante's "Piranha" (1978). In 1978, Steele and James Poe divorced.
Steele returned to Gothic horror mode for "Silent Scream" (1980), a film begun in 1977 and subsequently vaulted as unreleasable. She was hired by one-shot director Denny Harris along with a core of new actors to bridge the only useable footage with new scenes in a bid to cash in on the success of John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978). Padded out to less than memorable effect, the film nonetheless proved profitable but Steele disappeared from acting for another three years. She returned to the public eye as the associate producer of Dan Curtis' ABC miniseries adaptation of Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War," in which she also appeared in a small role. Steele took a producer's credit on the sequel, "War and Remembrance" (1988), in which she again turned up in a supporting role. In 1989, Curtis and Steele shared an Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries. Steele's association with Curtis continued with the reboot of his supernatural-themed ABC soap opera "Dark Shadows" (1966-1971). A 1990 pilot film led to a short-lived primetime series, with Steele in the role of Julia Hoffman, a dedicated physician whose professional relationship with vampire Ben Cross is complicated. As fate would have it, "Dark Shadows" (ABC, 1991-92) put Steele on the small screen with British actress Jean Simmons, whose place she had taken at the Rank Organization at the beginning of her career. The cancellation of "Dark Shadows" after only a dozen episodes pushed Steele back into retirement mode. Though the actress became a fixture on the horror convention circuit, where she autographed headshots and sold memorabilia, Steele's film appearances were sporadic at best as she transitioned to her autumn years.
By Richard Harland Smith
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"This British actress is revered by her fans for her talent, emotional range, wit, intelligence, erotic sexuality, and a beauty that is mysterious and unique. . . her face can be either evil or sweet, depending on the beholder. So in "Black Sunday", she was effective playing both the evil vampire-witch and the gentle heroine; in other horror films, she alternated between heroines and wicked women with blood lusts [often in the same film!]."--From "Cult Movie Stars" by Danny Peary (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991)
Remarking on the peculiar hybrid quality of Italian horror films, British film critic Kim Newman writes in "Nightmare Movies" (NY: Harmony Books, 1988): "The happiest result of this curious anglophilia was the career of Barbara Steele, who became typecast as a witchlike FEMME FATALE after her performances in [Mario] Bava's "La Maschera del demonio" ("Mask of Satan") (1960) and [Riccardo] Freda's "L'Orrible segretto del Dr. Hitchcock" ("The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock") (1962). Blessed with a haunted face and a dry-ice sensuality, Steele is one of the screen's great vampires, although since she was once quoted as never wanting 'to climb out of another fucking coffin again' she is probably unhappy with the distinction."
Writing on "Black Sunday" in "5001 Nights at the Movies" (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), Pauline Kael observes: "The resurrected 200-year-old witch Princess Asa and the beautiful Princess Katia are both played by the English actress Barbara Steele in a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable; in both roles, she looks like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance. But you wouldn't want her to be any different."
In the "Encyclopedia of European Cinema" (NY: Facts on File, 1995), Carol Jenks wrote: "Steele has always maintained that anyone could have played the role [in "Black Sunday"], but the film is structured around her physical presence. . . . Her operatic, gestural style of performance brought back the figure of the silent film diva, but it was her face in close-up that inspired a unique fetishistic fascination. With her chalky skin, high cheekbones and flowing black hair, she became the paradoxical image of a living-death mask, a head of the Medusa which the camera could never fix or penetrate as completely as the mask of the title does when its spikes are hammered into her."
Writer-director David Cronenberg (in an unattributed interview from the Internet) described how he got a former porn actress to cry for "They Came From Within" (1975). After rubbing onion slices under her eyes failed, she insisted that Cronenberg slap her around. It worked.
"Then Barbara Steele arrives, and the first scene she has to do with Sue is when she gives her a parasite kiss. So its pretty tricky; low-budget stuff throws you into that because you have no time for niceties. So Barbara is sitting there, and everybody on the crew is now completely blase about our technique for making Sue cry. . . . It's business as usual. We roll the camera. Barbara's all ready, but I don't say 'Action'. Sue and I go into the kitchen. Barbara's wondering what the fuck's going on. So it's smack, smack, smack; shriek, shriek, shriek. Sue comes out sobbing. Great. Barbara is horrified; there's a look of total shock and anger on her face. I say, 'Action, action. Do it, do it!'"
Cronenberg's narrative continues:
"When it's 'Cut', Barbara stands up (she's real big, and she was in high heels) and literally grabs me by the lapels and lifts me up. She says, 'You bastard! I've worked with some of the best directors in the world. I've worked with Fellini. I've never, in my life, seen a director treat an actress like that. You bastard!' She was going to punch me out. I said, 'No, Barbara, don't hit me. She made me. I hate doing it, I'm afraid to do take two!' 'Really?' she says. 'Yes, really.' Barbara let's me go. 'How hard were you hitting her?' she asks, 'Show me.' She holds out her forearm and I hit it hard. 'That hard?' 'Yes,' I say. 'Hmm.' says Barbara. A pause, and then her eyes fix on me. 'Do I have any scenes where I cry?' That was my introduction to the world of actresses."
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