Steele, Barbara

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Barbara steele as the vampire princess in the film Black Sunday.

Steele, Barbara (1938–)

(pop culture)

Barbara Steele, a horror movie star of the 1960s and 1970s, was born in Liverpool, England. After acting in several movies, Sapphire (1958) and Bachelor of Hearts (1958), she moved to Hollywood to work for 20th Century Fox. In the early 1960s, with Hollywood writers on strike, she traveled to Italy where she found work starring in director Mario Bava‘s first movie, La Maschera de Demonio (released in English as Black Sunday), based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Vig”. This single movie, which happened to be a vampire feature, made her a horror star and soon became her most famous role, the seventeenth-century vampiric witch Princess Asa and her double, Princess Katia. The story began with the whipping and execution of the princess and her consort. Princess Asa, as played by Steele, defiantly showed her anger until a mask lined with spikes was driven into her face. The scene then abruptly changed to the nineteenth century. Two travelers were stranded in front of a castle ruin where their carriage broke down. They explored the castle and discovered the crypt that housed Princess Asa’s body.

One of the travelers removed the mask and a cross that had been placed in the body. When an accidental cut allowed the traveler’s blood to drop on the corpse, Princess Asa and her lover were revived. Meanwhile, the other traveler met Princess Katia, the witch’s great granddaughter. The situation was thus created for the renewed confrontation between good and evil, represented by Steele’s two characters, which provided the main plot of the film. Within the larger context, however, Steele brought the plot to life by her embodiment of a number of ambiguities: beauty hiding decay and sensuality in the midst of horror.

In 1961, Steele briefly returned to Hollywood to play Vincent Price’s wife in Roger Corman‘s The Pit and the Pendulum. She played an unfaithful wife trying to drive her husband mad. Although she received good reviews in the United States, Steele returned to Europe to appear in a string of horror movies during the next few years, including The Horrible Dr.

Hitchcock (1962), The Ghost (1962), and I Lunghi Capelli della Morte (1964). Along the way, she also appeared in a number of non-horror movies, the most prominent were Federico’s Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1962) and Young Torless (1966) with German director Volker Schlondorff. Her work in these films, however, was overshadowed by her horror roles and the adulation showered upon her by horror fans.

Of her horror roles during the 1960s, five were in vampire movies: Castle of Blood (1964), Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965), Nightmare Castle (1965), An Angel for Satan (1966), and Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966). Castle of Blood, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, took place in a castle inhabited by spirits of the dead, one of whom was played by Steele. These spirits appeared every November 2 to re-experience their deaths and to obtain the blood of the living, a prerequisite if they hoped to return the following year. In Nightmare Castle, Steele played a murdered wife who returned to avenge herself against her former husband. The vampiric theme was evident also in The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (1962). The movie’s title character attempted to drain Steele’s blood to allow another woman to stay young.

After completing Revenge of the Blood Beast, Steele married James Poe and began a period of relative inactivity, although in 1968 she took a part in The Crimson Cult. She had hoped to get the lead in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? for which her husband wrote the screenplay, but the part was given to Susannah York. During the 1980s, Steele became acquainted with producer Dan Curtis and assumed roles in his popular television miniseries, The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988–1989). She served as the associate producer of the former and a producer of the latter. Steele’s work led to her most recent role in a vampire production. In 1990, Curtis sold the idea of bringing the very successful daytime soap opera of the 1960s, Dark Shadows, back to television as a 1991 prime-time series. Ben Cross was chosen to play vampire Barnabas Collins, and Steele was given the role of Dr. Julia Hoffman, the physician who tried to cure him of his vampiric condition. In the process, Dr. Hoffman fell in love with Collins. The show featured a 1790s storyline in which Steele portrayed another character, Natalie DuPrés. Unfortunately, the new Dark Shadows series was canceled after only twelve episodes.

Steele has expressed some ambiguous feelings about her horror career.

She would prefer to be remembered for all of her acting roles, but has acknowledged the fame that her image as a “scream queen” brought to her.

Essentially retired by the end of the 1990s, she has done but one movie since the beginning of the new century, a small part in the vampire flick, Her Morbid Desires (2008).

Sources:

Deitrich, Christopher, and Peter Beckman. “Barbara Steele.” Imagi-Movies (Winter 1993/94): 34–43; Part 2: 1, 3 (Spring 1994).
Miller, Mark A. “Barbara Steele.” Filmfax 19 (March 1990): 63–71, 94.
References in periodicals archive ?
She was predeceased by five brothers, Jesse Mayo, Leonard Mayo, Paul Mayo, Louis Mayo III and John Mayo; and four sisters, Dora Backman, Eva Steele, Barbara Gullette and Mary Jean Dennett.
They sell thousands of pies a week and fans include Tommy Steele, Barbara Windsor, Jonathan Ross and Chas 'n' Dave.
She was predeceased by five brothers, the late Jesse Mayo, Leonard Mayo, Paul Mayo, Louis Mayo III, and John Mayo; and four sisters, the late Dora Backman, Eva Steele, Barbara Gullette, and Mary Jean Dennett.