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Interview: Barbara Steele

At the end of the 1960s, the world’s reigning horror queen, Barbara Steele, announced her retirement from the screen. Thankfully, the green-eyed, raven-haired beauty returned to the horror genre in the mid-70s, but before she did, she spoke at length to regular HoH contributor, Tony Crawley.

Today, she is still a horror star thanks to her occasional genre roles and the welcome appearance on of some of her gothic and Italian Classics.

Here, she speaks with an honesty and frankness that makes this interview as refreshing and interesting as her career as the classic 1960s horror actress.

I swear I’m never going to climb out of another coffin as long as I live.”

And, sad to report, she never did; until she was put through the modern horror wringer again in Caged Heat (1974), helpless and hapless in a wheelchair, and in Shivers (1974), again helpless and nude in a bathtub.

Neither film did much more than feed on the cult that surrounds her, holds her, even now in semi-retirement, in a vice-like grip. But then Europe alone really knew how to make startling use of her winning penchant for the demonic in screen roles.

Never mind Barbara Shelley, even less so Ingrid Pitt or Jamie Lee Curtis – Steele is the premiere actress in the world to have starred, survived and excelled in the male chauvinist domain known as the horror film. For which she is ever loved (even feared) throughout the Continent, worshipped by one frenzied group of Parisian critics, adored by a similar caucus in the United States… while remaining virtually unknown, certainly ignored in her native Britain. Ignored, that is, by all except her cluster of faithful followers.

The name: Barbara Steele. Or to her fans: Barbaric Steele.

Alias: Miss Dracula… The Queen of Terror. Or, as once described by those French (of course) as the logical daughter of any union between Christopher Lee and Cyd Charisse…!

Barbara earned these handles – and her endless fame – in a string of (mainly) Italian horror films. Thud’n’blunder items, full of things that went eek! – or ecce – in the night, saved only by her indomitable presence, always less lurid than her catchpenny titles. The Spectre.The Long Hair of DeathFive Graves for a MediumRevenge of the Blood Beast.

The titles switched from country to country, but Barbara’s appeal travelled better. Even a trifle called simply and succinctly Orgasm. That one was finally unleashed in Britain as The Faceless Monster. Hardly a fitting subtitle for Barbara who has a face that is… well, devilishly beautiful. And a profane figure to match.

Above all else, the eyes most definitely had it. Wide open, terrified as she screamed lustily inside torture cabinets; hypnotic as she lured men to their deaths; incandescent as she devoured whatever lay in her path – plots, co-stars and less than meaty scripts. It was left to Barbara to put meat on them.

She was, and remains the perfect Carmilla… The complete feminine opposite of a Cushing or Lee, Price or Karloff, though forever to be found starring in second-rate pot-boilers. Lack of money, for instance, cancelled two interesting projects in 1965. She had been cast opposite Lee in Fulvio Tului’s La Diabolika Lady; and Nicholas Ray (the man behind James Dean’s finest picture, Rebel Without a Cause) had paired her with Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Chaplin for The Doctor and the Devils. Bank managers apparently, weren’t convinced of the potential offered them…

But low-budget or not, there’s many a mini-classic among her credits:The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, for example, or Mike Reeves’ creepy send-up Revenge of the Blood Beast; or even Cronenberg’s goryShivers. These films dated in the main from the mid-60s days when Rome’s movie colony defied Hammer’s stranglehold upon the market of mythological menace.

The tragedy is that, somehow, Hammer and Steele never fused. It was a consummation devoutly wished for, but she was never invited to join the gang of old terror faithfuls at Bray or Elstree. This remains Hammer’s biggest blight on an otherwise impeccable cinematic history. Indeed, Barbara’s first return to London as a star – her first such visit for a horror role – proved to be the last touch of anything akin to Gothicism in her career: Tigon Films’ The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), opposite Karloff and Lee.

At the time, she moaned about the lack of decent and sensual roles for women in any screen genre in Britain, the horror-scene included. When she left, Ingrid Pitt moved into Chris Lee’s Hammer spot. Miss Pitt offered sex: naked, unadorned and undistinguished. Miss Steele had been offering eroticism. British producers, as usual, never appreciated the difference.

And so, Barbara intoned her celebrated remarks about quitting coffins for a living and not being able to eat off cults, got married and went to reside in the United States; and there’s been something extra-special missing on the Gothic front ever since. She’d never intended to be an actress, much less a horror queen, but after Pinewood tried to turn her into a starlet and Hollywood’s lotus-life lost its charm, she ended up in Italy… and everything began to fit into place.

HoH: First question has to be: why retire?

Steele: I didn’t decide it. One doesn’t come to absolute decisions like that; I just found I said no-thank-you to anything anyone asked me to do. There’s nothing worse than the fading girlhood bit in one’s late 20’s. I thought, well, I’ll just wait until Annie Giradot or someone drops off the scene and I’ll step in. Like Hermione Gingold I’ll start again at 90!

Do you miss it?

Not the working-for-the-rent kind of acting. But I miss the activity, the way of life, yes. As it was in Italy, it was very charming. I loved the crews. And the chaos! But I couldn’t live with myself doing the kind of work I was doing. I would work now if I had something interesting. I like the scene now. It’s changing so much. The idea of young groups of intimate people getting together to make movies – I like that.

Why did you choose acting – just the logical extension of your progressive education?

Not at all. I had no intention of going into acting. I wanted to be Picasso.

Old and wrinkled?

Who cares about that with those eyes?… I thought it would be nice to paint in Paris and as one needs money for that I thought the quickest way to make money would be to be an actress. So I went to a repertory company and said: “Here I am”; they said: “Oh well, that’s all right then. We’ll give you five quid a week for the summer.” That seemed a fortune and that’s what I did. On Brighton Pier.

Where Rank turned up and signed you for the Charm School?

Yes, I became the last female signed up by Rank.

They didn’t know what to do with females then.

No; they were just embarrassed by women in those days. They felt anybody with any kind of femininity, womanliness, should have French accents. They could never be English!

Still you did, what, five films? Starting with Bachelor of Hearts in 1958. At least that’s when I first met you.

Oh yeah. I know I was a babe in arms when we met. That was in my virgin days.

Next thing, you were in all the headlines. Cary Grant wanted to put you under contract. Rank said no, then turned around and sold you to 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. At least that’s the gist of it.

Just about… Though Rank didn’t say no to Cary Grant. They just charged a fortune. They asked for something insane, like a film a year plus £80,000, while I was earning ten pounds a week from them. It was so disproportionate. I think they thought he was in love with me and would pay any price.

In America, of course, everybody wants what their next-door-neighbor wants. So when Fox heard he was putting in that bid, they did the same. They paid £20,000 or something and bought my contract. And I went to Hollywood and sat on a bench for two years.

During which time, they obviously tried to change you into another plastic doll on the factory conveyor belt.

Right! They had this preconceived idea that women were all glossy lips. They’d say: We’d better pin your ears back. We’d better make you blonde. You don’t have any décolletage. Then came the orders: Don’t be seen around with him because… Don’t walk around the lot in high heels – they thought I was too tall and they all feel terribly short there. It was such a joke. All those fantastic clichés you read about inDay of the Locust. Except it was so much more of a cliché than you imagined it.

How did you escape to Italy?

Fortunately for me, the actors’ strike happened. A complete shut-down in Hollywood. The studios couldn’t pay anyone so we were like free for four months. They couldn’t stop you doing anything you wanted to! I went to Italy… and this film turned up.

The film that started the horror cycle for you, the start of being a cult figure, in fact; a cult and a cycle which, sadly, you always ached to be rid of.

That’s only too true… The first one was Mask of the Demon – that was the original title, but these things change names around the world. I did it in a panic. After not working for two years you take any film. There’s nothing worse than too much self-exposure.

How did the others happen? For instance, next was Roger Corman’sPit and the Pendulum back in Hollywood.

That was just the result of the first one being seen. I just went back in order to make money. Do I have to talk about these films?

Well, retired or not, the cult around you remains…

I wish you wouldn’t let on about it! Tell them Barbara Steele is really Elsa Poppins! OK, where were we? Pit – that ended my Fox contract. They broke the contract when I walked out of a movie they put me in. The whole thing blew up into an enormous scandal in Hollywood. It was an Elvis Presley movie: Flaming Swords or something. [Flaming Star]. I had a tremendous fight on the third day of shooting, drove straight to the airport and flew to New York, and called them up the next morning. “I won’t be in make-up,” I said, “because I’m here in New York.” They said was it snowing or something! Then they added: “Come back or we’ll sue you for the money we gave you.” “Well, do,” I told them, “because I’ve spent it and I’m never coming back.” That was it. They let me go because it was easier…

What had been your role?

I was this dyed blonde, hard-browed, hard brute, lousy Texas sister or something. Barbara Eden completed the part.

From New York to Rome, then, and the wild succession of horror films…

Well that isn’t so, really… not even primarily. It was simultaneously with other films. For example, I did two in a row, sure and then I made 8½ for Fellini. Then another one, followed by some love stories, or thrillers and so on in France. The thing is, the horrors are the only films one hears about, which is just a frigging drag. I always used to think they’d end up only in Sicily. It’s not so. They end up at the Odeon while all the things you did for love and nothing end up in late-night showings at the Tokyo Film Festival! But I did mix it up a lot. In fact, from my first horror film to my last, it was always: “Now this is my exit. This is my last – Goodbye!” So then, you make another three films for love and somebody comes along with a horror thing and a great sorta bunch of money and you think – this is ridiculous! It’s incredible that one doesn’t have control over one’s destiny at all.

Chris was always calling me up saying, “I’ve had enough of seeing all the producers get all the money, why don’t we produce a film ourselves?” We used to have drunken lunch together about once a year and lay plans to make a really gorgeous horror movie. There really hasn’t been a classic made since the 30s…

Why don’t you set it up?

Why not? It would be quite simple. A lot of taste, minimal melodrama. There’s always far too much screaming, too much noise in routine horror films. And far too little sex. Weird isn’t it but there’s very little sex in these films. Except suppressed sex.

Well, when you were on the screen it was there on a platter – except on-one was eating!

Strange… They should make a really super, bang-up erotic horror film. But, of course, they confuse vulgarity with eroticism.

Censorship is getting more and more free…

Unbelievably so! You know the Italian director Tinto Brass? Just before I quit, he offered me a fortune – so much cash I thought he was nuts! – to star in a totally pornographic movie. I mean, you know, with full close-ups of… you know. It’s his film version of the book L’Image by Pauline Reage; same person who wrote The Story of O, the very famous French pornographic book. Beautifully written books, obviously by some top-grade writer under the pseudonym. Most people say its Jean-Paul Sartre…

Why didn’t you do it?

I didn’t have the guts! I’m glad to have been offered it, I suppose, and (who knows?) one day I might regret turning it down. I’d approve of anyone else doing it and I imagine there would be quite a lot willing to do so. Brass didn’t want an unknown because then it would have been just another pornographic picture. He wanted a known actress.

To be anonymous is such a luxury, so I felt it was a question of self-preservation, of being able to live with oneself, not hypocrisy, in refusing it.

If you returned to films, you would be reconciled then to the fact that sex is here to stay?

Oh sure. I would also do a totally erotic love scene – even, maybe, make love with the actor – if that was right for the script and if the film was not merely promoting sex.

I think sex has its own context. Nothing is all sex. Or all anything. Sex has its own threat, its own violence, its own poetry. It’s entirely personal. But it is always more difficult to find somebody you’d like to wake up with… than somebody you’d like to make love with.

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This is a Web Exclusive article, reprinted with the kind permission of Dez Skinn and Quality Comics.

About David L Rattigan

David L Rattigan is a British-Canadian freelance writer with interests ranging from religion, film, and language. His published writing includes Leaving Fundamentalism (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008, ed. G Elijah Dann), and articles for Third Way magazine and The Guardian’s Comment is Free website. He shares his love of Hammer horror at DictionaryofHammer.com

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