Born in London in 1933, the young Barbara Kowin spent her adolescence modeling
before heading to Italy to try her fortune in acting. During her time in Rome, she adopted the stage name of Shelley (perhaps as a tribute to the Mother of the Monster herself, Mary Shelley? The two “e’s” spelling raise the possibility… ) and landed minor temptress roles in New Moon (1955) and Nero’s Mistress (1956).
Returning to England in an attempt to build on her budding career, in 1957 Barbara landed a starring role in the pre-Hammer English exploitation film, Cat Girl (a film that likely owes its premise to RKO’s Cat People, thanks again, Simone Simon) and delivered enough sultry scares to boost her profile.
Her next two films were career making ones for Shelley as she landed her two breakthrough roles, the first in the World War II drama, The Camp on Blood Island and the second,her first horror film (and one of the first scripts done by Jimmy Sangster in the genre), Blood of the Vampire, both in the same year of 1957. Blood Island did strong box office while frankly, Blood of the Vampire was pretty forgettable, but it did put her on the Carreras radar, as the first Hammer triumph, The Curse of Frankenstein was shot in the fall of that year.
You see, Barbara was perfect fit for the type of films that Carreras wanted make as the century turned from the buttoned down Post-War years to the soon-to-be Swinging Sixties. Hammer developed a formula that would serve them well in the decade to come. The three “B’s”of Brits, Blood and Boobs (not always in that order) would be a mainstay of their films and Shelley was a player in all three arenas.
Not that cheesecake alone was the secret of her success. Barbara built her acting chops the old fashioned way and was a regular player both on the BBC and in mid-level dramas (Deadly Record, Murder at Site 3) before the screaming fully started. By 1960, she was a well-respected, well-seasoned performer whose versatility was on display when she landed the female lead in the second generation horror classic, Village of the Damned (based on 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos).
Remembered as one of the last truly great black and white horror films, Shelley, opposite George Sanders, finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to deal with the scariest bunch of blond brats since the original Katzenjammer Kids.
Now, Village is one of those perfect horror films, both mirroring the paranoia of the decade behind it and prefiguring the coming culture clash of the decade ahead. The film was so note perfect that the subsequent 1964 sequel and 1995 remake (one of the only career missteps for horror master, John Carpenter) are flawed in comparison.
The helplessness and anger that Shelley and Sanders display as villagers trying to survive the onslaught of their merciless, alien offspring was a new summit in horror and has become a staple theme in the decades since. What parent hasn’t looked over and seen a monster in their kids on occasion?
Despite her screaming reputation secure, Shelley started a run in horror films that lands her in the all time of prestigious list of horror performers. The Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer immediately followed Village for Shelley, along with continuing roles on TV, including appearances across pond in such diverse fare as “Route 66”, “The Lloyd Bridges Show” and “The Third Man” as well as being an alumna of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” 1964 saw Shelley starring in her well remembered turn in Hammer’s The Gorgon which reunited the Cushing/Lee team on the male side for the first time since 1959’s Horror of Dracula.
It was the next Lee vehicle that allowed Shelley to stretch her chops further as a villain. 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness reunited the principal players from Horror (other than Peter Cushing’s Doctor Van Helsing) for a sequel that would allow Lee to be the primary focus of the film. Playing English vacationer Helen Kent, Shelley first falls victim to the good Count and later becomes his partner in mayhem, fanging constables, breaking into monasteries, trying to seduce her BFF into vampirism. You know, the usual day’s work …
The on screen chemistry between Lee and Shelley was strong enough for the two to be
paired again the same year in Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which was Hammer’s loose
interpretation of the Russian mystic’s life. The next year saw Shelley portray her namesake, Barbara Judd, in Hammer’s Five Million Years to Earth, a SF entry for the horror house, featuring the ongoing character Alan Quatermass. Hard to find, but a fan favorite, Five Million Years was her last feature for Hammer.
Sadly, at age 34, the unspoken ageism and sexism of commercial film making shelved
our beloved Screamer during what should have been her prime years as a leading lady. While Cushing and Lee continued to bring the scary into their sixties, mainstream horror film closed the doors on Shelley after 1967.
However, TV in both England and America was a viable fall-back for Barbara, as she
worked consistently throughout the 70’s and 80’s, showing up on such shows as “The Avengers (Brit version, Marvel Zombies),” “Justice” and “Oil Strike North” as well as such BBC mini-series as the original versions of “The Borgias” and “Pride and Prejudice” (with Hellraiser’s Clare Higgins).
Fans of the original generation of “Doctor Who” (or is that re-generation?) will fondly
recall her turn as Sorastra during the Peter Davidson years in the storyline “Planet of Fire.” And while she essentially retired from acting after 1992, her fans across the world still love and admire her contributions to the field.
Given that Hammer Films itself has risen from the dead (Let Me In, starring Chole Grace Mortez, The Woman in Black, Horns), maybe a late night call to their former first lady would be in order. We can only hope. But our love for Barbara Shelley will never die, barring the proverbial wooden stake to our collective hearts that is.