Camp David

CAMP DAVID NOVEMBER 2009: THE SILENT SCREAM OF BARBARA STEELE

By • Nov 15th, 2009 •

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THE SILENT SCREAM OF BARBARA STEELE

When Barbara Steele, {the star of quite possibly the greatest Italan Horror film ever made THE MASK OF THE DEMON (aka BLACK SUNDAY) vowed “to never crawl out of another fucking coffin again,” she would have been wise to have included attics and hidden rooms in her pronouncement. The reason I make this distinction is the current release on DVD of a film that marked the only screen appearance for the Queen of Horror for the year 1980. For years this film existed only on botched VHS releases and one attempt on Laser disc, fans that were far too young to have seen it first run had to make do with this situation. As one who knew a bit more than most about how this box-office gross-er came to be made with Barbara in the first place, I was more than mystified as to its new status as a “classic” slasher film in the tradition of HALLOWEEN (1978). As far as I was concerned, the one and only reason to sit through this catalogue of cliches was to see an icon at work. She appears only at the film’s closing moments and she is worth the wait. With no dialogue Barbara uses her amazing face to register every emotion required and then some, dominating every frame she is in. As I sit in the glow of my computer screen, reading all these online reviews, I have to smile. Read on and see why….

The name of this classic bit of hokum is SILENT SCREAM, made by the late Denny Harris at the crest of the ‘slasher’ craze that began with the superior HALLOWEEN. I know something about this film, since I was the one who got Barbara Steele the part and negotiated the contracts as her agent at the time. This was the only feature film she did in 1980 after three disappoints in a row, beginning with Louis Malle’s PRETTY BABY (a film Barbara first suggested to Malle during an affair in Italy in the 60’s that took place during her reign as the Queen of Terror when her beauty and fame was at its zenith). I had just gotten to know Barbara when this film opened in Westwood, with all the attention focused on the underage Brook Shields. Barbara had shot for weeks in New Orleans in this controversial film by a world-class director, hoping it would bring her back to the screen with dignity. However, the shoot turned out to be a rocky one, with Barbara hiding in the background, having made it clear to Louis that Susan Sarandon was not on her wish-list of co-stars to be filming with for weeks in an old house in the Big Easy. Apparently Sarandon was having a fling with Malle, which just rubbed our Barbara the wrong way. She did however make friends with Antonio Fargas and most of the other “ladies of the night” in the cast.

After PRETTY BABY premiered she lamented, “If only Louis had given me just five more minutes of screen time I might have emerged as someone this town would employ.” The next film to come along was I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN by Anthony Page. In this, Barbara was cast as a figment in the imagination of a young girl suffering from mental illness. Barbara looked amazing in her fantasy costume with an elaborate headdress. Unfortunately the whole sequence was cut prior to the film opening, so this became another lost opportunity in the re-emergence of the Queen of Horror. The last film at least kept her front and center and was directed by the fannish Joe Dante, who knew her work but made no attempt to help her look her best. In fact he paid no attention to her until the end of the film where she has the last line and the final close-up; but in a film entitled PIRANHA, the gesture was more akin to throwing pearls before swine.

I began working in earnest with Barbara immediately after the Dante film since we had discussed her lack of visibility in Hollywood after she returned from the Texas locations where PIRANHA was shot. Placing Barbara in the Academy Players Directory, which in those days published two books a year, was the first step to get the word out that she had U.S. representation and was actually living in Hollywood rather than Europe (The Academy Players Directory is a comprehensive list of actors and actresses containing pictures and contact information, often used by casting directors). In those days before cell phones and lap-tops, actors had to make the rounds of the studio casting offices regardless of who they were. The big stars were, of course, offered scripts through their agents, but for my clients at DEL VALLE, FRANKLIN AND LEVINE I had to rely on the daily Breakdown Service to give me the lowdown on what films and parts were coming up on any given day. Looking back, I sent Barbara on some pretty lame projects for a woman of her ability and grace. I tried episodic television at first, sending her to both Bert Remsen and his partner, Dick Dimman, as well as Bobby Hoffman over at Paramount. She actually read for things like BARNABY JONES, if you can believe that! It was humiliating for me to do this and I still remember receiving a call from her after the BARNABY JONES reading: “David, I went to this fucking thing looking–if I do say so myself–rather good. In fact, I got whistled at as I walked across the street to the casting office.” One of the issues in those days was an actor’s TVQ, which in layman’s terms meant, “How many shows have you had done?” and “What were the ratings of each?” This was then tallied into a score and that was how they rated you. Barbara read for the part of Morgana in the TV movie DR. STRANGE with Sir John Mills, only to lose the part to Jessica Walters who had a much higher TVQ than Barbara.

Barbara Steele's represetation page from the Academy players directory.

The first project I tried to involve Barbara in as her agent was a made-for-TV movie with the ridiculous title DEVIL DOG: HOUND OF HELL. The only reason I felt this might help her is that number one, it was being directed by our mutual friend, Curtis Harrington, and secondly, it might at least start to build a TVQ rating for Barbara, who had up till then done very little American television. The film turned out to be a new low for Curtis, whose reputation did not need to go down this road in the first place, since the network gave him no opportunity to display his talent other than to direct the train wreck put before him. The part that suited Barbara to a ‘T’ on paper at least was that of the high priestess to a coven of witches. The part was no more than a cameo but it was work and I wanted her to have it. All went according to plan and Barbara went down to read for Curtis at the offices of CBS. Later in the day I received a call from her, laughing about the whole experience. “David, there I was standing in front of Curtis and some 20-something casting director trying to summon a sense of urgency to lines like, ‘O Satan, appear before us…Let us offer you this puppy for your infernal desires,’ or some shit like it. I mean, give me a break, I began my career summoning the Devil. I mean, I just give up, David.”

I will always remember one of the perks in knowing Barbara was to be privy to her off-kilter sense of humor, which saved many a situation like this one. I assured her that she didn’t need to worry, Curtis would cast her on reputation alone for a part like this….Well, I could not have been more wrong. The part went to our dear friend, Martine Beswicke, whom Barbara had known in Rome at the start of both their careers in movies. Martine’s behavior always amused Barbara, who described her to me once as, “A double Long Island Iced Tea disguised as a teenage nymphet.” Martine had always been the Bond glamour girl while Barbara proclaimed her disdain at “climbing out of anymore fucking coffins.” As fate would have it, Martine was having a “White Party” in Santa Barbara the very next weekend and both of us were invited along with Curtis Harrington. Martine lived at that time with her manager/agent Robert Walker and at least three of his other clients, in a large, rambling house in a joyful commune atmosphere…at least that was the way Martine described it at the time.

David Del Valle and Barbara Steele in 1979 posing by a vintage poster for DRACULA'S DAUGHTER

I was a bit down for the occasion as I was still focused on getting Barbara some work and not much in a party mode; however, the creme of the jest was about to take place. The day before the party a group of Italian film journalists had arrived in Hollywood to interview the “Queen of Italian Horror,” and Barbara wasted no time in inviting them as well to what she described as “her” celebration on the park-like grounds of her Santa Barbara friend…neglecting to mention it was Martine’s affair. The afternoon of the White Party, all went as planned. Curtis and the rest of us turned up for cocktails and a buffet in this beautifully landscaped park by a pond. Barbara looked amazing (as always) in white, but of course so did Martine, who was also celebrating her new role in Curtis’ TV movie. At the end of the day Curtis stood up from his little group of friends and said, “Excuse me, I must say hello to a very special lady.” He then walked over to Barbara and explained that he could just not bring himself to cast her in such a demeaning role and hoped in the future they could work together in a project worthy of their time.

A few weeks later Barbara received a copy of the magazine spread from Rome which heralded the event, “La Strega di Roma,” entertaining her friends on her Santa Barbara estate.” Martine of course was not amused, but later on laughed it off because after all this was Barbara Steele we were dealing with here, and to take a line from Charles Vidor’s GILDA, “If I was a ranch they would call me the Bar-nothing.” After all, there are no limits to the Queen of Horror.

The original Italian two sheet for MASK OF THE DEMON/BLACK SUNDAY

Having exhausted the acting breakdowns during most of 1979, the idea came to me to create our own vanity project with her fan base in mind. Vampires have always been a successful commodity in the cinema, with Dracula in any incarnation a compelling draw at the box office. Frank Langella had brought the character back that year both on Broadway and then as a film (with Olivier as Van Helsing, no less). One of my personal favorites of the Universal Golden Age of Horror films has always been DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, a direct sequel to the Lugosi film and yet underrated at its time of release. It became obvious that Barbara Steele was the perfect choice to play the Countess Zaleska, following in the footsteps of Gloria Holden, who made such a lasting impression in the original.

My idea was well received by Barbara so we set about to put together a treatment setting the whole thing still in the 1930’s, not realizing how expensive this was going to be if we ever did get a studio interested. The whole concept was to update the story only in terms of censorship, which prevented the original from addressing the sexuality of the Countess directly. Our version had the Countess seducing a beautiful cocaine addict named Lily, to be played by her old friend Martine Beswicke. In the script Lily chooses to become a vampire to end her addiction and begin life as an undead with Dracula’s daughter. The ideal director for this was to be Curtis Harrington; at least in this he would not have to work with children, pets or Shelley Winters.

Looking back I can blame the whole thing on the boogie. We never could get such a project greenlit in the Hollywood of 1979 with a star who was only revered in Europe and a director who was doing episodic television. All this was so unreal for someone like Barbara Steele, who could still remember when films were offered to her over an elegant lunch near the Spanish Steps, and it was her decision whether or not to accept. Now those days of La Dolce Vita were all but a dream as she and I contemplated our futures over margaritas at El Coyote. No wonder Denny Harris’s offer seemed so well-timed and providential.

I was desperate to find Barbara a decent part in something and then it happened. One morning the breakdowns came into my office with this notice at the top of the second page: “Denny Harris Productions is looking for an actress in her forties with a Horror-movie following. Dark hair, dramatic personality.” I took a resume and photo personally to Denny’s office and within a day Barbara went over for a meeting, signing the contract the same day. I got her special billing and $5,000. for the week she worked on the film. The best news for her was the fact she had no dialogue to memorize. It was a walk in the park for the Queen of Italian Horror. The whole thing was a bit of a holiday. She wore very little make-up, her wardrobe consisted of a worn-out pink robe and a butcher knife, and when she wasn’t sticking someone with the knife she cuddled a teddy-bear…her idea, since she was playing a traumatized teenager gone-to-seed in the mansion’s attic.

Chris Dietrich holding a wax head of Barbara Steele from Black Sunday

The second day on which Barbara worked, my partner, Chris Dietrich, visited her between takes of mayhem. I treasured a photo of the two of them which is now lost, in which Barbara is standing over Chris, who is doing his own silent scream, as she appears to be getting ready to stab him with her bloody butcher knife. Chris was always her biggest fan, having seen BLACK SUNDAY as a child in Danville, Illinois. He became her close friend and at one point lived with her on Lasky Drive, babysitting her then-eight-year-old son Jonathan. I think Barbara really enjoyed working before the cameras again, playing a silent force of nature, allowing her to act as if she were making a silent film, which we know is the truest form of cinema.

In the tradition of one of her previous films, YOUNG TORLESS, Barbara was cast after the film was made and then her sequences were added to it. In the TORLESS film it was to give the young lead a sexual outlet, which gave his character more depth. In the case of SILENT SCREAM, Harris had shot the film once in 1977 and then scrapped the better part of the footage, recasting it with recognizable names like Cameron Mitchell and especially Yvonne De Carlo. Barbara loved working with Yvonne the most. She would call me after she left the set and describe Yvonne’s arrival on a Harley with a leather-clad boyfriend half her age. “I want to be just like her at that point in my life, doing just what turns me on, and fuck everybody else!”

Barbara’s sequences were all shot on a soundstage dressed to look like the attic-in-question, with claustrophobic walls leading in and out of her hidden room, which was created like a teenage girl’s boudoir from the fifties, with a record player that played 45’s. The most tragic moments occurred when Victoria sat before the mirror of her dressing table, reflecting on the loss of her youth. It is a testament to Barbara’s ability that this cameo set this otherwise pedestrian film in a class by itself. In spite of all the internet ramblings about this being a sleeper hit or a genre classic, don’t you believe it for a moment; this film exists for one reason only, and that is the presence of an actress whose legend has grown more potent as time goes by. And in the years since 1980, more and more fans have sought out her classic Italian output to watch her at the top of her game as a cult figure, which as of 2009 is more available than ever.

The Scorpion release of SILENT SCREAM is anamorphic, with a commentary by the writers who went on to do PITCH BLACK, which gave Vin Diesel a career…something SILENT SCREAM didn’t accomplish for any of its leads in 1980.

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3 Responses »

  1. While not a big fan of this film, any chance to see Barbara Steele is worth the price of admission!
    It just came in, on a sad note, that director Paul Wendkos has just died at age 84! Can you imagine him behind the camera directing Barbara Steele in the manner of “FEAR NO EVIL”?

  2. David! Another sterling Camp David. Barbara will be so proud. It is, as always, beautifully written. I saw the film in the theatre on its first run – going only because Barbara was in it. At the time the film critic of the Houston Chronicle echoed your article. I cannot remember the exact way he said it, but he said that “Barbara Steele could show more emotion through her face than the whole cast put together.”

  3. Wow! You never told me all of these stories…I would have loved your updating of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER had it been made…Sad that it never got realised. Love the picture of Chris…

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