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The Top 30 Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Actresses, #2
[Part of a series.]
Scream queens. Horror heroines. Sci-fi divas. Cult/genre film legends. We know them. We love them. We’ve watched them run, scream, bleed, cry, die, strip, cower, fight, kill and kick ass in numerous science fiction, fantasy and horror films over the years.
Who are the most memorable and important genre actresses? I’m not talking about on-screen characters, like Alien’s Ripley or Dana Scully of The X-Files, but the women who portrayed these scream queens and sci-fi heroines. I’ve chosen thirty actresses who I think have made the most important contributions to the sci-fi/horror/fantasy/cult genres, in both film and television.
My criteria for this Top 30 List were as follows: the sheer number of roles in horror/fantasy/sci-fi movies and TV shows; the famous, outstanding and genre-defining roles/characters portrayed; and, the actresses’ acceptance of and participation in fandom and fan events. I developed a complex algorithm to evaluate these factors and determine list ranking. (In other words, my list is completely subjective and only slightly more advanced than throwing darts at a dart board.)
Here’s the list so far:
30. Connie Mason; 29. Jenny Agutter; 28. Jane Seymour; 27. Amy Irving; 26. Bobbi Bresee; 25. Rosalba Neri/Sarah Bay; 24. Erika Blanc; 23. Asia Argento; 22. Lindsay Wagner; 21. Lynn Lowry; 20. Michelle Bauer; 19. Linda Blair; 18. Shawnee Smith; 17. Sarah Michelle Gellar; 16. Tiffany Sheppis; 15. Brinke Stevens; 14. Nancy Allen; 13. Caroline Munro; 12. Marilyn Burns; 11. Debbie Rochon; 10. Sybil Danning; 9. Fay Wray; 8. Linnea Quigley; 7. Adrienne Barbeau; 6. Dee Wallace Stone; 5. Margot Kidder; 4. Ingrid Pitt; 3. Jamie Lee Curtis
2. BARBARA STEELE
“Britain’s First Lady of Horror” Barbara Steele is a showcase of duality. She’s a horror film legend who never liked her cult status. She starred in numerous Italian films yet didn’t like Italians (according to Mario Bava, anyway). She possesses a dark, ethereal beauty that made her the perfect personification of evil on screen. And personify evil on screen she did: Steele played vampires, witches, ghosts, adulterous wives, murderers, and even a green alien once**.
Born in 1938 on a ship that had just left Dublin, Ireland for Birkenhead, England – or so she’s told some interviewers, but she sometimes gave false information in interviews just for the hell of it – Steele studied art at the Sorbonne in Paris and wanted to be a painter. She got a job painting sets for an acting troupe, but wound up acting instead.
In 1958 Steele was the last actress to be signed to a J. Rank Organization contract. She appeared in a few Rank films before the studio sold her contract to 20th Century Fox, but they didn’t know what to do with her so she did “nothing but sit on a beach” for two years. She spent a few days on the set of Flaming Star with Elvis Presley, but walked out and headed to Italy instead. She later told reporters – against the studio’s wishes – that she’d been miscast and that they’d wanted a blonde who could do a country accent. (Barbara Eden took over the role after Steele’s departure.)
Although she’s relatively unknown outside the genre, Steele is well known to horror fans. Even if you haven’t watched many of her films, you’ve seen countless photographs of the “sadomasochistic Madonna of the cinefantastique” online and in various books and documentaries. With her striking dark looks and oddly beautiful face, Steele could easily play angelic or demonic (or sometimes both at the same time). David J. Hogan devoted an entire chapter to her in his book Dark Romance:Sexuality in the Horror Film, in which he explains Steele’s notoriety:
“But at the core of her appeal, inescapably, is her ability to express a tantalizing sort of evil, and a sexual ambivalence that is at once enticing and ghastly. She has come to personify – with more edge and clarity than any other genre star – the link between sex and death, as well as this culture’s paradoxical attitude toward female sexuality, a potent force that is feared as strongly as it is desired. Steele, in her many roles as sexual savior and succubus, represents the beauty we love to hate.”
Some of the roles that fans “love to hate” Steele in – and just plain love her in – include:
*An adulterous wife who gets her lover to kill her husband with drugs and then has visions of her dead-and-now-very-annoyed hubby in The Ghost (The Spectre). (One of Steele's personal favorites of her own perfomances.)
*Rising from the grave to get revenge in The Long Hair of Death.
*Her dual roles – in which her voice was dubbed – in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (The Devil’s Mask): (1) Princess Asa, a 17th century witch whose corpse is accidentally re-activated 200 years later, enabling her to attempt to get revenge on (2) her look-alike descendent Princess Katia.
*Vincent Price’s faithless wife Elizabeth – again, oddly enough, with her voice dubbed – in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, whose successful plot to drive her husband insane backfires on her when he leaves her to die in an iron maiden torture device. The film’s ending is infamous: a close-up of Steele’s terrified eyes as she peers out through the bars of what she knows will be her coffin.
*The victimized heroine who is buried alive in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (The Terror of Dr. Hichcock).
*The homicidal, adulterous ghost in Castle of Blood who owns the haunted castle in the film’s title and who calmly states “I am dead, Alan.” when her new lover realizes she doesn’t have a heartbeat.
*The murderer in Terror Creatures From Beyond the Grave who convinces her myriad lovers to kill her husband, thereby pissing him off enough to come back from the grave and hunt down his killers one by one, saving her for last.
*The adulterous wife whose scientist husband burns her and her lover with acid before electrocuting them in The Faceless Monster. Death can’t stop her, of course, as any Steeler knows, and she returns as a ghost to burn her husband alive.
*Another dual role in Nightmare Castle: (1) the ghost of the unfaithful wife whose sadistic husband kills her and her lover (and removes their hearts from their bodies! Um, I’ll take symbolism for $200, Alex) and (2) Wifey #2, who is the sister of the deceased.
*The evil witch who returns from the dead in The Curse of the Crimson Altar.
*The young woman who dies in an accident and whose body is possessed by the spirit of an 18th century witch intent on revenge in The She Beast.
*The woman possessed by the spirit of a 200-year-old seductive femme fatale in An Angel For Satan.
*The sexually repressed, wheelchair-bound, quasi-lesbian warden of a women’s prison who comes to a sticky end in Caged Heat.
*The woman relaxing in the bathtub completely unaware of the parasite swimming towards her girlie bits in They Came From Within (Shivers).
*The military-scientist bitch in Piranha who blows off the news that people are being devoured by hungry, hungry hippos – oops, I mean fish – by saying “Some things are more important than a few people’s lives.”
*The mute, homicidal, schizophrenic recluse in Silent Scream.
*A long-dead witch – green with a golden-horned headdress – in Crimson Cult (with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee).
Steele appeared in mainstream films like Fellini’s 8½ and Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, but those roles were tiny. The “High Priestess of Horror” was permanently typecast, which she resented. Steele also resented being typecast off screen, with people thinking she must have a dark and moody personality because so many of her on-screen personas involved “sadism, necrophilia, gruesome torture, demonic possession, [and] physical and spiritual rot.” [Dark Romance]
After marrying screenwriter James Poe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Steele left Italy in the late 60s vowing “I’m never going to climb out of another coffin as long as I live.” (Or something to that effect; different sources have different versions of that quote.) Poe wrote a role for her in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but it ultimately went to someone else.
Steele thought Hollywood was “one great big neon scrambled egg” obsessed with appearances and money, so in anticipation of receiving fewer acting roles as she got older, she branched out into producing. She partnered with Dan Curtis on the TV series Winds of War in 1983 and the sequel Winds of Remembrance five years later, for which she and Curtis won an Emmy. (In addition to co-producing, Steele also had a small role in each film.) Her association with Curtis led to her appearance in the revival of Dark Shadows on TV in 1990-91 as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the creator of a serum that could cure vampirism.
Steele never appeared to understand or appreciate her cult status. (“It’s not me they’re seeing. They’re casting some projection of themselves, some aspect that I somehow symbolize. It can’t possibly be me.”) For many years she aggressively fought that image, declining convention invitations and refusing to do interviews with genre magazines. Only recently has Steele starting making the occasional horror/genre convention appearance, attending events like Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear in 2009. Some fans describe her as warm and friendly, while others portray her as standoffish and aloof. There’s that duality again.
Ah, Barbara Steele...Horror film fans know her. Horror film buffs idolize her. Men lust after and fear her. Women respect her…and fear her too. Male film critics fetishize and deconstruct her. Female film critics reconstruct and recognize her.
Barbara Steele is the face of Italian horror cinema. And so much more.
**She played a green alien in the 1975 TV movie The Space Watch Murders.
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: Who on earth can possibly be #1? (I'm not telling.) Is this seemingly never-ending list finally coming to an end? (God, I hope so.)
[Sources include Wicked Women of the Silver Screen:The Lives and Careers of the Great On-Screen Schemers, Seducers, Double-Crossers and Temptresses by David Quinlan, Dark Romance:Sexuality in the Horror Film by David J. Hogan, Wikipedia, IMDb, BarbaraSteele.com, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, SensesOfCinema.com, jahsonic.com, eofftv.com (The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television), fashionstate.com and probably some others I’ve accidentally omitted.]
[I owe PCR columnist Chris Woods a big thank you for his help with this article: for the brainstorming ideas, the debates over ranking, and for pointing out the many glaring omissions on my original list.]
"FANGRRL" is ©2010 by Lisa Scherer. All graphics, except where otherwise noted, are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2010 by Nolan B. Canova.