Thursday, October 14, 2010

Roy Ward Baker (1916 - 2010): “People only bluff because they are stupid”

"Nowadays the audience is expected to be absolutely passive; they are given no encouragement to involve themselves emotionally with the film... Perhaps they are flattered by the lengths to which filmmakers go in titillating their eyeballs. They don't seem to protest about the sheer vulgarity of it all; they remain uninvolved. What real pleasure they get out of it, I do not know. I believe that this attitude may simply be a bad habit which developed from watching television. The audience here usually consists of two or three people: doing homework, glancing occasionally at the sports page, or knitting. And then the phone rings... This is not a criticism of the programmes; this is the way things are and people develop a detached attitude."
- Roy Ward Baker, The Director's Cut
Roy Ward Baker, one of the less-discussed but to my mind most interesting directors to have made a corner for themselves in the British horror movie died last week at the age of 93.
I like his films very much, and I always found him a most attractively crotchety character in interviews. He reminded me of my grandfather. I also very much enjoyed his book The Director's Cut, a fascinating account of his working life that also doubles as a guide for aspiring directors, and ends with the invaluable advice: "don't go to the cinema too much."
Baker occupies an interesting place in the Hammer (and Amicus, and Tyburn) story, in that he was an old hand of the Terence Fisher generation (and another Gainsborough graduate), but one who only arrived at the studio when most of his generation were being replaced with the cynical young bloods like Chris Wicking and Peters Sasdy and Sykes, and such brazenly exploitational talents as producers Fine and Style and screenwriter Tudor Gates.
If he tends to get overlooked it's not so much because of any deficiencies in his work so much as the fact that his films are associated less with their director and more with their stars (The Anniversary), their writers (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Quatermass and the Pit, Asylum) or their wacky innovations. As regards the latter, he certainly seemed to get first dibs on the crumbs from Hammer's weirdo table. (Even I can see that's a bizarre sentence, but I think I'll leave it.)
So he got to direct "the first Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!" (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires - also the last kung fu horror spectacular, frustrating those of us who continue to long for a kung fu Frankenstein film), and the definitive lesbo vampire movie (The Vampire Lovers). Strangest of all, perhaps, was Moon Zero Two, the sci-fi western that the studio were convinced was going to be the big hit of 1969.
The film was a logistical nightmare, as Baker recalled in his autobiography:
We had difficulty with the simplest problems, for instance, flying Bernard Bresslaw on a Kirby wire.
When making Bernard Bresslaw fly is one of your simpler problems, you know you're in trouble.
But several of his films are underrated. Asylum (1972) is a beauty, probably second only to Tales from the Crypt among the Amicus multi-story films, and I'm not sure that company ever made a better full feature than Baker's splendid And Now The Screaming Starts (1973). Not much wrong with Vault of Horror (1973), either.
As plain Roy Baker he began as a tea boy and gradually worked his way up to second assistant director by the end of the thirties. In various capacities en route he worked on the films of Will Hay and the Crazy Gang and Arthur Askey and Mags Lockwood, alongside Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes and Roy William Neill on Dr Syn, and with visiting Hollywood stars Boris Karloff on The Man Who Changed His Mind and Fay Wray on The Clairvoyant.
"People like Claude Rains, Boris Karloff and Fay Wray were eye-openers to us," he recalled in his autobiography. "They had an instinct for the camera and they weren't afraid of it."
The home-grown talent, by contrast, was primarily comprised of "actors who fluffed their lines and missed their marks, were hopelessly inefficient about their wardrobe, make-up, props, etc, and spent most of their time wandering off the set."
He rose to the rank of full director and soon earned a reputation for tight-shipped professionalism, reliability and skill. ("People only bluff because they are stupid.") This reputation spread as far as Hollywood, to which he was invited for a brief stint, most interestingly making Don't Bother To Knock for Fox, the only film to exploit the instability informing Marilyn Monroe's passively inviting allure.
.Back in England he made an interesting movie out of Margery Allingham's The Tiger In The Smoke in 1956, and perhaps his most famous film, A Night To Remember, in 1958.
The latter is without any serious competition the best film ever made about the Titanic disaster and a considerable logistical achievement, with difficult visual effects and fifty speaking roles. With characteristic inventiveness, Baker shot the scenes of the survivors stranded in the freezing Atlantic on a suitably chilly night at Ruislip Lido, and disguised the fact that only a cross-section of the ship exterior was built by shooting the starboard scenes in a mirror, with the cast wearing reverse-printed cap badges and and jackets buttoned on the wrong side:
It worked. The officers saluted with their left arms and the gentlemen exchanged left-handed handshakes. I gather this wheeze has also been used elsewhere; I have no copyright in it.
But after the failure of The Singer Not the Song (1960) film work was suddenly hard to come by, and he did lots of tv, including several of the very best episodes of The Avengers.

In 1967 he entered the world of British horror, and added the 'Ward' to his name to distinguish himself from a dubbing editor with the same name. The unfortunate result was that people assumed it was to distinguish himself from himself. To this day, the mistake that the man who made A Night To Remember and the man who made The Monster Club are two different people persists.

My favourite of his Hammer films is Scars of Dracula - not a masterpiece, perhaps, but better than its reputation, plainly.
For one thing it restores Lee's Dracula to a position of centrality, and gives him proper dialogue for the first time since the original film. And its faults are clearly not Baker's. It looks cheap, with some truly horrid studio sets, and terrible special effects, especially at the climax. But the worst mistake is the beginning, which seeks to establish spurious continuity by having Dracula revived from his ashes by a rubber bat dribbling blood on them.
It's crazy: he died in London at the end of the previous film, and as soon as he's revived here the flame-wielding villagers are on the scene to burn his castle down! It seems obvious that the film as conceived, and as shot by Baker, was not a sequel but a new beginning, with Dracula back in his Transylvanian castle at the kick-off. The new opening - with its cheapo revivification scene that simply plays his demise from the last one in reverse - ruins the film as planned, and in no legitimate way achieves the sense of continuity it seeks. I'm convinced that, even with all its other faults still in situ, the film would be much more highly regarded if only this sequence were removed.
The most obvious novelty in the movie is its vastly increased level of gore and sadism, which Baker says he entered into wholeheartedly on the basis of 'if that's what they want, that's what they'll get'. It gives the film a harsh, modern quality that translates well for younger horror fans, and also sits intriguingly alongside the director's equally pronounced streak of romanticism. (Dracula has doors that open for him, and for the first time in the movies he does Stoker's clambering up and down the castle walls routine - and far more effectively than Gary Oldman, too.)
A similar sense of old-fashioned mystery permeates The Vampire Lovers, another film that balances romance and exploitation with surprising dexterity. Certainly the film Baker delivered was not the one producer Harry Fine had initially envisaged:
He always carried a briefcase in which he kept several copies of a New York magazine. He seemed to be keen to show them to me. It was called Screw. It was in tabloid newspaper form and was entirely devoted to physical sex in all its forms, including full page photographs of full frontal nudes, men and women together, still fairly unusual in those days.
Roy's last movie was The Monster Club in 1981. If I were to claim that this is my favourite of his films I suspect I would lose the sympathy of virtually everyone who has followed me thus far, and to explain why would double the length of this post and fatally overbalance it.
That's why I've relegated discussion of this beautiful film to a separate post, below.
For now, I shall end, with a heartfelt thank you to RWB, for so many happy hours of British horror.
May flights of vampire bats flap thee to thy rest.


Radio London said...

Good to see the blog being updated again! And a cool tribute to Baker to boot.

Keep up the good work.

Chris Regan said...

Brilliant summary of Baker's career there! It's made me realise how many of his films I need to see.

Jinx said...

Fabulous tribute. Really wonderful.
My new essential accessory will now be a briefcase full of erotica. Much classier than the ASDA carrier bag I was lugging it around in previously.

RoseOfTransylvania said...

I enjoyed a lot of Scars of Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Vampire Lovers.
(I seem also to be only Hammer fan who enjoyed refreshingly old-fashioned visual splendor and fun of Bram Stokers Dracula!)

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks all!
Jinx - nothing really to do with anything you said, except in so far as you mentioned Asda, but I can't think of anyone else who would appreciate this so here goes. Just got back from Florence to find that, in the year or so since we last visited, no less a shopping entity as SPAR has opened a supermarket right in the historic centre of the city!! I've never felt so proud to be English. And best of all, they call it DESPAR, so it looks like 'Despair'. Fantastic.

Rose of Transylvania - Thanks for looking in! I liked large parts of that movie, I just thought it was killed by the ridiculous presentation of Dracula himself, with ridiculous performances to match from Oldman and Hopkins. But it looked a treat, and Winona is a deity at this address.
Hope to see you in these parts again...

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Ah, definitely! And Winona as Mina - her delicate doe-eyed Snow White look was perfect in that role!