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.
Shelley (who shares 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 actresses that worked with the studio during the ’60s but her name isn’t as well known as many of her female costars. Her earthy beauty, seductive voice, natural grace and impressive acting abilities made her a standout among her contemporaries and it is surprising that she didn’t become a bigger and better-known 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 such as Danger Man, The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Dr. Who but it’s a shame that she’s rarely recognized for her talents outside of the UK.
My favorite Barbara 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 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.“
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 ’80s. 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 discussed last week. I wish Shelley would follow in Raquel Welch’s footsteps and consider writing her own memoirs. During her lengthy acting career, she appeared in films with such celebrated actors as Gloria Swanson along with George Sanders, Brigitte Bardot and British comedy legend, Spike Milligan. 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. During her years with Hammer studio, Barbara appeared in films with popular Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as well as lesser-known British horror favorites such as Patrick Wymark and Andrew Keir so her insights would prove invaluable to horror fans.