Scream queens may come and go but there is only one true Queen of Horror – Barbara Steele. A look back at her 5 greatest fear flicks (and then some).
Her exotic erotic, dark, mysterious allure captivated fans when she first appeared in fledgling Italian director Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (aka MASK OF THE DEMON) released in 1960, which was loosely based on Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”. Plucked from a pile headshots, Bava selected the former art student turned model to topline the terror classic.
Barbara stars as Asa Vajda who is condemned for sorcery by her own brother. Blood spewing from her face after being impaled by spike-brandishing iron mask, the witch is seemingly dead. Two centuries later, the vampiric witch is accidentally revived and she only has one thing on her mind – revenge! In a fiendish campaign to possess her look-alike descendant, Katia, also played by Barbara, unrelenting horrors are unleashed!
Recalling her work on BLACK SUNDAY, Barbara wrote in “The Perfect Vision” magazine, “Entering the cool, dark set was like entering a medieval cathedral on a midsummer afternoon. Echoes of an ancient civilization that has been dormant for centuries. This odd silence descended upon us, this hushed, suspended world, spooky and beguiling, elegant, tense, wary. The whole film 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.”
Banned in the UK for extreme gore and violence, BLACK SUNDAY was snagged for release stateside by American international Pictures. It quickly became its biggest money maker that year.
Fleshing out Poe’s short story, TWILIGHT ZONE writer Richard Matheson stirred a witch’s brew of madness, the Spanish Inquisition, premature burial and ghostly possession. Barbara plays Elizabeth Medina, the wife of Price who has died under mysterious circumstances.
Investigating her sudden death is her stiff-necked brother (John Kerr). He suspects Price of killing her but Vinnie is too consumed by madness and visions of his beloved wife Elizabeth to notice. In a hallucinatory reverie, Price chains his brother-in-law to the titular torture device – suspended above the pit as the razor-sharp pendulum lurches downward inch by torturous inch.
Tormenting Price throughout in supernatural appearances, Barbara rises from the grave! She manipulated the entire scenario with her secret lover to successfully drive hubby nuts. Enraged, Price promptly throttles Babs, trapping her forever in the steely embrace of an iron maiden. “Our major confrontation where he strangles me was done in one take,” Barbara said. “He really went at me and I had the bruises on my throat to prove it!”
After a curse is placed on the Karnstein family (no relation to Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL), Barbara is in great form as she toys with her tormentors in a game of “dead or alive”, menacing the “ne’er do wells” in a seductive haze of deviltry. Yes, nudity, ultra-violence and gore galore make this a must-see for Italo fear flick fan addicts.
THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK (1962) set in 1885 is a lurid tale of necrophilia. The erstwhile Doc (whose name is more than familiar to the Pepsi-swilling PSYCHO generation) perversely enjoyed drugging his wife into a narcoleptic state for funereal-style sex-capades. He accidentally kills her (natch) and gets re-hitched to Barbara – only to use her blood to revive his first wife’s rotting corpse. Directed by Riccardo Freda of CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER infamy, Barbara delivers another remarkable performance in a film whose plot recap belies its uncanny watchability.
Barbara also had a memorable turn in director Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (OTTO Y MEZZO) as an existential beatnik whose sheer animal magnetism simply overpowers everything else on screen. In a key sequence she dances a very familiar dance (QT – I’m looking at you!) with a touch of Batusi.
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968) which was loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dreams of the Witch House” Brit filmmakers Tigon teamed Barbara with horror legends Christopher Lee and, in one of his last screen appearances, Boris Karloff.
Reviewing the monster bash, The New York Times said “Nothing else…comes close to (Karloff) – though there is Barbara Steele in green face playing Lavinia, a glamorous 300-year-old and a monumental cast that lists no fewer than seven-party girls, plus several sacrificial virgins.”
In 1975, Barbara appeared in the master of dark horror, David Cronenberg’s, THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (aka SHIVERS).
“I really don’t know how Cronenberg found me,” she recalled. “I didn’t have any agent; I’ve never had an agent. I do remember him arriving at my house, on a stormy day at the beach, with a huge bunch of marigolds… He knew exactly what he wanted. And he always got exactly what he wanted.”
After appearing in the “Women in Prison” cult classic CAGED HEAT for Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante’s PIRANHA (1978) for producer Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Barbara took a break from acting. She won an Emmy for co-producing the TV mini-series WAR AND REMEMBRANCE with DARK SHADOWS creator/producer Dan Curtis.
He ultimately lured her back to the gothic horror that made her famous in the short-lived TV reboot of the classic 1960s horror soap. In DARK SHADOWS (1991), Barbara played Dr. Julia Hoffman who attempted to cure Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) of his vampirism. Neither blood transfusions nor series proved successful.
More recently, the gothic goddess appeared in actor Ryan Gosling’s quirky directional debut LOST RIVER (2014).
When Mary Shelley intimate Lord Byron penned, “She walks in beauty like the night…” surely he envisioned Barbara Steele. All hail The QUEEN OF HORROR!