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Barbara Shelley obituary | Horror films

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During the heyday of Hammer, the Berkshire-based film production company that transformed the horror genre, there were few surer signs of a film’s integrity than Barbara Shelley’s name in the credits. The copper-haired Shelley, who has died aged 88 after contracting Covid-19, brought elegance and conviction to her work. She possessed a grounded, rational quality that instantly conferred gravitas on whatever lunatic occurrences were unfolding around her.

In Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), she gave a deft two-sided performance as the straitlaced Helen, who becomes a ravenous bloodsucker after being taken under the bat-wing of the Count, played by Christopher Lee. When next we meet her in his Karlsbad castle, she assures a stricken friend that “nothing’s wrong”, only for her lips to part to reveal tiny pointed fangs.

Generations of viewers were traumatised and tantalised by that scene, as well as a later one in which Helen taps on her friend’s window in the middle of the night. “Please let me in,” she pleads. “It’s cold out here. So cold. Everything’s all right now.” Shelley makes the appeal sound so reasonable that any one of us would surely have unfastened the latch.

Helen’s eventual demise, held down on a table by monks as a stake is driven into her heart, was physically demanding on Shelley, who suffered from chronic back pain. Nevertheless, she was proud of that scene. “There’s absolute evil in there when she’s struggling,” she told Mark Gatiss in his 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, “and then suddenly she’s staked, and there is tremendous serenity. And I think that is one of my best moments on film.”

Monks hammer a stake into the heart of the vampire in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
The scene in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) that Shelley said was ‘one of my best moments on film’. Photograph: Hammer/Kobal/Rex

She also recounted how she and Lee, who prided themselves on being “un-corpseable”, would compete to make one another laugh during takes.

For Quatermass and the Pit (1967), her last of eight films for Hammer, Shelley was part of a team of scientists investigating an alien spacecraft found during an expansion of London’s underground transport system. She kept her cool while decomposing aliens were disinterred from the tunnels and ferried past her, dripping with green goo. When she fell under the electro-magnetic spell of the spacecraft, her body convulsing as images of alien life were fed into her brain, she made the ordeal look painfully believable.

Shelley named the picture’s director, Roy Ward Baker, as her favourite of all the filmmakers she had worked with. He, in turn, told Bizarre magazine in 1974 that he was “mad” about her. “Mad in the sense of love,” he said. “We used to waltz about the set together, a great love affair. It puzzles me about her. She should be much bigger than she is, but I don’t think she really cares whether she is a star or not. She can act, God, she can act!”

She was born Barbara Kowin in London. She worked as a model but found that precluded casting directors from taking her seriously, despite her theatrical training. A fleeting role in the Hammer whodunit Mantrap (1953) came her way but she enjoyed better luck in Italy, where she worked as both model and actor after being discovered by the Italian comic Walter Chiari while on holiday in Rome.

Returning to the UK four years later, Shelley was put under contract by British Lion and cast in Cat Girl (1957), an unofficial remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 Cat People. To prevent too much of her body being shown during nude scenes, she wrote “STOP” on her chest. She also refused to appear topless in Blood of the Vampire (1958), in which she was menaced by Sir Donald Wolfit, and threatened to sue the studio if it went ahead with a body double.

She had no issue, however, with a revealing seduction scene in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966). “That scene was in the script when I read it,” she told Fangoria magazine in 2010. “The scenes I refused to do were when they suddenly would say to me, ‘Oh, you take your clothes off here’. The answer to that was always no.”

Shelley in The Avengers series 1 (1961).
Shelley in The Avengers series 1 (1961). Photograph: Studiocanal/Rex/Shutterstock

In Village of the Damned (1960), adapted from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, she was heartbreaking as a woman who gives birth to one of a breed of malevolent telepathic children. For one of her first woman-turned-monster roles, in The Gorgon (1964), she offered to have snakes draped over her. “I wouldn’t need any makeup,” she told the studio, “just a green face and the headdress of real snakes.”

Surprised enough when her proposal was rejected, she was positively crestfallen when she saw what the effects department produced instead. “They came up with these terrible sorts of rubber snakes dancing around, and it just looked awful. It wasn’t frightening at all.” She called it “probably the biggest regret I’ve had in any film I ever made” though she admired the look of the picture, noting that “every shot … resembles a Rembrandt painting.”

Her numerous television appearances included roles in The Man from UNCLE (1965), Crown Court (1972), Z Cars (1973), Doctor Who (1984) and EastEnders (1988). She was also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1975 and 1977.

Shelley claimed not to have grasped the reach of her horror movies until she began attending fan conventions. “I realised that my work had been appreciated and that I had – through those horror films – actually reached a far bigger audience than I would ever have done if I’d stuck to the theatre.”

Any irritation she felt stemmed from the emphasis placed on the sexual component of her films. “I had one or two dissertations on horror sent to me by students, and all the discussion ever seems to be concerned with is exploitation and the licking of blood and a scene of people making love, and it’s not right. It annoys me intensely, because my career was not built on exploitation and sex. It was built on working very hard.”

She retired from acting in 1988. Though she never got around to writing her autobiography, she had a title in mind: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Film Like This?

• Barbara Shelley (Barbara Kowin), actor, born 13 February 1932; died 4 January 2021


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One Night In Miami Reaction Tweets And Memes

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“I laughed, I cried, I watched in awe.”

It’s been less than a week since One Night in Miami premiered on Amazon Prime and it’s already generating some serious Best Picture Oscar buzz”.

But it’s no surprise — the film was pretty much set up for success. First, the movie was directed by the incomparable Regina King, who demonstrated she’s a star in front of and behind the camera.


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Kemp Powers, the creator of the play in which the film was adapted, also penned the powerful screenplay.


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And to top it off, the cast was stacked with fresh talent who captured the essence of these historic icons with ease.


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Regina tapped High Fidelity‘s Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke), The Invisible Man‘s Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Riverdale‘s Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali).

So, if you still haven’t seen the film or if you’re just looking for another excuse to watch it again, here’s what people are saying about One Night in Miami:

1.

Wow. Thank you @ReginaKing for giving us #OneNightInMiami ! I am leaving this movie with a lot of emotions. I love how this movie shows the true diversity of Black perspectives. We are all in the same Struggle. It pains me that this conversation is ongoing almost 70 years later!


Twitter: @k_ileka

2.

Wow wow wow I loved #OneNightInMiami so much. I laughed, I cried, and watched in awe over how each actor transformed into their character. Regina King never disappoints, even behind the camera.


Twitter: @SylviaObell

4.

#OneNightInMiami is one of my favorite movies of the year. Directed by @ReginaKing from a script by @Powerkeni such a layered & complex depiction of friendship between Black men. Incredibly written, directed and acted. Look for Best picture, Directing, Screenplay & Acting noms.


Twitter: @MatthewACherry

6.

I’m watching #OneNightInMiami directed by @ReginaKing and I’m thinking about how much stress malcolm x was under. Fighting for the equality for black people and people trying to silence you. This movie is deep and it’s a serious reminder.

9.

These men on this rooftop!!!The fireworks in the distance. The coloring. The pacing of the dialogue. Getting to the crux of where they are and how they see the world. Glorious!!! #OneNightInMiami


Twitter: @justmarla724

13.

Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X is one of the best ever given by any actor. It’s a huge testament to Kingsley Ben-Adir’s talent that his great performance as Malcolm X in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI stands on its own & doesn’t suffer by comparison. Recommended double feature.


Twitter: @NextBestPicture

15.

It’s funny — watching One Night in Miami really inspired me to work today. I got so much done.

That dialogue cracked!

And, it was so elegant, which I appreciate since movies about Black men rarely get such a tender hand.


Twitter: @KirkWrites79

16.

One Night in Miami is one of the most consistently engaging stage adaptations I’ve seen recently. It doesn’t compromise the character’s views in order to appeal to a moderate audience. In fact, it finds that appeal by being honest about them & finding interesting middle ground


Twitter: @bryanwithno_b

18.

“One Night in Miami” was so good…! Four legends who have fought against racism. Their paths were different, but their goals were the same. As long as you have a strong conviction that this is what you want to shoot, you don’t need elaborate direction or locations…!


Twitter: @bettercallmorry

19.

Got chills during this scene of Malcolm X recalling the time Sam Cooke almost got booed off stage but turned it around into his song “Chain Gang”.

From the film ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020), which I highly recommend watching and is on Prime Video.


Twitter: @FarrierTheFirst

20.

Just finished watching One Night In Miami. REGINA REGINA RE 👏🏽GI 👏🏽NA 👏🏽! Listen Queen. What you and your team did to this movie was simply amazing. The scene between Malcolm & Jimmy after Sam & Cassius (Ali) left to the store. #BRILLIANT @ReginaKing


Twitter: @DaniiBrownEyes

21.

So many great performances in “One Night in Miami”. Kingsley Ben-Adir is tremendous as Malcolm X, but it was Aldis Hodge who made me want to watch him in a Jim Brown action movie.


Twitter: @aharon1keshales

One Night in Miami is currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime now.

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