That’s right, this month the fantastic Barbara Steele, is my icon of the month.
Barbara Steele was born on December 29, 1937 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England. She originally studied to be a painter, but in 1958 became a contract player with the Rank Organisation. At the studio, she received her formative training as an actress at the studio-owned acting school, and she also made her feature debut for Rank, playing a small role in the comedy “Bachelor of Hearts” (1958) starring Hardy Krüger.
A few more films for the Rank Organisation followed, with Barbara in small roles, then her contract was sold to 20th Century Fox and Steele relocated to Hollywood. Seele found herself with a good contract but no work for two years. Eventually, she began filming the Elvis Presley-starrer “Flaming Star” (1960) but left the set after a dispute with director Siegel to never return – leaving her role to Barbara Eden.
To get her career on track, during an actors’ strike in Hollywood, Barbara Steele accepted a job offer from Italy to star in a horror flick by a former cameraman and first-time director called Mario Bava, the finished film would be her breakthrough movie, La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday (1960). Black Sunday is the visually stunning and positively creepy story about a witch who tries to be reborn in a younger incarnation of herself (both played by Barbara Steele).
Apart from being a masterpiece that granted its director Mario Bava almost immediate cult-status, it was also a perfect vehicle for Barbara Steele, as it didn’t only make perfect use of her good but slightly eerie looks, it also provided her with a dual role which gave her opportunity to show her acting range which captured the attention of audiences and film producers alike.
We got to see Barbara, but did not hear her; her voice was dubbed by another actress for international audiences. After its American success, AIP brought Barbara to America, to star in Roger Corman’s “Pit And The Pendulum (1961); (though the film was shot entirely in English, again Barbara’s own voice was not used).
While in the US, Steele also made an appearance on the series “Adventures In Paradise” (1960) and filmed an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, ‘Beta Delta Gamma’. In 1962, she answered an open-casting call and won a role in Federico Fellini’s “8½” (1963); she only had a small role, but it was memorable. Reportedly, Fellini wanted to use her more in the film, but she was contracted to leave Rome to start work on her next horror movie, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” (1962).
Being a slow and meticulous director, Fellini’s “8½” (1963) was not released until 1963. (Later, when Barbara was cast in lesser roles in lesser movies, she would tell the directors: “I’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world. I’ve worked with Fellini!”).
However, other non-horror-performances after 8½ didn’t light up her career, there was “The Hours of Love” (1963), “A Sentimental Attempt” (1963), “Le Voci Bianche” (1964), “I Soldi” (1965), the anthology-movies “The Maniacs” (1964), “Les Baisers” (1964), “Amore Facile” (1964), “Tre per una Rapina” (1964), “The Monocle” (1964) – during which Steele allegedly earned disrespect from lead Paul Meurisse for being a horror actress.
During this time she also made more Horror movies such as “The Ghost” (1963), “Castle Of Blood” (1963), “The Long Hair Of Death” (1964), “Terror Creatures From The Grave” (1965), “Nightmare Castle” (1965), “She-Beast” (1966) and “An Angel For Satan” (1966). This success led to her being typecast in the horror genre, where she more often than not appeared in Italian movies with a dubbed voice.
Unfortunately Steele didn’t get the serious roles she deserved, it started immediately after “Young Törless”, “For Love and Gold” (1966), a comedy about an unlikely knight. Steele played a sadomasochistic Byzantine princess in this feature. Other films were made in the late 1960’s like “Fermate Il Mondo … Voglio Scendere” (1968), La Amante Estelar (1968), the TV-movie “Honeymoon With A Stranger” (1969) The nadir was appearing in “Curse Of The Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult” (1968), which was mainly eye candy, with scantily-clad women in a cult. Steele plays a witch in green bodypaint and it also features the talent of horror heavies Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough.
Unfortunately, Barbara got sick of being typecast in horror movies. One of the screen’s greatest horror stars, she said in an interview: “I never want to climb out of another freakin’ coffin again!” This was sad news for her legion of horror fans; it was also a false-step for Barbara as far as a career move.
At the end of the 1960’s Steele met screenwriter James Poe, and the two fell in love and eventually got married. When scripting They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), Poe wrote the role of ‘Alice LeBlanc’ specifically with her in mind – but director Sydney Pollack begged to differ and eventually gave the role to Susannah York. After this disappointment, Steele took a five year break from the big screen, and her only acting assignment during that time was an episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery – The Sins Of The Fathers” (1972) set in 19th Century Wales – as if to be in tune with Steele’s gothic roles.
In 1974, Steele finally returned to the big screen with “Caged Heat”, the Roger Corman feature, a women-in-prison flick starring Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith, Ella Reid and Erica Gavin. Steele plays a wheelchair bound warden, it’s only a supporting role in this one but her performance still left an impression even though some thought she was miscast.
She then starred in David Cronenberg’s first horror film “Shivers/They Came from Within/The Parasite Murders” (1975), a film about parasites turning the inhabitants of an apartment complex into maniacs. Barbara Steele once again
played supporting role, this time as a lesbian.
In 1977, she once again appeared in a film by Roger Corman, based on the true story of a mentally ill woman, “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” (1977). Unfortunately, her scenes wound up on the cutting room floor.
“Pretty Baby” followed in 1978, the story of a photographer, who, while photographing the prostitutes of a brothel, becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old whore-to-be, played by Brooke Shields. Steele was in the background the whole time, her talent wasted.
Barbara Steele can also be seen in another movie by a French director from 1978, Yves Boisset’s drama “The Key is in the Door”, but as with many of her attempts to break into arthouse cinema, Steele’s role is to small to really impress. The horror genre always welcomed her back with open arms, she came, not surprisingly, in Roger Corman-production, Joe Dante’s “Piranha” from 1978.
A horror-satire about piranhas attacking an US-American holiday resort, mostly seen as a parody of the blockbuster Jaws (1975), Steele plays the mad scientist who started it all and proves why she is one of the top actresses of the genre. She and James Poe later got divorced in 1978, he sadly died two years later, they had one child, a son named Jonathan Jackson Poe who was born in August 1971.
This was followed by “Silent Scream” (1979) it features not only Barbara Steele but also Yvonne De Carlo, both essentially playing psychos. Sadly she once again abandoned the horror genre altogether for the remainder of the 1980’s, instead Steele got into the production side of filmmaking.
She started with “The Winds Of War” in 1983, a TV-miniseries about the lives of several characters entangled with the events leading to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 starring Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw, Jan-Michael Vincent, Topol, Ralph Bellamy and Peter Graves, among others.
That series, directed by Dan Curtis with her acting as associate producer (plus, she had a small role in it), brought Steele quite some critical acclaim and was nominated for four Golden Globes and 13 Emmys (three of which it won, cinematography, costumes and special visual effects).
A sequel to “The Winds Of War” followed in 1988, “War And Remembrance”, directed by Dan Curtis and Tommy Groszman, with Barbara Steele once again in the producer’s chair. This miniseries was even better received, winning three Golden Globes (best mini-series and two of the series’ supporting actors, John Gielgud and Barry Bostwick, winning their award in a tie). Plus, at the Emmys, Barbara Steele was actually able to accept the award for Outstanding Miniseries (the series also collected the awards for best editing and best special visual effects by the way).
The series as such immediately follows the events of The Winds of War, with the USA entering World War II as a reaction to the attack of Pearl Harbor, with the fates of all the main characters chronicled. War and Remembrance once again stars Robert Mitchum, plus Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner, Topol, Ralph Bellamy, before-mentioned John Gielgud and Barry Bostwick, plus Sharon Stone. And once again, Barbara Steele reserved a small role for herself.
Steele’s association with producer Dan Curtis on “The Winds Of War” and “War And Remembrance” eventually lured her back to the horror genre in 1991. Horror fans were delighted as she accepted a role in the revival of the beloved 1960s supernatural soap opera TV-series “Dark Shadows”. Steele plays a doctor in this series trying to cure the lead character of vampirism, In a storyline set in the 18th century, Steele also plays another character.
While the series was long-awaited by fans of the original and initially a big hit even, the Gulf War, which was breaking out at the time of the series’ original airing, caused massive rescheduling and confusion of fans until the series had lost all momentum, and eventually it was cancelled after just one season.
In 1994, Steele’s career took her to Austria to star in “Deep Above”, a bizarre mix of gothic motives and musical, zombies and romance, set in front of the pittoresque Styrian Alps, the main problem of the film is it never got a proper release in any medium. She also starred in Clive Barkers documentary “A-Z Of Horror” in 1997.
Barbara Steele’s next film was “The Prophet”, an action flick another film produced by Roger Corman. Barbara Steele starred as a CIA-agent who has experimented on children, then tries to eliminate her test persons and has to face the consequences at the hands of Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson.
It would be 9 years before she returned to the screen with the anthology film “The Boneyard Collection” (2008) and in the same year “Her Morbid Desires” (2008) was released, a horror comedy that plays with the reputation of many a genre star, including Ray Harryhausen, Tippi Hedren, Kevin McCarthy, Wiliam Smith, Cassandra Peterson alias Elvira, and Brinke Stevens.
Her last film to date was in 2012 with a lead role in “The Butterfly Room” where she starred alongside Ray Wise and fellow beloved Scream Queen Heather Langenkamp.
It’s said that she has finally come to terms with her horror image and now has a rather self-ironic attitude towards it. At the age of 77 she’s still beloved by fans worldwide.
“I usually played these roles where I represented the dark side. I was always a predatory bitch goddess in all of these movies, and with all kinds of unspeakable elements. Then what is life without a dark side? The driving force of drama is the dark side”. – Barbara Steele