Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio; The Mask of Satan), 1960, directed by Mario Bava. Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci, Ivo Garani.

The Pit and the Pendulum , 1961, directed by Roger Corman. Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders.

There are very few female icons in the horror movie. Oh, there are scream queens aplenty, from Fay Wray to Jamie Lee Curtis, but icons? I can only think of one, and her name is Barbara Steele. Steele’s huge eyes and angular face exuded a predatory sexuality unseen in horror films before or since.

Steele’s career was derailed in 1960. She had already done several indifferent films in her native England before heading to the continent. Working as a model in Italy, she found herself drawn into the orbit of the Cinecitta, where first time director Mario Bava cast her in the lead in La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan, aka: Black Sunday). The result was one of the high water marks of the genre, a film that bridged the divide between the classic gothics of the silent and early sound periods and the full-blooded gothics of the sixties and seventies; a film that provided the template for the Italianate horror film for decades to come; and a movie, taken on its own, that stands as a fever dream of rapturous images.

The story follows Asa, the witch (played by Barbara Steele), who is killed in the prelude of the film by her witch-hunting brother. Before the auto-de-fe can claim her, though, she curses her family to destruction and woe. Two hundred years pass, and Asa resurrects herself and her unholy lover in order to take her revenge, in part by taking possession of the soul of the virtuous Katja (Steele, again). But the plot is secondary here. The film unfolds with the logic of a nightmare, in which image, archetype, and (most importantly) mood are more important than interior logic. The imagery in La Maschera del Demonio is unforgettable, from the ghastly opening sequence, where a mask with spikes on the inside of it is nailed to Asa’s face, to the spectral coach ride, to the cinema’s most frightening kiss. Through its imagery, Bava concocts a potent cocktail of fairy tale ambience, shocking violence, and deranged sexuality. This is the first film to capture the feeling of the great gothic novels from the 18th and 19th century.

In general, the film’s weakness is in its performances. Most of the cast is fairly wooden, a fault compounded by the Italian practice of dubbing absolutely everyone. To an extent, the wooden performances of the rest of the cast throw Barbara Steele’s performance into stark contrast. She is the cinema’s ultimate Black Madonna in this movie, split into the unholy whore and the unsullied virgin for most of the film, then seemingly fused into a mixture of the two in the film’s ambiguous and disquieting conclusion.

Following La Maschera del Demonio, Steele became a fixture of the horror film, both in Italy (she was Riccardo Freda’s favorite interpreter) and in the United States. Her first American horror film was Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), in which she chews the scenery with the best of them. The best of them being the ubiquitous Vincent Price, playing yet another epicene madman with a fixation on a dead woman. The Corman Poe films are almost uniformly fixated on some variety of the "lost Lenore," and on the necrophilia that goes with it. This one turns a nasty trick on this theme, though, since the "lost Lenore" turns out to be a closer cousin to the faithless femme fatales of E. C. Comics than she does the objects of Poe’s longings.

Richard Matheson’s screenplay to The Pit and the Pendulum deviates wildly from Poe, but this is not all bad, since he removes the original story’s most outrageous deus ex machina and gives the whole enterprisine a genuinely horrifying twist at the end. Steele and Price share very little screen time together, which is a pity, I guess, but Steele’s performance here is one of the very few that ever genuinely upstaged Price--a small miracle, given that Steele has less than fifteen minutes of screen time in this movie. The last image in the movie, a shot of those huge eyes staring out from the iron maiden, is one of the indelible images in horror movies.