Barbara Shelley, Leading Lady of Horror Films, Dies at 88
This obituary is part of a series about people who died from the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Sometimes Barbara Shelley was the victim. At the end of the film “Blood of the Vampire” (1958), the Victorian character she played was – her brocade top was really torn – in chains in the basement of a mad scientist
She was at the mercy of Christopher Lee in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (1966), despite having fangs of her own before the end. (In fact, she accidentally swallowed one of them while filming her death scene, which she considered to be one of her best moments.)
Sometimes she was an innocent bystander. In “The Village of the Damned” (1960) she was impregnated by mysterious extraterrestrial rays and had a son – a beautiful, emotionless blond child whose bright eyes could kill.
Sometimes she was the monster, although in “Cat Girl” (1957) it wasn’t her fault that a centuries-old family curse turned her into a man-eating leopard.
Ms. Shelley, the elegant queen of the camp in British horror films for a decade, died in London on January 4th. She was 88 years old.
Her agent, Thomas Bowington, said in a statement that she spent two weeks in December in a hospital where she contracted Covid-19. It was treated successfully, but after she went home she died of what he called “underlying problems”.
Barbara Teresa Kowin was born on February 13, 1932 in Harrow, England, part of the greater London area. After appearing in a high school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers,” she decided to become an actress and began modeling to overcome her shyness.
Her film debut was part of “Man in Hiding” (1953), a crime drama. She enjoyed a vacation in Italy in 1955 so much that she stayed for two years and made films there. When Italians struggled to pronounce Kowin, she renamed herself Shelley.
When she was doing “Cat Girl” at home in England, she called as the lead actress of horror. Most of her best-known pictures were for Hammer Films, the London studio responsible for horror classics like “The Mummy” and “The Curse of Frankenstein”.
But often there weren’t any monsters on the screen. She played nearly a hundred other roles in films and on television. She was Mrs. Gardiner, the wise aunt of the Bennet sisters, in a 1980 miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice”. She appeared in “Doctor Who”, “The Saint”, “The Avengers” and “Eastenders”.
She has made guest appearances on mid-century American series including “Route 66” and “Bachelor Father”. In the 1970s she had a stage career as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her last film role was in “Uncle Silas” (1989), a miniseries starring Peter O’Toole.
But the horror films – her last was “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967), over a five million year old artifact – were her legacy.
“They’ve built a fan base for me and I’m very moved that people come and ask for my autograph,” Ms. Shelley told Express magazine in 2009. “Nobody remembers all the other things I’ve done.”