She is the only girl in films whose eyelids can snarl.Critic Raymond Durgnat on Barbara Steele

It must be tiresome being an icon, especially if you aspired to be an actor, not an image. “When did I ever deserve this dark mirror?” laments Barbara Steele, by telephone from Los Angeles. Hence, perhaps, her famed reluctance to discuss her role in Italian horror cinema. After all, she performed for Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Volker Schlöndorff outside that disreputable genre. But the aura of dry ice and stage blood lingers in the cinematic unconscious, trailing her in gory wreaths.

Now 82, her first stage role, aged seven, was Snow White. Her first lead in a movie? Black Sunday (1960).

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Sight & Sound November 2020 issue

Actors, like Barbara, who are always acting, are, of necessity, good at writing their own dialogue. In the course of a conversation about something innocuous – miscellaneous home repair, let’s say – she’ll slide, before you know it, into the syntax of an André Breton. Suddenly we’re discussing “a marriageable chair made from Van Gogh sunlight”, then the horror-con autograph shows, “moving into a Diane Arbus weekend”. And, “Flying at night – it’s like being a sperm again.”

Steele-speech is all startling word-images, evoking, say, the landscape around her Los Angeles home: “Coyotes come down the hill like perfect ghosts, walking like Nijinsky”; Paris: “Every encounter is a little love affair, including the dogs”; or Croatia: “Nocturnal medieval eels, swimming in the skull-infested Roman fortress, under the full moon in the inky sea”.

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Steele plays a prostitute in Victor Schlöndorff’s Robert Musil adaptation Young Törless (1966)

Steele talks compulsively about annihilation. “I feel it on a molecular level,” she says, drawing out ‘feel’ like a linguistic tendril.

From death of the self to the death of cinema: “Even if we’re going to make films, we’re not going to have cinemas,” she laments, but then you can almost hear those celebrated eyes widening as she adds, “I remember seeing my first film, and that was just the most staggering event. The usherettes with little trays of tea and biscuits. Errol Flynn was bouncing around in green tights. I remember going home to bed and thinking: ‘I have enough to think about for a whole year.’”

Some have tried to attribute Steele’s perceived ‘other-worldly’ quality to mixed ancestry, but she decries genealogy: “Who knows what anybody did under a mulberry tree in the spring of 1908 or 1808?”

In Basil Dearden’s Sapphire (1959), which Steele has never seen, the Rank starlet pops up as a London art student, but immediately vanishes: as fine as the film is, it’s hard not to want it to forget its plot and veer off to follow her bohemian adventures. “I had this Rank contract,” Steele recalls, “but I was still studying art history in London. They were very nice and let me get my degree, but they would put me into these films for one line.”

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Barbara Steele in Black Sunday (1960)
© Rex Features

British cinema didn’t know what to do with her. Italy had ideas. The memory of arriving in Rome, “where everyone is singing an aria,” is still strong: “Here I am, English, and I felt I’d been born in the wrong place and the wrong temperature. And the moment I got to Italy it was like coming back to the essential womb…”

Black Sunday introduced full-blown gothic horror to Italian film, along with Steele’s sculpted visage, spidereyed and scarred with icky perforations created when a spiked iron mask is affixed by sledgehammer in scene one. From here in, there are two Steeles, the innocent live Katya and the resurrected witch Asa, a duality which will recur with dreamlike persistence in seven further Italian nightmares. Director Mario Bava, a cinematographer by preference, concentrated on atmospherics and let the cast get on with it.

“Bava was like a Jesuit priest,” recalls Steele. “I think he was profoundly shy. He certainly didn’t really direct his actors.” Bava cast Steele after seeing a spread in Life magazine, a choice clearly based not on experience but on physiognomy and lighting possibilities. My camera will like this face.

“Yes, but it’s always more than a face,” Steele insists. “It’s an energy. I know that film – I don’t know about tape – is like a succubus, it sucks in energy. Some people look magnificent, and they don’t have it, and they don’t galvanise you.”

With goldfish-bowl eyes radiating depraved elfin beauty, and what she calls her “old, suspicious Celtic soul” burning blackly within, Steele played the princess in a dark fairytale. “They sense something in me,” she once said of her fans, but surely it was true of her directors also. “Maybe some kind of psychic pain.” The diva dolorosa of the 1910s, reincarnated as voluptuous revenant.

Fortunately for Steele and cinema, her Italian sojourn also brought her into electrifying contact with another branch of cinema. “Fellini always claimed he never went to the movies,” she says, “so I do not know if he ever saw Black Sunday; what I do know is that my friend, the director Gillo Pontecorvo, told me he went one day on a hot afternoon to a tiny cinema in Trastevere that was deserted except for one person who was sitting in the back row – Fellini. I always wondered if the name Princess Asa in Black Sunday was related to the Magician in 8½, calling out ‘Asa nisi masa.’”

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Steele with Mario Pisu on the set of 8½ (1963)

If Fellini’s ‘Asa’ was incantatory language for ‘Steele’, then banal distinctions separating genre horror from capital ‘A’ cinematic Art simply wither to nothing. Where auteurism once stood now rises a single human fulcrum balancing Black Sunday and  (1963) – indisputable exemplars of presumptively distant worlds connected through an incongruous innocence. 8½ remains a living, black-and-white testament to the notion that Steele will forever be – in critic Raymond Durgnat’s shorthand for that now iconic moment when her smile beamed from beneath a black wavy-brimmed hat – “a modern girl”.

“The incredible thing is I had this psychic kind of foreknowledge that I was going to meet him [Fellini],” she recalls, still wondering at the strangeness. “When I was in Rome I told everyone: ‘Oh, I’m here to work with Federico.’ But I was like everybody else, I went into casting and I sat in one of those chairs. All of Rome was there, every dwarf, hooker and child was outside.”

Fellini described his creative process, whimsically or truthfully, as “sending for lots of ladies” and hoping the film would walk through the door, “maybe not all at once”.

“That’s how I met him, but he sent me immediately into costume fittings,” Steele says, growing increasingly animated, “and then I met the great [costume designer] Piero  Gherardi, who was so exact. Half the priests in 8½ were women, you know, and he would cut their eyelashes. He was so precise about the little line of a mouth between the two lips… Anouk Aimée had the longest eyelashes, and he cut them all off for 8½…”

If Bava saw in Steele a sexy fright-mask, Fellini made more antic use of what she calls her “predatory bitch-goddess” image. Her character, Gloria Morin, embodies male mid-life crisis as the intended second wife of a secondary character. Sunny but somehow sinister. Her new/old partner boasts of her invigorating effect, but we expect her to slay him by infarction at any instant. Marcello Mastroianni’s film director Guido immediately casts her in his fantasy harem, and when the slaves revolt and he gets the bullwhip out, Gloria alone reacts with orgasmic relish to the hoopla.

More black masses followed, including two for Italian cult wizard Riccardo Freda: with plots that meld Poe with Gaslight (1940), Le Fanu with Les Diaboliques (1955), the films drift on dream logic. Torture chambers, desecrated tombs, necrophilia. The deletions of the censor merely add to the sense of demented unravelling.

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Steele with director Riccardo Fredo

“I adored Riccardo Freda,” says Steele. “He was prone to magnificent tantrums, which I really appreciated. I felt like we were in an opera. He had diabolical energy but also humour.” Freda had been Italy’s highest-paid director. Sliding out of fashion as neorealism caught fire, he laboured on regardless, through muscleman epics, horror films, spy capers and later gialli.

Freda’s The Ghost (1963)was scripted, shot and cut in a month, on a dare. In this and in his The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), Steele is married to a Dr Hichcock, but it’s a different Dr Hichcock in each. And the films lack even internal continuity: you could surely splice them together at random so the characters would glide from one dungeon to the next, with no one the wiser.

“I know,” agrees their star, “and I would wear the same clothes in several movies. There wasn’t a single movie that took more than ten days to shoot. And we had very heavy, difficult equipment then, so it was quite an accomplishment for the crew, working 18-hour days. We would be so impoverished that if we didn’t have a dolly we’d just pull the camera on a carpet.”

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The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Tarantino favourite Antonio Margheriti directed The Long Hair of Death (1964)and collaborated with Sergio Corbucci on Castle of Blood (1964). Assorted minor maestros gave us Nightmare Castle (1965), Terror-Creatures from the Grav (1965) and An Angel for Satan (1966), all of which still fascinate, revolving around Steele’s unmistakable star presence, which makes the wickedness alluring. Steele once spoke of infusing her gothic performances with erotic subtext. She says now, “It was something I instinctively knew: you should try to put out the energy of some kind of seduction.”

Steele saw her characters as embodying powerful, repressed and subterranean forces erupting into being and threatening the (male, Catholic) status quo, always ultimately destroyed to reassure the spectator who has been enjoying their demonic sprees a little too much… The undertones of misogyny would break through into Italian pop modernity in the later gialli thrillers, but ‘Steele gothic’ was always confined to the past, and to distant, dismal lands like Moldavia or England, insulating the transgressive elements.

Roger Corman snapped up Steele for his second Poe riff, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) – she remembers him as “very young, very polite, a most unlikely filmmaker” – but why didn’t Hammer seek her out? “They did, but they were so disgusting,” she explains. “I mean that’s really like soft porn. I thought they were the creepiest things on the planet. Italian films were saved by the fact that we had these brilliant cinematographers and everyone was so visually conscious at that period. Light and beauty and shadow and violence… A grace and awareness comes off the Mediterranean. You dream differently.”

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Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

On the observation that there’s a sensuality in Italian horror that just isn’t there in the British and American films, Steele instantly responds: “Yes, well that’s British and American life.”

Steele worked only two days for British genre filmmakers: horned and painted green for Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult, 1968), and in Michael Reeves’s The She Beast (1966), where she was hired for a day and made to work 24 hours straight.

Marriage brought Steele back to LA, leading to work in early films by Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat, 1974), Joe Dante (Piranha, 1978) and David Cronenberg (Shivers, 1975). Steele remembers the bleakness of the wintry setting seeping into the mood of Shivers, though Cronenberg wooed her with flowers and was very focused and assured. She doesn’t recall slamming him against a wall when she mistakenly thought he was mistreating another actor (his story). “I don’t like the masculine quality of that,” she says: she prefers to think she’d have slapped him.

Then followed an unexpected move into producing, on epic miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and its sequel. “That’s just survival,” she says. “That went on for five years and it was very difficult. Eastern Europe, when they still had 40-watt light-bulbs, you know. And it was very difficult for me, because I was basically the only female and you don’t want to have vast crews in every country and they say, ‘What’s this woman doing here?’”

For decades, Steele was silent about her gothic career, an elective mutism partly in protest against the movies robbing her of speech: she was dubbed in most of them, even in the English-language versions. A slap in the iconic face, suggesting she was being hired as puppet rather than actor. They can be recalled now, though the feelings they inspire are, characteristically, turbulent.

“I’ve never had a good role, you know,” she says, more than once. “I’ve never, ever had a role powerful enough.”

But she knows that her image as “dark goddess” was not mere audience projection – “It comes from within” – and has a vital connection to her true self: “I was made for horror. I don’t want to wear crinoline, I’m just a big blade.”

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