Sunday, October 17, 2010

Please note the Abbey will be temporarily closed for a private function

Carfax Abbey will be closing its doors for a month while I go off and get myself hitched.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by the Abbey in the past, and do please come again in November, when it'll be re-opening its doors - bigger and better, and with a ring on its finger.


Keeper of the Keys,
Carfax Abbey

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.

The Monster Club dims its lights

I've already noted the passing of director Roy Ward Baker, the British and Hollywood film director, who directed Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, the Titanic classic A Night to Remember, a sci-fi western with Bernard Bresslaw in it, the first ever Kung Fu Dracula film, the last ever kung fu Dracula film (same film actually), a Dracula film in which Peter Cushing's son is played by the chap who plays Sid James's son in Bless This House (yep: same one again), and the one where Dr Jekyll turns into a hot babe.

But to me, all of the above are merely footnotes.
Let the obituaries yell first and above all: Roy Ward Baker was the man who directed The Monster Club (1981).
It was his last theatrical work as director. Anyone who has seen it will share my certainty that he saved his best for last.
The Monster Club is important for being the only true first generation Hammer-Amicus era horror film that I can remember being on general release. (The only other candidate is House of the Long Shadows, but that's a bit more of a pastiche than a straggling authentic like the Club.)
Alas, I didn't actually see it on general release - I don't think its box-office glory trail extended as far as Plymouth - but I vividly remember staring at a full-page poster for it in my Doctor Who Monthly and thinking - as I still do - that it was one of the most exciting and enticing film posters I'd ever seen.
I even borrowed the title for my imaginary tv horror movie review programme, and cut out the poster to use as the cover of my spin-off book (which devoted a whole chapter to 'Horror Films with the actors who have played The Doctor in them').
I was a little older when I finally saw it, it would have been in the early days of Betamax, the day after its first ITV showing. Many, many subsequent viewings only confirmed my deathless regard for its manifold subtleties and delights.

Basically, the film was producer Milton Subotsky's last and most suicidal attempt to keep making the horror short story movies that he had made his trademark when he was running Amicus.
Already in 1977 he had come up with The Uncanny, a three-story clanger about killer cats. (He had already done a story about a killer cat as part of Torture Garden back in '67; but the twist this time was that all the stories are about killer cats, which gives the film a unique kind of negative momentum.)
The link story had Peter Cushing as a paranoiac author, trying to sell his publisher his book about how cats are evil and conspiring to destroy mankind, a thesis he illustrates with three anecdotes that then form the basis of the film. The first rips off the American film Eye of the Cat (1968) and has a good bit where Susan Penhaligon, trapped in the pantry by marauding moggies, is forced to eat cat food spread on crackers. The next, about a witch's cat, is set in Montreal (where the money came from) and features my favourite kind of miniaturisation effects - where the actors stand next to massive props - and a child actress you really want to get hold of and slap. The last steals the plot of Bram Stoker's The Squaw and features Donald Pleasance as Hollywood actor Valentine De'ath (with VD monogrammed on his dressing gown) who kills his wife but is himself killed by... her cat. Then finally, it's back to Cushing, who gets killed by some cats.
Is this the only horror film that opens with a Ted Hughes quote? I know of no others.

Then, in 1981, he was back; the film was The Monster Club, the director was Roy Ward Baker, and the tagline was "the horror film that's fun", which carries with it the peculiar implication that most horror films are not fun.
It stars Vincent Price as Eramus, a vampire with retractable fangs, a role that had already been turned down by both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The idea (if that's not too strong a word) is that Eramus bites a passer-by, who turns out to be R Chetwynd Hayes - the real horror author who wrote the original stories the film is based on, but here played by John Carradine, another actor whose answerphone presumably said, "I'm not in at the moment, but I'll do it."
As a reward for letting him have some blood ("from such a noble source") Vincent takes John to the eponymous club, where blood is served by the glass, the club secretary is a werewolf in a suit and glasses, the entertainment comes from the likes of The Pretty Things and B. A. Robertson, and the disco-dancing monsters all wear polo necks to disguise the bottoms of their plastic joke shop masks.

As well as several exceptionally good pop songs, there are three stories, as told by Eramus.
The first is about a hybrid monster called a Shadmock that can kill with a high-pitched whistle, who never leaves his house because he is so hideously, monstrously ugly. When a woman comes to his door, shock music yells on the soundtrack and she flees, screaming.
But this is the odd thing: there is nothing - absolutely nothing - wrong with him. He has fairly pasty skin, fairly - but not abnormally - large nostrils, and a fairly severe centre parting. But that's it. He's just an ordinary looking bloke. Now, how this came about I don't know. Perhaps there was a make-up design that relied on lighting and opticals rather than prosthetics, and it didn't photograph properly. Who knows? All we can see is a woman running in terror from a man who looks, at worst, like a bank manager.
Episode two is supposedly work in progress from an autobiographical film by "the great vampire film producer Lintom Busotsky". Richard Johnson is a vampire and devoted family man apprehended by Donald Pleasance and the men from Scotland Yard's B-Squad, a special unit formed to investigate "blood crimes" and known as 'the Bleeney'. Humour on this level is generally speaking rare after teatime. At the end the supposedly dead vampire rises from his coffin to reveal that he has been saved by his stake-proof vest. ("Filled with... TOMATO KETCHUP!" screams Johnson.)
Episode three is about a location-scouting horror director, played by Stuart Whitman, the only actor who envied Cameron Mitchell his career trajectory. He turns up at a village of ghouls, barely escapes with his life and flags down a police car, but the policemen have plastic fangs, and drive him back again to be eaten.

Oh, do I ever love this film! Of course, I know that the general feeling is that it's not even bad enough to be fun, just bad enough to be bad. But objectivity is out of the question. Unchanging, uncomplaining, and as unfathomable today as it was when it came out of the kiln in 1981, this film has walked with me through the good times and the bad. If I live to be ninety I'll still be finding an excuse to watch it at least once a year.