often was she undercut by schlocky storylines, lazy dubbing, and leading men who weren’t nearly as interesting.
But she remains one of the more intriguing actresses to come out from the B-movie circuit (though sometimes Steele worked with A-listers like Federico Fellini, David Cronenberg, and Louis Malle), especially when one considers her earlier collaborations with Mario Bava and Roger Corman. Even when utilized improperly, to watch Steele is to be smitten with her.
Because she so routinely was the best thing in bad movies, it seems apt to spotlight the actress in a pair of dogs in which she is, predictably, the lone bright spot. First on today’s double-feature is 1966’s The She Beast, an awkward, no-budget horror comedy that can’t decide if it wants to be schlock or slapstick; second is 1974’s Chained Heat, the supposed gold standard of the “women-in-prison” popular in grindhouses in the early ‘70s.
Both movies are failures, The She Beast a tonal calamity, Chained Heat an exploitation heavyweight in the making that forgets to be fun. Whenever Steele’s in the room, though, the movies become temporarily watchable.
In The She Beast, she is one half of a pair of newlyweds traveling through Transylvania for their honeymoon. In a black Volkswagen beetle and with an attitude that suggests the couple’s mad the screenwriters forced them to vacation at such a dreadful location, the twosome stops in a rundown village for the night after getting Scooby Doo-level lost.
Such turns out to be a weighty mistake: apparently the village’s cursed by a maniacal witch lynched by the region’s populace eons ago. A day or so goes by and Steele’s suddenly possessed by the she-warlock, bent on murdering anyone crosses her path.
The movie’s already a clumsy farcical stab. But to add insult to injury, the makers of The She Beast could hardly afford Steele in the first place — the actress, making another movie at the time, received $1,000 for a single working day and shot her entire part in 18 hours.
This entails that the “possessed” Steele in the film not be played by Steele at all: the characters talk about how this centuries-old sorceress has taken the wheel of the former’s body, but what we see is the original witch’s face and figure wreaking havoc. Steele’s only in the first and last acts of the already brief movie, and when she’s gone, we miss her — untouchably glamorous and comedically stuffy, she suits the material well. She’s the only person in the ensemble who seems to understand how to play it. Everyone else seems lost in the already messy goulash of horror and hollow humor.
Steele would see three more of her films released in 1966 — Italian comedy L’armata Brancaleone, psychosexual drama Young Törless, and Gothic horror picture An Angel for Satan — would see one starring role in 1968, but, ultimately would not make another movie until 1974’s Caged Heat. Thanks to the latter’s success, Steele saw a brief resurgence in her career in the ‘70s — though the movie is scarcely as good as she is.
Also notable for its being the directorial debut of Jonathan Demme (a filmmaker who would go on to make such classics as 1984’s Stop Making Sense and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs), Caged Heat, even for its moments of political aptitude, is still run-of-the-mill genre fare. It centers on the experiences of drug fiend Jacqueline’s (Erica Gavin) incarceration at a women’s prison, followed by her eventual escape and overthrowing of the institution with her fellow fugitives.
All this is primed for self-referential humor and a bold sense of sexual fun, but Caged Heat never goes quite as far as we’d like. The characters are not nearly as emboldened as ones found in a particularly inspired exploitation feature (Jack Hill’s deviant projects instantaneously come to mind), and the screenplay, by Demme, falls flat in its comedy.
But there are a few decent commentaries thrown into the mix — the film most remarkably riffs on the inequalities of the patriarchy and the dangers of corrupt authority figures — and Steele (here playing a stiff-lipped prison warden who swerves around in a remote-controlled wheelchair) is a riot.
But both movies red mark just how undervalued Steele was in her years of working. Though proven to be efficient at elevating material and stealing scenes, roles that were really worthy of her time and talents rarely crossed her path. The She Beast and Caged Heat are worth a look just because she’s in them. But if you’re interested in watching a movie as high in quality as the actress is, you’d be better off sticking with 1960’s Black Sunday or 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.
The She Beast C
Caged Heat C
Joe "Flash" Riley
1 Hr., 19 Mins.
The She Beast / Caged Heat October 30, 2017
f there were a more obvious way to properly use Barbara Steele, perhaps the actress would have had a longer, more lucrative career. With her Tarsier eyes, slender figure, chiseled cheekbones, and deathly black hair, Steele’s unusual, almost distorted, features were at once an asset and an obstacle. An asset in that she was magnificent to behold no matter the role; an obstacle in that she was never in a movie that felt as though it comfortably suited her. In her years of stardom, she mostly played Gothic heroines and sophisticated gamines, roles that complemented her visually but didn’t always capture what Steele was capable of as an actress. So