Good friends, we can be honest here. We love all things horror in these parts. Especially the classics… But it’s more than time that we acknowledge that the ladies need their due.
Take any horror film… Literally, any horror film ever made in any era of horror film making. Now, think of what the film would have been like with no female lead. In fact, take the female characters out of horror and you don’t have a film that is terrifying or frightening in the least.
I mean, who would want to see Bela Lugosi or Kane Hodder screaming all the time? Not me.
So, the ladies are fundamental to this genre we call horror. And one of the most essential female performers in the history of the genre is the Grand Dame of Hammer Films: The one and only, Barbara Shelley.
Let’s set the stage a little for our horror queen. As has been discussed at various times before in this space, Universal Pictures was at the heart of the Golden Age’s boom of horror cinema. Starting in 1931, the American film house dominated the field in terms of quality, quantity and financial success, despite some spirited competition from RKO Pictures (see Val Lawton and Simone Simon and the Cat People movies. Primo classic horror).
In America’s Depression years, names like Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were top of the marquee stars and helped an economically weary cinema audience escape the soul-crushing grind of unemployment, WPA allotments and bread lines. Being frightened was fun in those times and fulfilled a need for many film fans to close out the mundane reality that surrounded them with ten cent fantasies.
But then World War II happened. And when confronted with the real life terrors that
accompanied that conflict, Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein didn’t seem like the epitome of evil to movie audiences anymore. The most devastating element to come out of the War for the classic horror film was the weapon that won the Pacific Theater: The Atomic Bomb.
Fear had a new face, name and reality…. The possibility of total and complete worldwide annihilation. When the world saw the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gothic castles and sharpened fangs were diminished to the realm of children’s bedtime stories. By 1948, the movie house that horror built abandoned the genre and the stars that were responsible for the boom couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood (unless it was Bela Lugosi trying to score heroin).
The industry responded to the new fears of the movie audience and made the Fifties a haven for a new type of monster. Not the undead children of the night, good friends. But fiends more often than not who were birthed by exposure to the new, mysterious concept of nuclear radiation. Or even more fantastically had descended to Earth from the far-flung reaches of outer , as the fledgling steps in the exploration of the Final Frontier started in that same decade.
The Monster Movie was born. And for the better part of a decade, they smashed their way through genre land like Gojira-san knocking down the Sanyo Tower. In many ways, the only creature of the 50’s that shared anything in common with his Gothic fore-bearers was the one that lived in the Black Lagoon ( thank you, Julie Adams).
But like all trends, this one ran through its course, falling steadily from innovation to convention to cliché. (side rant: Don’t take this analysis as a dismissal of the Monster movies of the 50’s. I love that stuff too!)
By 1957, some were nostalgically pining for the dark elegance and slow-building tension of the Golden Age of Horror. Which brings us finally to Michael Carreras, Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher and by a long process of association, Barbara Shelley.
Carreras, once a youthful fan of the Universal-led horror boom, became the organizing force behind Hammer Films after swooping in on number of international distribution. Despite his spend-thrift ways, Carreras assembled perhaps the greatest team of talent ever to work in terror. From director/producer Terence Fisher (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, etc), to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (screenwriter on the films above), to the on screen, male talent who became as associated with their versions of Dracula and Frankenstein as Lugosi and Karloff had been almost thirty years earlier: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
But what would the kings of horror be without a queen? Fortunately, because of Barbara Shelley, we’ll never have to speculate about that fearsome idea. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it also tends to kill the beast. Barbara Shelley was more than a little of both in her storied, but in some ways sadly truncated career. Be sure to be back here next time to relieve all the high horror points of her stellar career.
In fact, if you are a horror head who wants to go deeper, check out my all-time ranking of Barbara Shelley and forty-nine other Mistresses of the genre in Look Back in Horror: A Personal Memoir of Horror Film, available in both paperback and e-book on Amazon. And be back here for the next installment of Retro Reviews!