“Again the camera shows how the imperfection of Asa’s face does not present an insurmountable obstacle to her being ultimately attractive.”
Within cinema scholarship there is a reluctance to address the aesthetic beauty of the cult film phenomenon. The dominant approaches include theoretical strategies that pillage the cult film for specific instances that illustrate a pre-existing theory, such as Xavier Mendik’s psychoanalytic explanation that the cult cinema experience is analogous to the explosive, exaggerated orgasm.1 On the other hand, there are more pragmatic approaches that seek to utilize cult cinema as a negative tool in the overall inculcation of students into an understanding of Hollywood filmmaking. I’m thinking of Jeffrey Sconce’s “Esper the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students.”2 Sconce’s opinion is that if students see how not to make a film, they will hopefully arrive more quickly at an understanding of how to successfully unravel the intricacies of a film that follows mainstream, that is Hollywood, protocol. I have no problem with these two types of approaches per se. Yet film criticism has left me disappointed with its lack of scholarship that seeks to define cult cinema in close relationship to the aesthetic appeal of the cinematic object. In order to overcome this inadequacy, at least in part, I will attempt to look closely at how the aesthetic dimension of certain films contains self-defining features that make them ready to then be transformed into cult cinema. I have narrowed my topic to Italian gothic cult cinema from the early 1960s, specifically to two of the most famous cult films from this period, Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday) and Antonio Margheriti’s Danza macabra (Castle of Blood). My analysis will focus on the star of these films, Barbara Steele, and her contributions to an enriched appreciation for the aesthetic definition of cult. I will end my discussion of cult cinema with a look at Fellini’s 8½ and how we could possibly extend the cult cinema camp to include his film and others, the aesthetic dimensions of which enjoy unchallenged praise.
Scholars often look to role of fandom when defining the parameters for determining whether a film is cult or not. Certainly, without the throngs of adulating fans who exalt each and every film, we would not even be able to speak of cult cinema. Even so, the fan is only part of the calculation one must perform in order to arrive at a full understanding of cult film. A vision of cult from within the cinematic product rather than from without must also be sought. When searching for such an internal vision, Barbara Steele shines brightly. Not only is she the leading lady of the Italian gothic cinema; she has also directly contributed to the project of understanding cult cinema as a whole. In 1994, the magazine Perfect Vision published “Cult Memories,” an original essay by Steele.3 In this essay she reflects on her own experience with a number of cult film directors, most of whom are Italian. At the beginning of her essay, Steele offers the following definition of cult film:
There are certain cohesive ingredients. Cult films usually have an element of unease — anarchy, transgressing certain taboos; they are almost always excessive and camp and speak to the counterculture. Certainly, most have an aura of irreverence, and are usually made on low budgets, therefore requiring a certain energized spontaneity, somewhat like graffiti. After all, film is so porous, and to my mind, so oddly occult, that I think that film itself absorbs odd energies like a living skin.
Within her definition, it is the phrase, “element of unease” that strikes me — for it is precisely an aesthetic uneasy with its relationship to conventional beauty that is the primary component in a film’s becoming cult. The cult film is an intensely self-conscious work, rife with insecurities about its own beauty. These insecurities are not simply technical errors, narrative inconsistencies, or mistakes by mediocre directors. Instead, the cult film presents itself as so overwhelmingly aware of its unconventional appearance that we would be naïve to assume that this aesthetic were merely the result of a series of accidents.
Bava’s La maschera del demonio is a case in point. La maschera was Bava’s first film, released in Italy in 1960, then on to Europe, the UK, and the United States as Black Sunday or The Mask of Satan. Barbara Steele stars in a dual role as the 17th century Moldavian princess, Asa Vajda, and then as her descendant, Katia Vajda. The film opens with Princess Asa tied to a stake. We soon see that she awaits execution via impalement: a steel mask lined with spikes will be driven into her face. Asa has been accused of witchcraft and vampirism, and the mask will mark her face forever as perverse and unworthy. However, as we wait for the spikes to pierce her face, the camera movement weakens the mask’s potential as an unyielding barrier to Asa’s beauty. We first see the mask approaching Asa through a subjective shot. The mask is shot from behind with its spikes bearing down closer and closer to Asa’s face. Then the camera passes through the mask as if through a veil. Now we are on the other side looking down on the gruesome face of the mask. The camera immediately reveals the mask and the resulting scars to be rather flimsy obstacles in our viewing. So when Asa wails “I will return!” as the mask is pounded into her face, we are safe to assume that her words are not part of an empty threat.
And indeed, we see Princess Asa’s image, untarnished and intact, just a few scenes later in the character of Katia Vajda, a descendent of Asa living in the same region 100 years later. Also played by Steele, Katia comes upon two academics on their way to a conference in Kiev who have somehow stumbled into the crypt wherein lies the body of Princess Asa. As the two leave the crypt, they meet Katia standing uphill, looming over them in an ominous pose, dressed in black, with a bay of bloodhounds at her feet. She greets them with a booming voice, “Who are you? What do you want?” Despite her ominous appearance, the younger of the two professors, Dr. Gorobec, is enchanted with her. He makes his intentions clear before he departs, “If you don’t mind, I won’t say goodbye to you. Perhaps we will meet again.” The two lock eyes and a romantic piano score begins to play in the background — music that would seem more appropriate in a Hollywood melodrama than in a gothic horror film. The tension between the dread provoked by Katia’s image and the soothing music that announces the assistant’s attraction is startling. I can imagine that the abrupt change in mood from the sublime to the ridiculous would make many audience members laugh. Nevertheless, this blending of genres should not be mistaken for an example of cinematic garrulousness or of simple bad taste. Upon viewing the rest of the film, it becomes clear that this blend was an intentional choice. Immediately following the initial meeting of the assistant and Katia, we find Katia playing a similar melody on a piano in her home. Here she is presented in much more prudish attire, cast in an angelic light as she runs her fingers gracefully across the keys. The piano music becomes a motif for the attraction between Gorobec and Katia and is heard throughout the film when the two meet. A poignant moment occurs when the assistant enters Katia’s house in the midst of the gruesome discovery that Katia’s father has been attacked by a vampire. While examining the father, Katia faints and falls into a deathlike pose, her hands crossed. She comes to her senses and raises her body with the archetypal movement of the resurrection of a vampire. She sees Gorobec and the music begins. The Katia motif underscores the remarkableness of Dr. Gorobec’s attraction to such a peculiar type of beauty.
We are reminded that Katia’s appearance is unsettling not only because of her own relationship with the macabre but also because of her resemblance to Princess Asa when Katia comments on a painting of her ancestor. “I’ve always been afraid of that painting,” she says, “It seems as if it is always following me.” Indeed, the Asa-Katia image is insistent upon attracting the attention of everyone. For another example, we return to the crypt where Princess Asa’s body lies. Now her face lies exposed to the air thanks to Gorobec’s mentor, Dr. Choma. The senior professor has removed the mask uncovering Asa’s face bearing numerous gaping puncture wounds. As the camera focuses on the face, the eye sockets of Asa’s corpse swell with two bulbous objects that appear to be eyes. Suddenly we are transported through a sort of wormhole into the bell of a French horn that is playing in the dining hall of the inn where Gorobec and Choma are staying. As the camera zooms out from the inside of the instrument, we are under the impression that something from the very eyes of Steele’s character has escaped out through the trumpet, like tentacles sent out through the water to retrieve the next victim. Again the camera shows how the imperfection of Asa’s face does not present an insurmountable obstacle to her being ultimately attractive. For in no time at all, Gorobec and Choma find themselves in the Vajda family home where Princess Asa ultimately unites with the flesh of Katia in order to complete her resurrection.
In the film’s penultimate sequence, Katia has fainted beside the sarcophagus upon which Princess Asa lies motionless. Asa grabs Katia’s arm, and here the mise-en-scene spotlights Steele’s overall performance as a doppelganger. As Asa’s nails bear down into Katia’s flesh, Katia’s face begins to rapidly age while that of Asa is healed of its century-old scars. For the moment, Asa has succeeded in breaking the curse of the mask. If the film were to end here, we would have a straightforward chronicle of revenge and Asa’s recuperation of her conventional beauty. However, the film does not end here. Having just fully regained her body, Asa is soon recaptured, condemned again, and this time burned at the stake. In the final scene, Dr. Gorobec finds the now aged and corrupt Katia lying on Asa’s funeral pyre. The damage to Katia’s face does not deter Gorobec’s attraction to her — evidenced by his loving embrace in the last seconds of the film. As you can see, La maschera del demonio is punctuated to excess with visual and other sensual markers that establish a less-than-perfect appearance as an initial insecurity that is overcome by the end of the film. The notion of unconventional, transgressive, or even perverse beauty is exalted in the very aesthetic system of Bava’s masterpiece.
Interestingly enough, La maschera del demonio was Steele’s first horror film performance, one that occurred after she suffered an enormous blow to her physical appearance as an actress. Steele was a graduate of the English Rank Organization acting school and upon graduation acted in four Rank features. She then sold her contract to 20th Century-Fox and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Hollywood acting career. Steele sought acting contracts for two years with no success. She failed the epitome of tests to assimilate into the mainstream of American cinema — the Elvis movie. She had been cast in Presley’s Western Flaming Star, but in the end was replaced by Barbara Eden. Later, when Steele remembered her Hollywood failure, she cast the European gothic genre as a welcome escape from bizarro Los Angeles.
I had just returned to Europe after an agonizing year of supernatural solitude under contract to 20th Century-Fox. Upon arriving in Los Angeles one year before, I had been greeted by a coterie of people on the steamy tarmac — one of them holding a stricken-looking black panther on a leash from one hand, and an electric prong in the other. I was obliged to stand there, holding the leash of this creature for their welcoming publicity shots, implying that this was some kind of image they decided to have of me. As what? As a terrified and stricken panther. This Lynch-like landscape, this world of spinning sunlight and flat horizons, overwhelmed me with inarticulate loss. I yearned for the privacy and shadowy dark corridors of shrouded London streets, smelling of wet hawthorne, containing their secret nocturnal pleasures, and the intimacy of Europe.
Via the language of cult, Steele recounts her distress for having been received in such a peculiar manner. She interprets the motley group awaiting her on the tarmac as a clear reflection of her own image to the Hollywood film community. Having been rejected by Hollywood for her failure to live up to the standards of conventional beauty, being later cast for her peculiar look was taken as a welcome escape from the alienation she experienced in Los Angeles.
In the five years immediately following La maschera del demonio, her horror film roles include Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum; Riccardo Freda’s L’orribile segreto di Dottor Hichcock (The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichock) and its sequel, Lo Spettro(The Ghost); and Antonio Margheriti’s Danza macabra. By the time of Margheriti’s 1964 film, Steele had already been exalted to the status of queen of the Italian horror screen. Here she is no longer in the role of a doppelganger but now plays a dark lady, Elisabeth Blackwood, opposite a more classical and blonde beauty played by Margarete Robsahm in the role of Julia. The audience soon comes to find that Julia and Elisabeth are in fact dead, something like zombies, who inhabit Blackwood house and return to live one night a year to reenact their deaths. We meet these two female characters when the male protagonist of the film, Alan Foster, goes to the house on a wager. Foster has just met the owner of the house, Lord Blackwood, who claims that it is haunted. Foster, a journalist, has more rational sensibilities and has gone to disprove the superstition of the haunted house. As he wanders through the house, he meets Elisabeth. Her hair is unkempt and she wears a peasant dress, a costume choice often admired by cult fans of this film. Despite her worn, somewhat wild exterior, the otherwise rational Alan wastes no time in expressing his interest in Elisabeth: “It’s a pity that the world is unable to look upon your appearance.” Elisabeth responds, “Do you really find me attractive, Alan?” Her inquiry reinforces any uncertainty as to her strange look. Barbara Steele was selected to star in so many horror films precisely for her unusual physical features: high cheekbones, sunken cheeks, large and glaring eyes. Mario Bava stated years later, “The perfect face for my films was that of Barbara Steele.” Steele would later feel pigeonholed because of her perfect face. Like Bava, Margheriti stages Steele’s face and overall unusual appearance as one of the main protagonists of the film. The fact that Alan compliments Elisabeth’s beauty momentarily assuages her anxieties. Still, as soon as Alan confesses his attraction to Elisabeth, the notion of Elisabeth’s beauty is immediately challenged as the conventionally beautiful Julia enters the room. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she says. Alan remembers that he had earlier seen and admired a portrait of Julia hanging in the house. Julia is unimpressed. Enraged with jealousy, Julia responds to Alan’s compliment: “Yet Elisabeth is the one you admire.” Alan responds, “Elisabeth is really beautiful, isn’t she? But you are also beautiful, Julia.” Both Alan and the spectator are being asked to make a choice: Do we side with the strange beauty of Elisabeth or the more conventional one of Julia. Indeed, both women come from the world of the dead, but this night is special, for they have returned to life, with all of its baggage and anxieties. In fact, earlier Elisabeth remarks that ever since she left the world of the living, she has returned to this house to search for happiness with the man she loves.
The battle of the beauties comes to a head towards the end of the film in what is a truly macabre dance. As the night unfolds, Alan is able to look into the past as the ghostly inhabitants return to the night of their deaths to reenact the scene. Margheriti masterfully stages Alan’s viewing experience as a clear analogy to the experience of viewing a film, for he is unable to communicate or directly interact with the scenes that he views. The climax of his meta-cinematic spectatorship occurs when Elisabeth is seen wrestling with a monstrous, brawny giant of a man named Herbert. He attempts to strangle her as she is lying in bed. With a move that transgresses the Hollywood monster-female victim structure, Julia enters, wielding a candelabra, and inflicts a mortal wound to Herbert’s head. But the scene is not merely the reversal of the typical Hollywood gender roles; it also represents Julia’s attempt to control Elisabeth. In a sequence that was edited out of the original American release of the film, Julia and Elisabeth engage in an overtly homoerotic exchange. Julia says, “I knew this was going to happen. I knew he would try to kill you, but it’s all over now.” The part of the audio track that contains Elisabeth’s response is in French due to this segment being censored from the English-language versions. “Let go. Let go,” she says. “I don’t want you. I despise you. You want to make me your prisoner. You want to kill me. I don’t want you anymore. I want to live.” Julia responds, “I did it all for you. I can’t stand to see another person at your side.” Here conventional beauty tries to seduce that which is unconventional. Clearly, Julia has been able to subdue and control Elisabeth in the past, but Elisabeth can stand no more. She reaches for a knife and stabs Julia, killing her. The two let out blood-curdling screams as Alan watches in horror. Cult film fans have treasured this scene for the beauty of the fight and of the screams, but it has also presented a great challenge.
A few scenes later the film ends and we never see Elisabeth’s death re-enacted. Many have identified this inconsistency as one of the many flaws of the typical cult film and more specifically of the Italian one. One cult fan comments, “In the typical Italian fashion, the film consistently misses the mark.” I would argue otherwise. Early on in Danza macabra, Margheriti clearly establishes an aesthetic tension between Elisabeth and Julia. Elisabeth tells Alan that she is searching for happiness with the man she loves, but Julia seeks to have all the attention including that of Elisabeth. The death which Elisabeth suffers is the overshadowing of her appearance and personality by that of Julia. It is a death from which she ultimately liberates herself, inviting the audience to contemplate once again the value of strange beauty.
Between her performances in La maschera del demonio and Danza macabra, Barbara Steele took a short-lived hiatus from horror film when she played a smaller role as Gloria Morin in Fellini’s 8½ (1963). Mistress to the aging Mario Mezzabotta, Gloria meets Guido on the set of the film that he is not making. Her posture and dress give her an unusual appearance. She walks towards Guido and Mario with her head hung low, wearing all black, including a wide-brimmed hat. The three walk together and meet Carini, the film critic. He asks Gloria if she is an actress and if he has seen her somewhere before. Gloria is flattered and responds with enthusiasm, “Attrice? Ho delle ambizioni in quella direzione. In verità, ambizione enorme.” (“Actress? I have some ambitions in that direction. To be honest, enormous ambition.”) In fact, her role in 8½ was to be the beginning of a new phase in her career. In an interview, Mario Bava remarked that Steele “si è stroncata la carriera dopo 8 e mezzo. Dopo aver interpretato quella particina per Fellini, poco più del ruolo di una comparsa — ha deciso di lavorare soltanto in film considerati “impegnati”: purtroppo da allora nessuno gliene ha più proposti.” (“She wiped out her career by her own doing after 8½. After performing in that tiny part for Fellini — not much more than a cameo appearance — she decided to work only in films she considered to be ‘engaged’: unfortunately, no one else offered her any.”)
It is true. After 8½, Steele returned immediately to the world of horror and of cult. But was 8½ such a departure? In fact, Steele writes in the same essay, “Cult Memories,” “Is 8½ a cult film or merely a masterpiece? . . . Are any of Fellini’s films cult films? Well, perhaps none of his films are cult films, but Fellini is certainly a cult director.” She goes on to describe the casting process with Fellini:
Casting was ecstasy and agony for Fellini because he was so intrigued with everybody that he met. The corridor was filled with people waiting to meet him: immaculately dressed counts and contessas, butchers, nuns, ladies of the night, dwarves, one-legged men, women with babies, professors, journalists, actors, acrobats, gardeners, housekeepers, all of Rome.
Steele identifies Fellini as a cult director for his desire to include everyone in his films, but especially those generally considered to be on the margin of beauty: the dwarves and the one-legged men. Here she affirms the transgressive and unconventional aesthetic as the motivation for labeling Fellini as a cult director. And I would argue that if we open this reading to other cult films, we would find that most, if not all, dramatize a seemingly inferior aesthetic as an obstacle to overcome and as a form of alternative beauty worthy of acceptance. But even if 8½ is not a cult film in all respects, here we find Barbara Steele rejoicing in her otherness for all the world to see. In the brief role of Gloria Morin (above), Steele comes to accept her marginalized aesthetic in the scene of Guido’s harem. Guido has taken a whip and is lashing out at the throng of women, who scamper about in confusion. When he comes to Gloria, she stands as the only character who takes pleasure in this perverse circus act. “Delizioso!” she cries, “Incredible!”
- Xavier Mendik, ed. Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics. London: FAB Press, 2000, introduction. [↩]
- Jeffrey Sconce, “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students.” In Mark Jancovich, ed. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste (Inside Popular Film). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003, 14-36. [↩]
- Barbara Steele, “Cult Memories.” In The Perfect Vision, October 1994, vol. 6, issue 23. [↩]