The first time I ever saw Black Sunday, the American version of the Italian horror classic La Maschera del Demonio, was at a drive-in with (I believe) Konga as a double feature. The year 1960 was a particularly banner year for genre films, when you consider within that 12-month period we would see not only Hitchcock’s Psycho and Corman’s House of Usher, but this really intense black-and-white nightmare from first-time director Mario Bava. Imagine being 11 years old while witnessing a woman being tied to a stake and then impaled by a hooded muscleman using a hammer to attach an iron mask, filled inside with spikes, to the helpless woman in bondage. Even in black and white the blood that spurts out from the face after the hammer strikes is as shocking as the shower sequence in Psycho – and this comes within the first ten minutes of the film!
Black Sunday is not without its faults: the acting of the male lead John Richardson is lacklustre, since he was hired for his beauty, not his skills as a leading man. The supporting cast fares better, since, except for Richardson and his leading lady Barbara Steele, the rest of the cast are seasoned Italian actors who know their business.
It is with Barbara Steele that the cult surrounding this film really begins. She was a Rank starlet from England, as in fact was her leading man John Richardson. She had been groomed by Rank for starlet roles that never really seemed to suit her unusual beauty; even in glorified walk-ons in English programmers like Bachelor of Hearts, Barbara stood out like a spider on a valentine. What Mario Bava achieved in casting her was nothing short of black magic, because he understood at once that her bone structure, matched with those enormous eyes, would be iconic in the guise of a vampire/witch lusting for revenge while trapped undead in her marble casket.
I have been very lucky when it comes to meeting personalities that I admired from my youthful drive-in days in Sacramento, and Black Sunday would be no exception. Barbara Steele has undoubtedly figured into many youthful male fantasies over the decades, especially for those of us that saw this film in 1960 at the impressionable age advertised with a warning in the American ad campaigns: “No one under 12 will be admitted without an adult.” This was almost never enforced, I assure you, as most every male fan I have ever encountered in the half-century since Black Sunday premiered in the States saw it alone or with his peers.
The film made the totally unknown Barbara into a star, at least for the duration of the 60’s, in her newly-adopted home of Italy. During this time Barbara dined with Gore Vidal, was seen reading intellectual books at sidewalk cafes with Antonio Moravia between shooting her scenes in Fellini’s Otto e mezzo (8 ½). The downside of all this attention was, of course, the false sense of being at one with the intelligentsia ofRome and far above the Technicolor graveyards that beckoned from every corner of the European film industry. They saw in her persona exactly what she had become under the direction of Mario Bava: a fetish Horror queen who possessed an otherworldly beauty that glowed with occult possibilities. Barbara, still in her 20s, was seen as a very neurotic, willful eccentric who broke hearts and contracts in equal measure. She turned down everything that was offered her in the horror genre until she realized that not every film offered had a pedigree like Fellini’s. In reality she did a baker’s dozen of Gothic horror films inItaly between 1960 and 1967.
I would finally meet this diva of darkness in the summer of 1976 through the efforts of my soon-to-be partner Christopher Dietrich. Chris was another of her fans that saw Black Sunday at an early age and never ever got over it. Barbara became an obsession of Chris’s from that day forward. He told me that the first time he saw the film he remained in the theater all day long, seeing the film four times before finally leaving after the final performance. This ritual was being repeated in cinemas all over the country. It was not until the 1980s that I would understand how widespread this obsession had become with young men who had all seen Black Sunday when they were 12 years old. Around 1985 the American Cinematheque honored Mario Bava with a retrospective; during the first evening’s screening of Black Sunday I was sitting in the theater which was filled to capacity with (I kid you not) an entire theater totally devoid of women, with 30-something bearded men (and a few without facial hair) all reliving this childhood grief in concert, a brotherhood of Bava/Steele devotees.
My first meeting with Barbara Steele took place in a two-story house in the Westwood/Wilshire district of Los Angeles. Chris had already met with her in Malibu earlier in the year, as she was in the process of divorcing screenwriter James Poe and moving back into Beverly Hills, where she would remain to this day. Barbara had a son, Jonathan, who was about seven years old at the time of our first meeting. I had fussed for days trying to organize this first encounter. I discovered that she was close to Stuart Whitman, who was the godfather to her only son, and his ex-wife Carolina was one of her best friends as well. As luck would have it one of Stuart’s sons, Tony, was an acquaintance of mine so I asked him to join our little group, hoping this might elevate the encounter to a notch above an autograph convention. In those days I was still such a fan and meeting someone like Barbara Steele, who had always seemed so remote and otherworldly—well, you just never thought of her going to the DMV like ordinary mortals. However that attitude was about to change, and forever. The night of the first encounter was so exciting, as I had no idea what she would be like; plus, since all of her films had been dubbed I really did not know what she would sound like in person other than a very brief phone conversation which allowed me to hear that somewhat odd British accent for the first time.
It all seems like a bit of a daze now trying to remember that evening. She arrived a bit late of course, with her boyfriend-of-the-moment, a handsome TV actor named Anthony Herrera who had just played a detective in the TV movie about the Manson/Tate murders with Steve Railsback as Manson. Barbara was everything I could have hoped for in person: she was bright, funny, modest and very shy about her career. She loved the attention she was getting from my assembled guests and soon let her hair down after we collectively finished off about six bottles of champagne. The first thing I noticed was her relief that we were not wildly overzealous horror fanatics (at least we didn’t come off that way to her, thank God). Barbara was at this time convinced that if she could secure a role in a non-Horror film she still might crack the Hollywood system of typecasting that haunted actors like Christopher Lee and, of course, the iconic Bela Lugosi. I went to great pains to reassure her that it was her persona in the Fellini film that we all adored, not giving way to the truth—which, of course, was none of us present had ever gotten over her screen debut with those otherworldly eyes of hers staring out of her coffin with a glass window fixed above her face so the cross placed above it would prevent her resurrection, her glance promising the pleasures of Hell. No other actress in the history of cinema ever had such an introduction to the world stage of personality like Barbara was given by Mario Bava. The late director had given his share of interviews explaining his side of her appeal. Bava always felt that she never understood what he had done for her, launching her as no other actress had ever been into this exclusively male world of horror icons. “Fellini spoiled her and as a result of this she thought she was too good for such films.” The truth about Fellini is that there are no stars in a Fellini film other than Fellini. The exception to the rule was always Marcello Mastroianni who remained a star with or without Fellini’s attention. Marcello would write his own memoirs a few years later citing Barbara as a prime example of Fellini’s indifference to his actors. “Poor Barbara never had a chance after Fellini’s attentions gave her the wrong impression as to her importance in the film, cutting her scenes until she had very little left in the final film.” Fellini was also well known for not really launching any of his discoveries beyond the film they were doing for him at the moment. Case in point: whatever became of the male leads of Amarcord or Satyricon? Mario Bava would never work with Barbara again although the two names are forever connected by the film that made them both worldwide icons of the horror genre.
After that first meeting Barbara seemed to open up more and more regarding her feelings about trying to exist in Hollywood when her heart and soul, as she kept telling me, was in Europe. “I am a European, David. I need to smell the antique decay of those avenues in Paris.” She did not have the same feelings for England however. “I see those vacant eyes staring back at me whenever I ride the underground all those people there are in a state of grief for a country that no longer cares what happens to anybody that is not rich and upper class.” As far as her recollections about the making of Black Sunday, it was somewhat like trying to discuss the first Dracula film with Chris Lee; she respected the fact that her entire fan base came from that one film and that it was stunning to look at, but horror films to her could never approach the intellectual high she had achieved with Fellini and living in Italy at that time she was wined and dined by all the great directors of the day—including having a very complicated relationship with Louie Malle. Malle finally gave Barbara a part in his Pretty Baby out of respect for her having turned him on to the book in the first place. “If only Louis had given me 10 more minutes of screen time I might have salvaged my career.”
Barbara’s relationship with admirers and horror fans has always been a bit bizarre. When she was at the height of her fame in Italy an invitation arrived by messenger from the newly appointed dictator of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi to join him for an informal brunch. Barbara recalled that the entire affair was lavish but a bit off-putting since each chair had an armed guard stationed by it fully equipped with submachine guns. Hers was a glamorous life, there is no doubt. In those days she had tea with Noel Coward, midnight walks along the Thames with Charlie Chaplin and a long term affair with Antony Quinn in the process. By the time I got to know her she was well into the horror fan stage with weekly requests for autographed photos of herself from BLACK SUNDAY. While we were preparing for her first convention appearance at Chiller Theater in New Jersey, she received a request from one young man from Milwaukee Wisconsin named Jeffery Dahmer who specifically asked for an autographed photo of her with the holes in her face from the infamous prologue of her most famous film. Of course he got one and she saved his letter. Enough of these and Barbara could start her own black museum. This kind of attention from demented fans caused her to remark on Clive Barker’s BBC program “I don’t know who these fans of mine think they are addressing? They place a kind of persona into my image that has nothing whatsoever to do with me as a person in real life. I think they are all suffering from some childhood grief and in some way I address that aspect of their repression and fear.”
One of my favorite of her stories regarding Black Sunday is the one she liked to tell about her make-up girl who diligently prepared her for the dual roles she had to play (whether or not she did the most famous make-up, the one with all the holes in her face left by the mask of Satan which was pounded into her, remains to be seen). In any case, as Barbara explained to me, “This poor girl was involved with a very abusive boyfriend who beat her and felt she was cheating on him with all the men on or off the set. She would come to work with bruises on her neck where he tried to strangle her. It was just insane and one day she did not come on set at all and I became very concerned so I went to the producers and expressed my fears to them. As it turned out the girl was found later that week shot to death by this madman, and what was so wicked about the whole affair was he shot her in the vagina!” Whether this story is really true is something I will never know for sure but it is so typical of Steele’s off-kilter way of looking at the world. She also told me that during the last scenes where she is tied to the stake as the evil Princess Asa her dress caught fire for real and she could very plainly hear Mario Bava telling his cameraman to “Keep filming no matter what!” As many biographers have discovered in interviewing Barbara over the years she loves to tell stories and will sometimes color her recollections in favor of what month the film was done. For years she maintained it was in the coldest of winters, yet production records have shown it was in the late summer of 1960, so at this point you have to decide what to believe. She was all of 23 when she made the film and that was now over half a century ago. I have watched the film with her at least three times over the years and she has finally come to terms with it being her legacy, yet remembering what it was really like to film is like—as she puts it—“Remembering details of my first prom.”
When Barbara and I did sit down and try and analyze her most infamous film she made the point of describing the atmosphere that she encountered in Rome that year as “optimistic, joyous and bright. I felt so connected and endorsed by the Italians, yet it was underscored by this uncanny dread and fear that the Italians have lived with for centuries. I felt like I was becoming a character in a D’annuzio novel.” I remarked that she was never very effective playing virgins, which of course made her laugh. I felt that her characterization of Princess Asa ranked right up there with Count Dracula and Lady Macbeth in terms of a monster. What makes Barbara Steele’s persona so unique among other things is the fact that no other actress in the cinema is known for playing such a role. Most of the women known for appearing in horror films are regarded as “scream queens”; in other words they are for the most part all victims of a force or monster rather than ever becoming one. The only notable exception is Gloria Holden in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER and of course she never made another one like it for the rest of her career. I have shown this film to Barbara and for a time we dreamed of her remaking it since Holden was like her cinematic mother in many ways.
Barbara always refers to Mario Bava in very respectful terms and yet we will most likely never really know what transpired between them that summer in 1960, except to say they made an impact on one another that for reasons known only to them would never be repeated. I had heard rumors that Bava had wanted her to play opposite Christopher Lee in the director’s The Whip and the Body, a role that ultimately went to Daliah Lavi. It was a part Barbara could have really taken to the next level in Sadian cinema had she chosen to accept. Bava complained at the time that Barbara was “always late arriving on the set.” He found her difficult and unresponsive to things like wearing fangs, etc. However, in her defense, Bava never really wanted to make a vampire film per se because the vampire myth is not really an Italian thing to begin with. Bava was really creating a ghostly fairy tale within a centuries-old class struggle between the “padrone,” the aristocrat who lives in the castle lording over a village like Burt Lancaster did in Visconti’s “The Leopard”. These lords were vampiric in the way they drained the lifeblood from the people. The two evil vampire creatures that come back to life in Black Sunday are far more vibrant and cunning than their ancestors that now inhabit Castle Vajda. The current Prince is weak and filled with a dread he has no chance of overcoming. The role of Princess Katia is also a bit of a bore as she is in a constant state of anxiety or is unable to consummate her feelings for the handsome doctor who catches her eye in the ruined abbey when we first see her. Barbara would never have become a star if this was all she played in the film. I often wonder how it would have been if she had played only the evil Princess and some other ingénue had played her ancestor. Barbara would have been the first all-out vampire priestess in a film since Gloria Holden’s tour de force in 1936, ironically a year before Barbara Steele was born.
Now that the European cut of the film is available it will never seem quite right to me since I grew up with the AIP cut of the film, including the Les Baxter score and dubbing that seems right. By comparison the European opening credits reminded me of one of those K. Gordon Murray revamps of those Mexican horror movies we all saw on television back in the day, as age overcomes the youthful innocence that first allowed me to sit in the dark and dream of this dark world in which life and death could be divided in black and white. Mario Bava is finally given his proper place as a poet of the horror genre with several of his films regarded as classics of their kind. Bava created such a unique funerary glow around the lens of his camera, framing his diva against gothic tapestries, infecting the camera with a tangible sense of anxiety and dread. He took Barbara Steele’s unique face, a combination of wide glaring eyes combined with high cheekbones which seemed to inform her persona with erotic seduction and vengeful Sadism in equal measure; Bava literally turned her into perhaps his greatest special effect.
One night after a dinner party at Barbara’s we sat in her living room, which contains in one corner of her living room a giant cross she bought in Mexico, complete with a crucified Jesus (which, she being Barbara, festooned with red chili pepper lights, creating a somewhat unholy Christmas tree). It was in this atmosphere, fueled by countless glasses of red wine that I asked her if she ever believed in the Devil or vampires. She gave me one of her best horror queen looks with one eyebrow raised, the way she liked to do in films like Castle of Blood. “David, you are such a goblin, aren’t you? Well the answer is yes, I do. One day when I was still in my make-up as Princess Asa I sat down in front my dressing table and looked into the mirror and froze as if ice were put down my back. For one moment I cast no reflection whatsoever in that mirror. It is always unwise to use movies as your guide for reality.” With that she threw her head back and laughed like the Devil…