Self-portrait of Barbara Steele.
"I recognize the expression on fans," she says, her voice laced with irony.
"It's a kind of sexual melting."
Barbara Steele would never admit that—from the denizens of mom's basement to intellectuals performing their cleverness—her screen-image reaches across decades to find acolytes. She has every right to doubt their sincerity, of course. Amid bouquets to the Goddess, less judicious fans apply "Scream Queen" like a brand to her flesh.
If fans are also judges, then some perspective is in order.
Let's remember that Barbara Steele (who screamed rarely in her films) was twenty-two when Mario Bava's Black Sunday first appeared in 1960. Yet there she was, a virtual child, realizing the ungovernable dream of surrealist impresario André Breton—she made him a prophet six years before his death: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all." That fanboys "melt" in the passive act of worshiping Steele is an issue hardly worth discussing.
Another matter entirely is Steele's presence (or omnipresence), which, after nearly sixty years, 'convulses' our collective devotion.
Before the opening credits roll, in a blatantly interior exterior night space, priestly authority figures intone their denunciations of the witch: their patriarchal power seems distinctly unattractive compared to the emotional display from Steele, who, unlike the rest, is acting like a proper Italian. Then a hulking, hooded Muscle Mary wielding an enormous sledge hammer is entrusted with the task of banging the spiky mask onto our witch, who also gets branded in smoldering closeup—WHY? Since they're going to kill her anyway. With your basic sickening thud, the iron mask is pounded onto Steeles' face-bones, gore jetting from the eyeholes in gleeful, sick relish.
Before she dies, her eyes burn infinitely hotter than any branding iron; and, momentarily, that ultimate patriarch—a Catholic God, bearded in his heaven—evanesces. Surrealist grammar triumphs in death. The formerly passive object of desire and presumptive human sacrifice, shoots her Final Impenitence from metaphysical peepers.
Later, she comes to us as a vengeance-seeking revenant.
When aesthetic admiration is absolutely fused with desire and terror, it "blacks out".... Where are your vaunted intelligence and your cultivated taste when everything in you freezes and is fascinated before the revelations of the utmost horror? Beneath the flowing robe of this young woman with so beautiful a countenance there appear, distinctly, the tatters of a skeleton. Is she any less desirable?
Jean-Paul Török does not disappear in the above quotation.
Instead, he spasms for us all.
Black Sunday is playing July 23, 2017 at New York's Quad Cinema in the retrospective Mondo Bava.