Friday, October 9, 2015

We Need Another Barbara Steele!

Perhaps no other genre generated more iconic actors than horror, and it wasted no time dumping them in cinemas. Even before the advent of sound, there was Lon Chaney and Conrad Viedt. As soon as we could hear our monsters groan and growl, we had Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre. Then came Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, etc.

The key word here, of course, is actors. Actresses were not absent from horror movies. Those monsters needed someone screaming and helpless to carry off, after all, so we had Mae Clark, Helen Chandler, Fay Wray, Valerie Hobson, Evelyn Ankers, and Hazel Court to perform such tasks. Their thankless roles as distressed damsels are summed up in the term “scream queen” coined decades after the first queen was heard to scream on screen. But what about the women who made us scream? They were few in the early days of horror cinema, and though the Bride of Frankenstein would become an iconic figure only rivaled by the big three guys—Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster—the character only had four minutes of screen time and Elsa Lanchester would not follow up on her horror stardom as Bela, Lon, and Boris did. Universal followed its first great sound scare-fest with Dracula’s Daughter, though the film is not one of the best-remembered horrors of its day, and the vampiric Gloria Holden would not capitalize on it any more than Lanchester did on Bride.
The Bride: iconic but too fleeting.

That actresses are most often relegated to the roles of male-support, eye candy, or victim is a problem that continues in Hollywood today, even if there have been great strides since the 1930s. Yet even today you’d be hard pressed to find an actress known for taking the power position in monster movies. Katie Featherston has become a cult figure for her roles in the Paranormal Activity series, though she played the victim for the majority of the first and best picture in the franchise. Linnea Quigley has gotten to play the ghoul often enough to warrant a mention, but she hasn’t quite achieved the status of Robert Englund because her movies tend to be of the B- variety, and she spent most of her best movie, Return of the Living Dead, completely naked—an indignity Lugosi and Karloff never faced. In the seventies, Ingrid Pitt was another very notable monster who almost always had to balance terrorizing her victims with disrobing.
Ingrid Pitt often got to be scary.

For horror’s most likely candidate for an actress who really got to play the kinds of parts Bela and Boris did, we have to travel back further than Ingrid Pitt’s seventies stardom, back to 1960. According to director Mario Bava, he had a tough time working with Barbara Steele, her disdain for horror being one supposed cause. Nevertheless, the American actress made such a strong impression as the terrifying vampire-witch Princess Asa Vajda in The Mask of Satan (aka: Black Sunday) that her link to the darkest genre was permanently forged. In the years that followed, few male actors took as many commanding roles in horror films as Barbara Steele did.  In 1961, she turned the tables on Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum and did the same to Elio Jotta in 1963’s The Ghost. She got to play dual roles similar to the one she took on in The Mask of Satan in The Long Hair of Death (1964) and Mario Caiano’s deliciously gothic Nightmare Castle (aka: Lovers from Beyond the Tomb). Castle of Blood (1964), The She Beast (1966), and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) gave Barbara Steele additional opportunities to play the monster. She played less horrific roles in the later horrors Shivers (1975) and Piranha (1978), but the fact that genre experts David Cronenberg cast her in the former and Joe Dante in the latter proves how deeply she is associated with horror.
Barbara Steele in The Mask of Satan.

So why was Barbara Steele so special? Years of male-gaze-based cinema studies have conditioned us to begin every discussion of an actress with her looks, and indeed, Barbara Steele does have an eerier air than, say, the traditionally beautiful Ingrid Pitt. Huge eyes burst from a small face framed by raven hair. No other actress looked quite like Barbara Steele, especially in 1960. However, the way Steele used those features was much more significant than the way they looked. Even with the terrible, perforated makeup she wears in The Mask of Satan, Steele would not have made Asa Vajda so terrifying without her ability to radiate such cruelty, such evil through those eyes. Shudder as her lips quiver grotesquely as the camera pushes us into them against our will. Barbara Steele was beautiful, but she had no compunction about appearing horrifying, and though her voice had been dubbed by another actress, the anger and intensity with which she delivered her lines on set is still very apparent in her performance. Honestly, I cannot say that I’ve ever seen Lugosi, Karloff, or Chaney, Jr., give such a terrifying performance. Barbara Steele did not become a horror star because she couldn’t get other roles, even if this was the case. She didn’t become a horror star because she was owned by a studio that forced her to take those jobs. She became a horror star because she was really, really scary in horror roles. So instead of minimizing her by wondering if she was “the female Boris Karloff” or “the female Bela Lugosi,” let’s ask a more pressing question: which actress will be the next Barbara Steel and why have we been waiting such a goddamn long time for her?

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