15th GODDESS OF GORE
Of all the female actors who broke through in the 1960s and changed the way women were portrayed – not just in horror, but in movies full stop – one stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Barbara Steele was born in Birkenhead in England’s North West in 1937. A Chelsea Arts School student, she found her way onto the silver screen at the age of 21 – playing Fiona in Wolf Rilla’s Bachelor of Hearts (1958) and, just two short years later, would appear in a very significant role that would catapult her to genre stardom, and a host of horror hits.
Once director’s knew of Steele’s magnificence in layered, complex roles, she would star in a slew of movies for the likes of Roger Corman (The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961), Federico Fellini (8 1/2, 1963), Lucio Fulci (I Maniaci, 1964) and David Cronenberg (Shivers, 1975). Her career took in exploitation schlock (Jonathan Demme’s 1974 Caged Heat; Joe Dante’s 1978 Piranha), European New Wave (the aforementioned 8 ½; Louis Malle’s 1978 Pretty Baby), surreal dreamscapes (Vernon Sewell’s The Curse of the Crimson Altar, 1968) and several memorable TV roles (War and Remembrance 1988; Dark Shadows 1991).
But it is for that breakout role that genre fans remember her most fondly…
Steele played a dual role in Mario Bava’s first directorial effort, Black Sunday (1960). Appearing as both Katia Vajda and Princess Asa Vajda, Steele stole the show in a gothic masterpiece that rivalled Hammer Films and Corman’s Poe Cycle. Her flawless structure and deep, piercing stare made her a natural for both the screen and for this film in particular.
She excels as the vampiric witch Asa, a woman consumed with bloodlust and revenge, and as the more innocent Katia, her performance(s) equal parts hypnotic and unsettling, spooky and beguiling.
From the opening scene, where she is brutally put to death in an Iron Maiden-like mask of spikes (‘The Mask of Satan’) and swears revenge, through to her reawakening and dastardly, hysterical reckoning, Steele is compelling and repulsive – striking terror into audience’s hearts with eyes that penetrate the very soul.