Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Birthday, Roy Ward Baker!

Though history will probably note A Night to Remember (1958) as his greatest directorial achievement, it’s his terrific work for Hammer and Amicus that we salute him for on his b-day. Surprisingly, the success of Night didn’t lead to any other high profiles jobs, and Baker worked mostly in television until drafted by Hammer to helm the return of intellectual super-scientist Martin Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit in 1967. Andrew Keir took over from American Brian Donlevy – a choice that had always irked Q’s creator Nigel Kneale, but forced by producers wanting an American lead to enhance sales across the pond – and brought a less abrasive, grandfatherly approach to the character. Kneale’s ripping story, about the discovery of the ruins of a Martian spacecraft in a London tube station, is a corker; brought to life in very vivid color, and marking a sharp upturn in production value from the smaller-black & white offerings produced by the studio in the mid 50s.

More Hammers followed, from the less than memorable The Anniversary and the downright gimpy Moon Zero Two (with a title theme that clings to your brain with razor wire) alongside higher quality television work for The Avengers and The Saint. But Baker’s late career best came in 1970 with The Vampire Lovers, possibly the best regarded late-cycle Hammer effort. It’s one of the few sexualized vampire tales that didn’t come off as pure exploitation, thanks to Baker’s tasteful handling of the strong, R-rated material. Baker’s last two films for the studio came within a year, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Scars of Dracula, the former falling victim to the trend of switching the racial or sexual identity of a classic horror character, and the latter a listless outing featuring a bored Lee as the Count.

Switching to Amicus brought several interesting shows, including a reunion with Cushing in …And Now the Screaming Starts and the omnibus pictures Asylum and Vault of Horror. The latter featuring a great payoff to a story involving vampires that is still censored on the recent MGM double feature DVD released earlier this year. The uncut import is available (though seriously lacking in the quality control department) if you have the ability to play PAL DVDs from Xploited Cinema here:

Returning to Hammer for one last film, Baker helmed the superb genre bender The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. Peter Cushing returns (for the last time) as Prof Van Helsing, guest lecturing in China, who works with a large family of martial arts experts to rid a remote village of an ancient evil that is all too familiar to the professor. Produced at a time when Hammer was trying everything short of snuff films to get people into theaters, the film’s reputation suffered (and thumbnail plot descriptions don’t help) but recent years, and the growing critical appreciation for martial arts films, have seen the film rediscovered as a minor classic. And though I’m sure Baker had little to do with the martial arts scenes, a master’s hand was needed to bind the British gothic with Hong Kong chopic; it’s a recipe that shouldn’t work, but thanks to the chef, it does.

Master chef Roy Ward Baker turns 91 today.