Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Roy Ward Baker

With the death of Roy Ward Baker last week we have lost another link with the world of Hammer films. He was a relative latecomer to the studios and never really considered himself part of the ‘family’ – the close-knit group of directors, actors, writers and technicians who gathered around whichever generation of the founding Carreras and Hinds dynasties was currently installed (Michael and Anthony at the time of his arrival in 1966). Such an intimate atmosphere was, in any case, more difficult to maintain once the company had left the cosy confines of the Bray Studios. Harsh times beckoned as American backers pulled out, budgets dwindled and relaxed censorship and a concomitant change in public tastes led to a demand for harder-edged material. But whilst Baker may not have been a part of Hammer’s golden age, his pictures do nevertheless display a striking range, covering a variety of genres. These run the gamut from the blend of science fiction and the supernatural in his first Hammer outing, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), through the black comedy of The Anniversary (1968), the company’s second film with Bette Davis, to the brightly coloured plastic space opera of Moon Zero Two (1969), which is so redolent of its era. With Bernard Bresslaw and Warren Mitchell donning the spacesuits, and a central character who is essentially a junkman, it’s a peculiarly deglamourised British take on the genre. Moving into the 70s, he larded one of the studio’s staples with a rather half-hearted splatter of explicit gore and violence in The Scars of Dracula (1970), introduced nudity, lesbian lust and Ingrid Pitt (usually in the same scene) in The Vampire Lovers (1970), and toyed with a cheekily camp transsexual recasting of the Jekyll and Hyde story in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), in which Ralph Bates can’t disguise his delight at turning into Martine Beswick. It’s noticeable, in fact, that for a man of self-confessed ordinariness, an honest quality which comes across in the interviews and commentaries on the dvds of his films, he made a number of films centring on unconventional sexuality. This had more to do with the tenor of the times and the exploitation areas he was working in, but the disparity between the films’ content and the restrained English reserve of his character provides an interesting contrast. It’s emblematic of Hammer’s own slightly diffident attempts to adapt to a new era.

Shepperton Babylon - Dirk Bogarde in The Singer Not the Song
His distance from such material comes through in his personal distaste for his film The Singer Not the Song (1960), starring Sir Dirk of Bogarde, made during his years with the Rank Studios. This has slowly accumulated a reputation as a coveted camp classic, but Baker regarded it as something of an albatross hanging heavy around his neck. He exudes weariness when Matthew Sweet brings the subject up in an interview for his book Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema (currently on display in the window of the Read and Return Bookshop, citizens of Exeter). It’s an offbeat Western featuring a central love/hate relationship between a Mexican bandit (Bogarde, if you can credit it) and a Catholic priest (John Mills), with a girl in between as the token and largely ignored object of their affections. The film was completely hijacked by a petulant Bogarde, who was longing to break free from his matinee idol image at this time. He viewed the material with utter contempt, as did Baker, who never wanted the director’s job but approached it with professionalism nevertheless. Bogarde made the film’s latent homosexuality overt, costuming himself in slouch hat, black shirt and leather trousers. As he says in Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema, ‘I did the whole thing for camp and nobody had any idea what was happening’. Au contraire, Sir Dirk, it was all too apparent for everyone involved. Baker, who normally adopted his British ‘if you’ve nothing good to say of somebody, then say nothing’ attitude, is blunt about Bogarde’s diva antics. In the Shepperton Babylon interview he recalls ‘Dirk Bogarde’s behaviour was absolutely disgraceful…he was very nasty. Very nasty’. This from a man who managed to get on with notoriously difficult figures such as Bette Davis and John Davis, the head of Rank during the 50s, of whom Baker philosophically observes (again in Shepperton Babylon) ‘it’s very rare that you’ll come across somebody who is universally despised, but he was one’. It’s clearly an experience, and a film, which he would rather have forgotten.

As opposed to A Night to Remember. When asked what was his personal favourite amongst his films during a lull in the commentary for his Amicus horror anthology Asylum (more of which later) he unhesitatingly chooses this one. It’s arguably the best of the several films made about the Titanic, with careful attention paid to documented events and a refusal to opt for easy melodrama or extraneous plot devices. Its realism is a quality which Baker thought of as his forte, which perhaps explains the uneven quality of some of his horror films, and the greater ease which he seemed to display in the Amicus films, whose intrusions of the fantastic occurred in contemporary settings. Baker’s latterday work in the horror genre was a rebirth which involved a symbolic rechristening. The Ward was added to the middle (borrowed from his mother’s maiden name) to avoid confusion with another Roy Baker working for Hammer. He subsequently claimed that this slight alteration in his credited name had proved something of a burden, since it meant that people failed to make the connection with the Roy Baker who had already enjoyed such a distinguished career. This spanned the English and American studios (Rank and Fox, principally) and included acting as Hitchcock’s assistant on The Lady Vanishes, directing Marilyn Monroe in an early co-starring role in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and making what is generally considered to be one of the most innovative and technically accomplished of the era’s 3-D films, Inferno (1953). This eschewed the alien invasion and monster attack associated with 50s 3-D for a tale of melodramatic betrayal and desert endurance, and used the additional sense of depth to create a sense of space which drew the audience in. Roy (not yet Ward) Baker also directed a lot of television drama. He made a lot of the episodes for Diana Riggs’ first Avengers season, and thus played a significant role in creating the pop art world of exaggerated English stereotypes for which it is remembered today.

Quatermass and the Pit - Barbara goes banshee
Quatermass and the Pit is definitely the high point of Baker’s Hammer output. It edits some of the verbosity of Nigel Kneale’s TV script, bringing the greater resources of the cinema to bear in telling the story in a more visual style. Kneale’s rationalisation of the supernatural (albeit via ‘science’ which itself verges on the magical, as with the thought recorder) remains intact, and the final scenes of chaos on the studio city sets are well achieved (given the usual provisos about budgetary restraints). Andrew Keir makes a splendid Quatermass (gaining Kneale’s approval as Brian Donlevy emphatically had not) and Barbara Shelley is brilliantly cool throughout, until her long-buried alien hive mind is re-activated and she releases her inner banshee. These final scenes, in which those who are ‘pure bred’ from the original Martian stock turn on those who are different, acts as a powerful parable about the fascistic or totalitarian mindset, and is all the more powerful for its location amongst the everyday backdrops of London life at the time (the tube station, the pub, the terraced houses). Tristram Cary’s surges of throbbing electronic sound add immeasurably to the sense of an irresistibly compulsive force acting on the shared subconscious of the ‘chosen’. Presumably it was to this aspect of the film that Drew Mulholland was attracted when producing his Mount Vernon Arts Lab record The Seance at Hobs Lane, which manages to evoke some of the same atmospheres. Chillingly, even the ultra-rationalist Quatermass falls prey to his atavistic urges, a disavowal of the ideal of heroic characterisation. It’s left to one of those condemned for their ‘difference’ to save the day, James Donald’s archaeologist Dr Roney. Devising a means to destroy the demonic focus of the compulsive Martian force drawn from old folk wisdom, which turns out to have a rational basis, he comments ‘it’s what they’d never allow for. That even a little scrap of knowledge like that should be in the possession of minds free to use it’. It’s a line which could have been taken from Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.

If Quatermass and the Pit is Baker’s Hammer highpoint, then The Scars of Dracula marks a tawdry nadir. Oddly, it is this one film, contained together with Quatermass and the Pit in the compendious Hammer Collection boxset, for which he provides a commentary, alongside Christopher Lee. They seem to be only half-watching the wretched thing, setting off on conversational tangents as swiftly as possible. Lee compares the taste and restraint displayed by Hammer films as compared with the excess of modern horror movies as the camera goes through a series of crass crash zooms on the gore makeup raked across the faces of the victims of a risibly lame bat attack. As the sizeable bat makes yet another of its surprisingly frequent stiff and jerky entrances later in the film, spitting little squirts of blood, Baker and Lee are compelled to admit that it’s not all that it might have been (although Baker optimistically suggests that the dvd release might edit out some of the strings – he will have been disappointed).

Digging the grave
The other Hammer pictures all have something to recommend them, and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (scripted by Avengers writer Brian Clemens) is particularly enjoyable, cheerfully shoehorning a disparate cast of characters from gaslit tales of mystery and horror into the movie’s iconoclastic melange. Baker did his best on The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), an attempt to blend traditional gothic elements with the current vogue for kung fu in which he essentially ushered Hammer towards its grave. The whole enterprise has a whiff of desperation about it, and seen today at least has a ‘what were they thinking’ bizarreness to recommend it. In the right mood it’s and enjoyable load of nonsense, with Peter Cushing displaying his customary commitment, even when presented with such evidently preposterous material. Had it been better made and written (and had the kung fu action been more excitingly worked out) it could have served as a precursor to such outré oriental oddities as A Chinese Ghost Story, The Bride With White Hair or Mr Vampire.

Baker also made several films for Amicus, Hammer’s rivals who produced a steady output of horror films from the mid sixties through to the mid seventies. He seemed more at home at Amicus, and got on particularly well with Milton Subotsky who, along Max J Rosenberg (a man for whom a middle initial should always be included), founded and ran the studio. In his commentaries for the dvds of his Amicus films, Baker claims that he hardly ever met Rosenberg, and speaks of him with barely disguised distaste. He expresses particular disgruntlement over the producer’s tampering with the title of the film which he had made as The Bride of Fengriffin, but which Rosenberg felt would sound better as …And Now The Screaming Starts. Rosenberg comes across as a cheerfully crass would-be mogul in the Inside the Fear Factory documentary included in the extras of the Asylum disc, his sole interest in the films he produced arising from the personal profits which they generated. At least he’s honest about his naked greed. His self-aggrandising claims that it was he who carried the weight of the company are clearly nonsense, however. Subotsky seems to have been rather more engaged with the stories he was producing, and also with the directors, writers (a task which he sometimes took on), actors and technicians who made them. It was he, according to Baker, who had the knack of assembling the very impressive casts who were prepared to work for a day or two on a story in one of the portmanteau films which were Amicus’ specialty.

Asylum - armed attack
These portmanteau, or anthology films gathered several stories together, usually from some external source, and framed them with some generally pretty flimsy bridging narrative. Baker made three of these, Asylum (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), and a late hurrah (although more of an apologetic shrug, in fact) for the company, The Monster Club (1980). In Asylum, whose script was based on stories by Robert Bloch, Robert Powell is the doctor arriving at the titular psychiatric institution, where he is greeted by Patrick Magee, wheelchair bound as he had been in A Clockwork Orange. Powell is told he can have the job he is going for if he can identify which of several inmates is in fact Dr Starr, who has gone mad and been confined to one of the rooms he used to supervise. The patients to whom he is taken unfold their stories, and these make up the various episodes of the film. In Frozen Fear, Richard Todd bumps off his wife (Sylvia Syms) so that he can go off with his young mistress (who relates the story to Powell). He neatly wraps her dismembered remains in brown paper and stores them in the newer freezer he’d had installed for her in the basement. Then, one night, he hears dry rustling sound coming from down below. In Weird Tailor, Barry Morse’s cash-strapped clothier receives a commission from Peter Cushing for a very special suit, to be made at night under strictly outlined conditions, which will raise his dead son. In Lucy Comes to Stay, Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) conjures an ‘imaginary’ friend, Lucy (Britt Ekland), who acts as her devilish alter ego and leads her to plot an escape from the cosseting care in which she is imprisoned due to her nervous condition. But Lucy is prepared to go to murderous lengths to secure Barbara’s freedom. Finally, in Mannikins of Horror, Herbert Lom shows off his family of small dolls, which he has fashioned in various likenesses and which he claims (in his ‘madness’) can be mentally controlled by those upon whom they are modelled. As Powell and Magee converse downstairs, the fire flickering to ward off the chill of the night which has fallen outside, Lom sets his own manikin to shuffle relentlessly through the corridors, seeking out the doctor who had him locked away. In the end, Powell decides he doesn’t really fancy the job anyway (and who can blame him), but makes the fatal discovery (fatal to him, that is) that Dr Starr was in fact none of the above, but the orderly who had guided him around throughout. This was a role originally earmarked for Spike Milligan, incredibly enough. That such casting might be considered gives an indication of the blackly humorous tone to which the Amicus anthologies aspired. The orderly/Dr Starr role went to Geoffrey Bayldon in the end, and he provides some of the antic spirit which he brought to Catweazle for the film’s closing scenes.

Baker’s second Amicus portmanteau film was Vault of Horror. Often regarded as one of the weaker of the anthology films, it does in fact have some rather good episodes. The dark humour is even more apparent then usual, given that these stories are taken from Will Gaines’ notorious horror comics of the 50s, such as Vault of Horror itself, and Tales from the Crypt, which lent its title to a previous Amicus adaptation of his gruesomely ghoulish vignettes. A group of people gather in a rather clinically furnished vault, which has the air of a waiting room. None of them quite know how they got there, but they all have a tale to tell of a terrible recurring dream. In the first story, Midnight Mess, cold-hearted bastard Harold (Daniel Massey) murders his sister Donna (Anna Massey – who really is his sister) for her share of an inheritance, before retiring to a restaurant around the corner. Baker shows his talent for evoking eerie, quiet urban spaces here. There’s something a bit odd about this hushed street of large Victorian houses, hidden away from major roads, with the restaurant on the corner seeming out of place in an otherwise entirely residential area. With dusk falling and the lights beginning to go on, the atmosphere is like one of Magritte’s Empire of Lights paintings of ordinary buildings which are imbued with a sense of contained mystery, shadowed in night although a daylit sky prevails above. Baker creates similar pockets of strange and slightly disconcerting urban quietude in Quatermass and the Pit, where we first see Hobs End in the early morning, its drab facades brightened only by the shocking orange effulgence of a belisha beacon; in the Weird Tailor episode of Asylum, in which the tailor’s shop is located in a dark and narrow alleyway which seems to be a remnant of Dickensian London, its heritage squalor fully intact. Areas which exist at a slight remove from the common experience of the world, and which are the perfect loci for the intrusions of the uncanny. Harold is initially alone in the restaurant, but it begins to fill as night falls. He realises that it may be an establishment catering for a rather select clientele when he is served a soup which is just a little too red, and is asked how he would like his ‘clots’. Suspicions are aroused by his evident confusion, and his outsider status is revealed when a curtain is pulled aside to reveal a wall-length mirror in which he is the only diner to be reflected. His sister emerges from the wings to watch with unconcealed relish as he is hung upside down and put ‘on tap’ for the vampiric customers to enjoy a glass of the fresh vintage. Revenge, in this case, is best served at room temperature. It has to be said, this denouement is slightly marred by the truly pathetic display of vampire fangs on offer.

New vintage - bin end fangs
In the next story, The Neat Job, Terry-Thomas’ expects his new wife to observe every aspect of his obsessively ordered life, in which everything is in its place, and there is a place, indexed, charted and labelled, for everything. Being an untidy person by nature, she is soon driven to distraction by his fussing and criticism, and he finds himself included in his filing system, neatly stored away in jars marked eyes, nose, fingers and so on. This Trick’ll Kill You is a dull story of travelling illusionists who murder a local magician to steal the secrets of his Indian rope trick, and suffer the consequences when they learn that there was something more than mere trickery involved. Bargain in Death is similarly uninspired in its plotting of an ill-conceived insurance scam which involves a man faking his death and being buried in a grave from which he trusts that his obviously untrustworthy accomplice will dig him up. As if that was ever going to go to plan. Drawn and Quartered is far more enjoyable, with a pre-Who Tom Baker as an embittered artist who, as a side effect of some voodoo dabbling, learns that alterations he makes to his finished paintings or sketches are indirectly visited upon the objects they were taken from. When he returns home, he proceeds to paint portraits of critics and gallery owners against whom he holds grudges, and exacts remote revenge through art. Foolishly, however, he leaves his own self-portrait beneath his studio window, above which some decorators set up their scaffolding, paint and white spirit precariously balanced above all that fragile glass. Well, accidents will happen, and a nasty mess is made of the face on his portrait. Naturally, it turns out in the end that they are all in fact dead, and stuck in some Sartre-like existential hell in which they are compelled to relay their sins in an endlessly re-iterated loop. Despite the panic over the corruption of the nation’s youth which they engendered in the 50s, Will Gaines’ horror comics were nothing if not moral.

These Amicus anthology movies are great to watch for the incidental details of the time. The clothes, the cars, the wallpaper are all now mesmerising in and of themselves. As Baker generously points out in his commentary to Asylum, Tony Curtis’ (no, not that one) set designs were always immaculately detailed, and show off all manner of 60s and 70s design. But, as with Hammer, this kind of horror simply went out of fashion as the 70s progressed. Baker made one more stab at the anthology format with The Monster Club in 1980, based on short stories by R.Chetwynd-Hayes. This was aimed at a younger audience (I was one of them), and brought Vincent Price and John Carradine into the Amicus fold for the first time. As he had done for Hammer with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Baker essentially ushered Amicus towards its overdue terminus with this picture, which looked like a relic from a past era when it came out. I still have a sneaking affection for it, having gone to see it at the cinema when I was 12 or so. Having already seen the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave on BBC2 late night horror double bills, I couldn’t quite believe I was going to get to see an actual Amicus anthology film at the cinema. And I loved it – except for the music which played in the club. I saw it a while back and still found it enjoyable (although the music was still awful), and felt a pang of nostalgia for a time when this was enough. You’d go to your local Odeon or ABC and come away satisfied with this sort of thing, no explosions or splatter, just a rainforest’s worth of dry ice, a few ropey monster masks and a bit of spooky music. The episode set in the village of ghouls was quite atmospheric (and I remember having seen the end of it at the cinema, having wandered in a little early – I watched some of the first story a second time round as well). Movie producer Stuart Whitmore, scouting for locations, took a wrong turning off a busy A road and found himself in a decaying village called Loughville (cleverly disguised, no?) which seemed to be stuck in some vague medieval past. John Bolton provided some great illustrations for the flashback story, with gleefully animalistic ghouls leaping towards the graveyard with ravenous energy. He traced out the monster family tree examined by Vincent Price and John Carradine on the wall of the monster club, with an illustrative head for each branch. There was also a comic strip version of the stories which he did for Halls of Horror magazine, which I remember quite vividly. He revealed the full horror of what happens if you hear a Shadmock whistle.

Oakley Court pastoral
Baker did make one feature length story for Amicus, which I watched the other night by way of a tribute. This was …And Now The Screaming Starts (not to be confused with Scream and Scream Again – which is another thing entirely), included in The Amicus Collection, tastefully housed in a black coffin-shaped box. It’s a period gothic tale in the Hammer mould. Baker provides a commentary for the film alongside its star, Stephanie Beacham. He takes satisfaction in describing the long sweeping takes which describe the space of the two level interior set of the house in which much of the action takes place. He clearly paid a lot of attention to such technical details, and the film is beautifully realised visually. It has some splendid shots of Oakley Hall, a setting familiar from numerous Hammer movies, with some atmospheric ‘night’ shots of the moon (really the sun) behind the gables. The sets are lavishly dressed, as are the stars. Beacham is elaborately coiffured and wears a gorgeous series of dresses, and Ian Ogilvy sports some dashing 18th century high-collared jackets with brocade dressing gowns for evening activities. Baker is generous in his praise for Beacham’s performance, remarking on how well she acts with her eyes, and is gallant in his remarks about her beauty, past and present. She certainly plays her role with a great deal of commitment, which is probably more than the material really deserves. The story is a tediously repetitive rehash of numerous sources. There is more than a touch of Witchfinder General (from whose romantic theme composer Douglas Gamley shamelessly filches), with Ian Ogilvy once more going bonkers with an axe at the end – although this time he’s only setting about his evil ancestor’s tomb (a sledgehammer would probably have been a better tool for the job); a wholesale dollop of Terence Fisher’s Hound of the Baskervilles, including a flashback in which a wicked squire has his way with the local peasantry and brings a curse down upon his descendants; and a denouement which is a minor variant on the ending of Rosemary’s Baby, as both Baker and Beacham remark. There’s also something of the atmosphere of Rebecca about it, with its focus on the new bride discovering the secrets of the family she’s married into. Baker comments that he doesn’t like the term horror, preferring to think of his films as melodramas. This is certainly one picture which would fit that description. The crawling hand from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is dragged out for another outing (Stephanie Beacham refers to it as ‘that wretched hand’). It’s certainly no classic, but any film featuring the combined talents of Patrick Magee, Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom (and not forgetting Stephanie Beacham) must be worth investigation. And Baker seems proud of his work on it. At the end of the film, Baker comments ‘the public got good service, believe you me’. It’s a statement of a man who believed in a hard work ethic. He may not have been an auteur, and would no doubt have made no claims to have been one. He didn’t seem to have great artistic pretensions. But he did bring a professional attitude to everything he did, even when he felt no personal engagement with the material. Such a workmanlike approach can often be a great deal more effective than a heavily imposed directorial style or (God help us) ‘vision’. So here’s to an unpretentious craftsman who could always be relied upon to get the job done.
Stephanie's eyes

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