Reluctant Scream Queen: A Conversation with Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele is, indisputably, one of the first ladies of gothic horror.  With her long dark hair, regal presence and large beautiful eyes, Barbara Steele has been haunting the fantasies of horror fans and cult movie collectors for decades.

Crafting her talent on the British stage at the end of the 1950’s, Barbara Steele’s dark and unholy beauty caught the eyes of talent scouts, which lead her to what would have been her first starring role in film as an unlikely leading lady opposite Elvis Presley in the western Flaming Star.  However, a dispute with director Don Segal left Barbara packing, and she was replaced by Barbara Eden.  One can only wonder how different her career would have been if she had finished the picture.  However, fate would lead Barbara on a much darker path when she was spotted by a young  Italian director named Mario Bava, who cast her in the starring role of his 1960  directorial debut, Black Sunday.  Hailed as one of the finest horror films of the decade, and the greatest film about witchcraft ever made, Black Sunday became an instant gothic masterpiece and both Mario Bava and Barbara Steele sealed their place in the horror hall of fame.   A year later Barbara made her way to America to star opposite Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s production of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, introducing her gothic beauty to an even wider audience.  Soon every horror director in the world seemed to be scrambling to cast Barbara Steele in their next picture.

Barbara Steele in Mario Bavas Black Sunday (1960)

Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960)

Barbara Steele was unlike most women appearing in horror films at the time. Except for a few exceptions in the 1930′s and 1940′s, for the most part actresses in horror films were the damsels in distress who shouted blood curdling screams from the clutches of demons, vampires, swamp monsters and radio active mutants.  But Barbara had a more majestic and darker presence on the screen.  Strong, mysterious and powerful, Barbara embodied the wicked side of women.  She channeled the spirits of Lilith, Delilah and Pandora, making her one of the first Goth queens of pop culture and opening the door to other cult film sirens such as Ingrid Pitt and Soledad Miranda.  Throughout the sixties Barbara Steele would appear in dozens of horror films including The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock, Nightmare Castle, Lovers Beyond the Tomb, Cemetery of the Living Dead, Castle Blood and The Long Hair of Death, each time playing evil temptresses.  Yet, although she found fame in the world of horror films, Barbara grew tired of being typecast in these blood drenched thrillers.  Desiring to branch out into other types of films, Barbara was famously quoted as saying “I never want to climb out of another…coffin again!”  Yet, despite making a number of films not in the horror genre, most notably Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, Barbara’s attempts at distancing herself from the dark world of horror films failed.  Her beautiful and mysterious presence was adored by millions of horror film fans, although it became a real life curse to her.

I met Barbara Steele during the final day at Rue Morgue Magazine’s 2009 Festival of Fear in what was a very busy and often overwhelming weekend.  Still as regal and beautiful as ever, Barbara Steele, accompanied by her son Stephen, spent three long days signing autographs for an endless line of fans and collectors.  Barbara Steele was everything you would expect her to be, but nothing at all that you would imagine.  As elegant and poised as she is on the screen, Barbara had a kind smile and a warmness that you would never see from any of her characters.  Yet, her most famous feature, those soul piercing eyes, were unmistakable.  They still had a hypnotic power that draws you in and remains in your darkest fantasies for years to come.  Despite the busy and hectic environment, Barbara took a few minutes of her time to briefly talk to me about her career, some of the amazing individuals that she has worked with and her frustration over the typecasting that she suffered as a result of her fame in horror films.  Come and join me while I speak with one of the most beautiful women of horror as

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS

RELUCTANT SCREAM QUEEN: 

A CONVERSATION WITH BARBARA STEELE

I spoke with Barbara Steele in August 2009 at Toronto’s FanExpo.

Sam Tweedle:  What got you started in acting?  You started out as an art student, didn’t you?

Barbara Steele:  Yes.  I started in art.  I was very young and painting scenery in a summer repository company and the actress who was in the lead got sick and I knew all the lines.  I had been there every day.  So I took over from her.  What they had in those years were people called talent scouts.  Somebody saw me in the show.  It was in Scotland.  They asked me to sign a contract for Rank.  I did a screen test for Rank Organization and I got a seven year contract, which was bought out by 20th Century Fox.  So I said to Rank that I have to finish my degree.  I can’t possibly do this.  They said “You can finish your degree.  Meanwhile we’ll put you in classes and you can do these tiny little parts in movies” and that’s how I got started.

Sam:  Your first big first film was supposed to be Flaming Star with Elvis Presley.

Barbara:  That’s correct.

Sam:  But you got in a disagreement with director Don Segal.  What prompted you to quit that film?

Barbara Steele as a blonde in Nightmare Castle (1965)

Barbara Steele as a blonde in "Nightmare Castle" (1965)

Barbara:  I had been in [the United States] for ten days and they made me a blonde.  I think they cast me because I was a very good horse back rider.  There was a lot a riding in it, but it was completely different because there is a lot of western saddle in [North America] and I was used to the English saddle.  Anyways, they cast me opposite of [Elvis Presley] as his fiancé and, yes, I dirtied up all my clothes because I had just ridden two hundred miles, according to the script, through a massacre and I didn’t know anything about continuity and everyone went berserk because they didn’t have copies of these clothes.  You were supposed to arrive looking like a vestal virgin although your family had just been slaughtered and had ridden two hundred miles through the desert.  I couldn’t tolerate to being treated like that so I went straight to the airport that night, called my best friend who lived in the same apartment building and I said “You can give away everything I have, including by car.  I just want this one little painting and a few letters” and I called up Fox the next morning and said “If you want to know why I’m not in makeup is because I’m in New York” and they went nuts.  They said “Five days you already shot with Elvis.  You’ll get very little work here again” and I said “That’s okay.”

Sam:  But not long after you found your first big success in film with Mario Bava in Black Sunday.  How did you hook up with Mario Bava?

Barbara:  I think he saw a spread they had of me in Life Magazine and {Mario Bava] asked me to be in [Black Sunday].

Sam:  Although you are known for gothic horror, it’s been written many times that you tried hard to break out of that genre.  You did do Fellini’s 8 ½, but you really resented being cast constantly in horror pictures.  Do you still resent it, and if not, how have you overcome that sort of typecasting.

Barbara:  Well you want to have a broader scope then any one genre.  This is very true for anybody who gets branded at an early age as they are only seen through one lense.  It is very frustrating because you’d like to do comedy or like to do romance, but people have that driving need to see you in what first impacted them.

Sam:  You have a new film coming out.

Barbara:  We haven’t shot it yet but I am about to make a new film called The Butterfly Room which is an Italian/America co-production which will be shot in Los Angeles.

Sam:  Who is that with?

Barbara:  Just with me and a lot of unknowns.

Producer Dan Curtis - Either you loved or loathed Dan.  He was like a very passionate, energized and talented man.

Producer Dan Curtis - "Either you loved or loathed Dan. He was like a very passionate, energized and talented man. "

Sam:  I am a huge fan of Dark Shadows and Dan Curtis, and I know you worked with Dan in a number of productions, as well as closely as his producer.

Barbara:  Yes.  I worked with him in Wings of War and War and Remembrance.  I was the sole producer on Wings of War.

Sam:  What was working with Dan Curtis like?

Barbara:  Obviously it was good for me because I stayed with him for twenty-three years.  Either you loved or loathed Dan.  He was like a very passionate, energized and talented man and I got on very well with him.  We did these two huge shows.  They were staggeringly exhausting.  War and Remembrance is thirty-five and a half hours long!  It’s the same as making fifteen features back to back over sixteen weeks, shooting in eleven countries with eleven currencies and six hundred speaking parts.  It was overwhelming.  Of course Dan adored this.  It made him feel like an emperor and he always wanted to be a general.

Sam:  Did you have a good working relationship with him?

Barbara:  Obviously.  I worked with him twenty-three years.

Sam:  What is the dream project that you would love to do?  Something that would top off what has been an amazing career?

Barbara:  What I always wanted to do in the past was to play Media because of the incredible energy and conflict in that role, which is a role of the up most passion.

Sam:  Ms. Steele, thank you so much for giving me a few moments of your time.  I know that it has been a very busy and overwhelming weekend for you.

Barbara:  You’re welcome.

Due to the commotion and the overwhelming nature of Toronto’s FanExpo my time with Barbara Steele was very short.  I can only imagine just the amount of amazing stories that she had to tell if she had the time or if I had asked the right questions.  At the same time, one must wonder just how different her career could have been if she had been given the chances that she desired.  Barbara Steele is one of the true victims of typecasting.  Although a brilliant actress, she was denied roles time and time again due to her reputation as a “scream queen.”  However, thankfully for us, she has seemed to accept her role in pop culture, and has not taken this frustration out on fans.  Appearing regularly at autograph shows and horror conventions, as well as once again working in character parts in modern horror films, Barbara Steele is proving to be one of the true ladies of pop culture journey, with a beauty and charm that endears her to those who fell in love with her on the screen.

 

POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE:  I would like to thank Ashley Rochefort from Applause Communications for her help in making this interview happen.  Ashley’s patience and understanding seemed to be tested during a number of misstarts for this interview, but her support was much appreciated.  I also want to thank Barbara Steele’s manager Chris Rue for allowing this interview to be held.

  1. hitfan’s avatar

    I flew all the way from Calgary to Toronto to go to the Fan Expo 2009. The main driving reasons were for Barbara Steele, followed by Roger Corman being there.

    I did get an autographed DVD of “Nightmare Castle”. I was so star struck by the regal starpower of B. Steele that all I could muster were a few words and that “Castle” was my all time favorite film.

  2. Christopher Chipps’s avatar

    I first saw her when I was about 9 or 10 years old in the movie, “Black Sunday” and I have seen it a few times since then. The next movie I saw her in was, “The Pit and the Pendulum” about 20 years ago. I have seen all her movies since I believe. My wife and I just saw, “Nightmare Castle” this past weekend on youtube. Barbara Steele is a fantastic actress.

  3. cliff’s avatar

    Wonderful interview. Here’s my (very humble) appreciation of this incredible actress:

    https://bmoviebabes.blogspot.com/2016/09/9-barbara-steele.html

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