Barbara Steele, X-Ray Sex Personified
By Daniel Riccuito
Making her Italian screen debut in Black Sunday in August 1960, Barbara Steele glowered into Mario Bava's lens, and at that pivotal moment in cinema's manic history something shone forth so ancient that even the most devout heretic experienced inchoate shivers of remorse. The mod summertime of the new decade was arrested, plunged backward, whereupon a strange, atavistic transformation occurred: the audience, pious enough to register shock at the intended effects, was nevertheless unprepared to confront alchemy and necromancy's triumph over mere sackcloth and ashes. Shamefaced there in the dark, like little Catholic schoolchildren remembering all they had been taught, they stared back at Steele's eyes – a pair of druid's eggs, bestowing true and everlasting illumination, as opposed to religion's metaphorical kind – and shuddered inwardly at things no man could comprehend.
If time can be symbolized, Barbara Steele is its emblem. Her name evokes "stele," neither clock nor calendar, but ancient stone commemorating absoluteness. Realizing this, Italian directors foisted on the young actress a kind of Freudian overdetermination – period baubles and accouterments – coffins from which she'd rise and walk away, free to recite some obscure and darkened catechism. Steele slips par hazard into Gothic Horror, with its sumptuous visual salad of slapdash mullioned windows and chintzy Brilliantine heroes. Meanwhile her enduring power stems from primal traditions – neglected gods, lost liturgies and funeral rites – palpable bona fides these epics sought, and failed, to replicate on celluloid.
If Black Sunday came to be seen as a "cult classic" -- embraced in the main by horror fans, geeks, Scream Queen idolaters and the ComicCon crowd -- then what of the (always self-defined) more discerning moviegoer? Could those high-minded emptors of capital "C" Culture permit themselves to take Bava's film and Steele's negligible thespic gift seriously? The sorcery by which personality appears to survive on the screen, any screen, is still, after all, a mystery forever to remain unsolved; only a shade of the outer appearance is retained. And yet there are faces that reveal not merely a rigorous adherence to "character," but the subterranean depth of the soul.
The face of Barbara Steele is one of them. She possesses the kind of beauty that elicits mixed metaphors in homage to a striking and indeed startling presence. Celtic oracles knew Barbara Steele as the Blackthorn, a tree of portents associated with imminent strife. She reappeared on velum, as interlaced water birds in the Book of Kells. Endless incarnations as Jean Delville's esoteric muse, all eyes and silver light, deposit Steele in the 19th century. Yet in the hands of Mario Bava, she would become impenitence made flesh before the opening credits roll, cinema's greatest unatoned one-finger salute to the proper placement of denouements.
Insofar as Black Sunday was doomed to become an untamed species of necro-frippery from the outset, the question arises: Is Bava aiming high or playing it all to the cheap seats? Does he seek some numinous back street to the absolute as we wend our way through genre horror motifs – where resides, among other tropes, the standard reincarnation scene – to discover an entire blighted landscape calibrated to Steele's hot Sixties Sybil?
By visualizing Steele as a skull with eyes (midway through her Black Sunday regeneration), Bava caricatures her appeal perfectly. Great beauties are often celebrated for their bone structure. But Steele, forever seeking to displace herself in the gaudy space/time continuum of cinema, beats them all with the dome of her brow, the angular jaw, the cut-glass cheekbones. Romantics rhapsodized on "the skull beneath the skin" – Steele is X-ray sex personified. Which creates one hell of a sticky predicament for her.
When Bava elevates her, he also enslaves her to kitsch for the rest of her life. He certainly places Steele more firmly in cinema than any other director, Fellini included, ever had or ever would. But the movie-going consciousness tends to be a prison for those who are dislocated from reality into the minds of horror fans. She and Fangoria are pressed together. Sealed in memory.
Flickering there in projected movie light, from life to death and back again, Steele is not unlike a character out of Poe, though one he never committed to print; his ruminations on rhythmic flux have cosmic implications. And for all their tackiness, Steele's Italian horror films (The Long Hair of Death, Nightmare Castle, An Angel for Satan, et al.) embody a few lyrically high-flown ideas about the infinite, or, to quote Poe directly: "a shadowy and fluctuating domain, now shrinking, now swelling with the vacillating energies of the imagination." Cinema is usually spoken of in terms of light, but without darkness to mold it there can be no image.
The vampires, creatures of night slain by sunlight, infiltrated the movie theaters in the 1920s and never left. They sit next to us in the dark, having ceded the power to hypnotize us to the glowing screen itself. Any serious meditation on this idea of vampires as movies or movies as vampires must include Steele's face, not classically beautiful, haunted exclusively by those emotions never granted names. Her visage is a rogue axiom of cinema, one exerting ineluctable pull.
And if we cannot look away, then let's blame art for being a higher calling than common sense. "Stare long enough at a mirror," wrote Cocteau, "and you will see Death at work." Stare long enough at the movie screen and you will see only movies, but your life will be draining away just as surely.
Hitchcock, the Catholic filmmaker who replaced the church with film, dedicated his life to it and never questioned what it was all for. It sustained him like a faith. When he couldn't make films anymore he went to bed, stopped eating, and died. His brother had previously committed suicide, a big no-no in the Catholic religion but positively celebrated in cinema, which is more Cathar in origin, as Theodore Roszak intuited. Roszak's novel Flicker imagines the history of cinema, semi-seriously, as a conspiracy theory, with Cathar heretics plotting to end the human race, replacing tainted matter with pure spirit. Movies, far from being life-affirming, have always celebrated death and destruction, and shown us human beings reduced to a pure essence of light, heavenly stars rather than dirty corporeal creatures.
Steele at times evokes a slinky pneumatic tadpole, at others a raven-haired female Lazarus, seductress of the mortal coil, where all epiphanies originate. No ingénue, before or since, has embodied such powers of conjuration on the screen, proving that cinema preserves the dead better than any man-made embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, the undead of the moving image flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. And so we see Steele in multiples – not as a single person, in other words, but as this bizarre, beautiful and highly unstable corpus of oscillating images.
The difference between American and European cinema has often been crudely put as a contrast between a medium of story and one of image. As a living icon, more suited to catching the light than reciting dialogue, Steele found a natural home in Europe, but there was a tradition of American fantastique that shared the Italian's contempt for logical plotting and motivation. Edgar Allan Poe's fever-dream fictions eschewed coherence and plunged eagerly into delirium. Movie adaptations generally grounded the madness in plot, or opted to go arthouse-expressionist.
But by the Sixties, another option was becoming available, neither mainstream nor arthouse: exploitation. As Steele was beginning her career in Italy, American producer-director Roger Corman had inaugurated a popular series of films based, often loosely, on the stories of Poe, and starring Vincent Price. With a beady eye for the main chance, Corman snapped up the budding horror icon, imported her from Italy, and cast her in a gothic concoction about revenge from beyond the grave – his version of The Pit and the Pendulum. It had more in common with the Les Diaboliques school of twisty thrillers than it did with its nominal source, which is all infernal machine and no plot.
In so doing, Corman introduced Steele to the American cinema, and forged a connection between her ineffable screen presence and the world of faked deaths, substitutions, lookalikes and insanely convoluted plots to commit murder or to gaslight neurasthenic protagonists into catatonia. There had been only hints of this in Black Sunday, but the elaborate, Rube Goldberg criminal masterplans would follow Steele back across the Atlantic and get absorbed into the DNA of the Italian horrors she returned to.
Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson were also smart enough to trade on Steele's best asset, her great wide eyes, ending the film on an extreme close-up of them staring from the visor of an iron maiden as an ironic death sentence is pronounced offscreen. Like a diabolically possessed Lillian Gish, Steele stares down the camera, the audience, death and time.
The solid universe is evil, transparently the work of a corrupt demiurge. "In celluloid we trust," says Herzog, meaning that film, being made of matter, is a more reliable and reassuring medium than the abstract 1s and 0s of digital. But digital is the apotheosis, the falling away of the last bit of earthbound solidity that tied film to matter. The camera transmogrifies money into light (Boorman), flesh into flicker, the world into dancing grain or pixels, the fact of existence into mere information. It Is The Way Things Are Going. CGI landscapes all look like cartoon fascist dystopias.
For a prophecy of CGI's sterility, visit the Seventies Canadian architecture captured by David Cronenberg in his early sci-fi shockers, steel and glass monstrosities more terrifying than the mutoids lurking behind their shiny facades. Shivers, Cronenberg's first real commercial movie, seems at first to be, as fellow horror auteur Clive Barker put it, a film about turds that want to crawl back inside you. But the real horror is the sterile Canadian setting, a luxury apartment block so lacking in humanity that it made the director himself want to run naked through its halls, screaming insanely.
Among the building's respectable inhabitants is Barbara Steele, playing an acidic lipstick lesbian who's actually one of the more alive characters. The film simultaneously fears revolution (imagined as sexual assault, bodily invasion, mass psychosis and the reversion of bodily functions) and welcomes it, but its conservative side is plainly evident. Most of the characters who fall prey to the crawling raw-liver parasites are infected by mouth-to-mouth contact. Steele, luxuriating in the tub with a glass of red wine, is violated by one of the rubbery slugs as it emerges from the plughole. The woman who rejects sexual penetration by the male gets it anyway, against her will. An icky scene in a film whose best material is more polymorphous in its sexual anxiety.
Cronenberg had cast elfin Sue Helen Petrie to play his screaming female lead, only to learn she couldn't cry on camera. To overcome this emotional block, she encouraged him to slap her face before filming, which quickly became a routine occurrence on set. But nobody warned Steele of this, and she was shocked. "Barbara stands up," the director recalls in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, "(she's real big, and she was in high heels) and literally grabs me by the lapels and lifts me up. She says, 'You bastard! I've worked with some of the best directors in the world. I've worked with Fellini. I've never, in my life, seen a director treat an actress like that. You bastard!' She was going to punch me out."
We recently verified the story with Steele, who immediately pulled us into her world of imagistic buzzsaws. The conversation zigzagged from horror fans' fascination with body fluids ("They're doomed to give head to menstruating women") to her theme-appropriate feeling about flying at night ("Oh, it's like being a sperm again") to drama-laced tales of her flings, affairs and her "brutal marriage." Everything she says has an erotic charge. On quitting Europe for the States: "It's like leaving the flesh of your favorite lover."
Then a gentleman calling himself Steele's "personal archivist" showed us a touching photograph of Barbara in her teens selling tchotchkes, miscellaneous bric-a-brac. But before we could inquire about her street-seller days, she was already there:
Portobello Road... There was a gypsy next to me selling silver – his large hands were covered in rings – silver ones for his girl children – gold for the boys. I was young and enthralled by the exotic debris in these cauldrons of life. In Rome they have something called The Mountain of Pity – a long leather conveyor belt would slowly run around this room that looked like something out of the Vatican. Old fur coats – gold teeth – paintings – top hats – violins – leather gloves made for a child – worn out boots – diamond wedding rings... Flea markets and tattered circuses – early Fellini – freaks and whatever's behind the curtain... It still excites me.
She murmurs like an organ in the basement... Or, borrowing here from Angela Carter's The Lady of the House, a horror tale with purely serendipitous connections to Steele: "Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit."Additional writing for this article was provided by David Cairns, Jennifer Matsui, and Tom Sutpen.
Published April 7th, 2016
Daniel Riccuito is an artist who runs The Chiseler, an online publication dedicated to obscurity—forgotten authors, lost languages, and neglected stars. Riccuito has written a book on Great Depression slang, The Depression Alphabet Primer, and contributed to Cineaste. He lives in New York City.