The First Leading Lady of British Horror

Like many of my fellow Americans, I’m enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday so I’ve been distracted by family, good food, and drink. But I wanted to take a moment to shine a spotlight on the First Leading Lady of British Horror.

Barbara Shelley (who happens to share her name with one of my favorite poets) starred in no less than eight Hammer films that I’m aware of including Mantrap (1953), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Gorgon (1964), The Secret of Blood Island (1964) Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967). She’s easily one of the most talented and charismatic actresses that worked with the studio during the 1960s but for reasons alien to me her name isn’t as well-known as many of her contemporaries.

Her earthy elegant beauty, seductive voice, natural grace and impressive acting abilities made her a standout among her many costars and it is surprising that she didn’t become a much bigger and better-known screen star. She was terrific in the horror films she made for Hammer as well as other studios which earned her the title of “The First Leading Lady of British Horror.” And she also appeared in some of Britain’s best television shows including cult favorites such as Danger Man, The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Dr. Who but she’s rarely recognized for her talents outside of the UK.

My favorite Shelley performance can be found in the 1966 Hammer film Dracula: Prince of Darkness. In the movie Barbara plays a prim and proper British lady who turns into a bloodthirsty, sexual motivated vampire. In an effort to keep the Hammer Glamour activities alive and well here at Cinebeats I thought I’d repost a link to my lengthy appreciation of Barbara’s standout performance in the film that I wrote back in 2007 titled: The Lady Is a Vamp.

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Barbara Shelley in . . .
Top: The Secret of Blood Island (1964)/Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Bottom: Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)/Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Besides appearing in some of my favorite Hammer films, Shelly also made her mark in a few horror features for other studios including Tempean Film’s Blood of the Vampire (1959), MGM’s Village of the Damned (1960) and the Stephen Weeks production of Ghost Story (1974), which I discussed at length here.

Shelley is still alive and well but she retired from acting in the late 1980s. She’s always shied away from the spotlight and rarely does interviews but most recently she participated in the upcoming DVD commentary for Ghost Story, which I wrote about last week.

I deeply wish that the “First Leading Lady of British Horror” would follow the lead of fellow Hammer Glamour gal Raquel Welch and consider writing her own memoirs detailing her work experiences within the British film industry. During Shelley’s lengthy acting career she appeared in films with such celebrated actors as Gloria Swanson, George Sanders, Brigitte Bardot and British comedy legend, Spike Milligan to name a few. She also worked with many important genre directors including Terence Fisher, Val Guest, Roy Ward Baker, Don Sharp, John Gilling, Jimmy Sangster, and Sergio Corbucci. But it is her work with Hammer studio that is particularly of interest to me. The “First Leading Lady of British Horror” costarred in many popular Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as well as lesser-known British horror stalwarts such as Patrick Wymark and Andrew Keir.

Today we have access to many books about Hammer’s incredible output but most of these books, as well as their insights, are written and provided by male creators, historians and journalists. Shelley’s feminine perspective detailing her career in an industry that has been criticized for its portrayal of women and accused of exploiting their assets would be invaluable to horror fans such as myself.

While we wait for an autobiography that may or may not arrive we have her films to enjoy and I suggest you start with my personal favorite; Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

8 thoughts on “The First Leading Lady of British Horror

  1. Her character transformation in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a highlight of vampire cinema. Though my favourite film of hers is QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. She adds the glamour but never sacrifices the intelligence or reality of her character. Her ability as an actress shows its range in her possession scene – she successfully ‘sells’ a wildly impossible situation.

    My husband met her last week at a Birmingham film fair. Said she was lovely and on good form. I was really thrilled to get her autograph but was shamed I didn’t meet her myself.

  2. Mark – I completely agree that she’s terrific in the Quatermass film! But I have soft spot for her character in Dracula, Prince of Darkness which is one of my all-time favorite vampire films.

    It’s great that you were able to get her autograph even if you didn’t get a chance to meet her yourself. It’s nice to know she was so nice as well.

  3. I’d dearly love to see The Secret of Blood Island again, as my only viewing of it was as a boy. She did grimy-androgynous surprisingly well.

  4. I’ve still only seen a bit of The Secret of Blood Island so I really need to see the whole thing. I love how she looks with that super short haircut in the promo shot above. She reminds me of David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

  5. There are commentary tracks on the German Hammer Edition dvds of Dracula Prince Of Darkness & Rasputin, that feature Barbara Shelley ( & C. Lee, S. Kendall & F. Matthews ), unfortunately they’re now out of print so they’re expensive to buy. My favourite extra on the dvd is where Francis Matthews slags Christopher Lee off…he calls him a “one upper” & talks about how Lee always has a better story to tell than anyone else.

    I think she looks more attractive with short hair & not unlike Richard Wordsworth in the Quatermass Xperiment!

    Btw, Kimberly, have you seen the BBC tv series “Tenko”, set in a Japanese P.O.W. camp? Because they’re in the tradition of the Camp On Blood Island films…all worried sweating women with no make up! ( that sounds horrible I know, but never mind! )

  6. Dom – I wish they would have provided these commentary tracks on the US DVD releases.

    I haven’t seen Tenko or heard of it before but you’ve made me curious about it.

  7. Yes, it’s annoying when the commentaries are missing from other releases. You can pick up some of the German dvds on Germany’s amazon site ( amazon.de ) & ebay.de, they released about 20 Hammer films under the title “Hammer Edition”, they also feature some interesting interviews with Hammer actors, directors & people like James Bernard taken from the 1990s filmed at the UK Festival Of Fantastic Films in Manchester. Some of them fetch high prices as they’re out of print. I could rip my dvds of them & put them on rapidshare for you to download if you’d like to hear the commentaries.

    Tenko was a famous BBC series in the UK, not sure how well known it is in the US, it may not have been shown. It’s certainly a difficult subject to dramatise & I’m sure it would not be commissioned today, though it was sensitively made. It’s one of those shows that has a devoted following, particularly amoungst women & the gay community.

  8. Thanks for the generous offer, Dom but I’m going to go ahead and look into getting those German DVDs for myself. They sound like they’d be a good investment if you’re a Hammer fanatic.

    Tenko only seems to be available on VHS in the states right now but it is available on R2 DVD. the cats looks really good!

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