Barbara Shelley, Leading Lady of Horror Films, Dies at 88


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Sometimes Barbara Shelley was the victim. By the end of the movie “Blood of the Vampire” (1958), the Victorian character that she played — her brocade bodice properly ripped — was in chains in a mad scientist’s basement laboratory.

She was at Christopher Lee’s mercy in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (1966), although before the end she had fangs of her own. (In fact, she accidentally swallowed one of them while filming her death scene, which she considered one of her finest 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, emotion-free blond child whose glowing 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 camp in British horror films for a decade, died on Jan. 4 in London. She was 88.

Her agent, Thomas Bowington, said in a statement that she had spent two weeks in December in a hospital, where she contracted Covid-19. It was successfully treated, but after going home she died of what he described as “underlying issues.”

Barbara Teresa Kowin was born on Feb. 13, 1932, in Harrow, England, a part of Greater London. 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 movie debut was a bit part in “Man in Hiding” (1953), a crime drama. She enjoyed a 1955 vacation in Italy so much that she stayed two years and made films there. When Italians had trouble pronouncing Kowin, she renamed herself Shelley.

Making “Cat Girl” back home in England led to her calling as a leading lady of horror. Most of her best-known pictures were for Hammer Films, the London studio responsible for horror classics including “The Mummy” and “The Curse of Frankenstein.”

But often there were no monsters onscreen. She played almost a hundred other roles in movies and on television. She was Mrs. Gardiner, the Bennet sisters’ wise aunt, in a 1980 mini-series version of “Pride and Prejudice.” She appeared on “Doctor Who,” “The Saint,” “The Avengers” and “Eastenders.”

She made guest appearances on midcentury American series, including “Route 66” and “Bachelor Father.” And she had a stage career as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. Her final screen role was in “Uncle Silas” (1989), a mini-series with Peter O’Toole.

But the horror movies — her last was “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967), about a five-million-year-old artifact — were her legacy.

“They built me a fan base, and I’m very touched that people will come and ask for my autograph,” Ms. Shelley told Express magazine in 2009. “All the other things I did, nobody remembers.”



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