Directing films featuring schizophrenic babysitters, epic disasters and busty lesbian vampires. To a horror fan, that’s quite a career.
Roy Ward Baker, a prolific British filmmaker who helmed many horror and science fiction classics for Hammer Films, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, died October 5 at the age of 93.
“Baker was always workmanlike, with occasional flourishes,” says Hammer historian Robert Simpson, who appeared in a 2008 Hammer documentary with the filmmaker, from his home in Northern Ireland. “His strengths lie in teasing out the drama and the performances of his cast. … He’s up amongst the great Hammer directors certainly.”
Born Roy Horace Baker in London on December 19, 1916, his desire to pursue a filmmaking career emerged as early as 1928, when his father took him to see a silent film in a renovated theatre in Leicester Square. Once out of school, he started at the very bottom of the industry, fetching tea for demanding directors. By 1934, he was assistant director to Alfred Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes.
“Baker had learned from the best, starting off his career with Hitchcock, and I can’t help but wonder if those early experiences shaped his future career,” says Simpson.
Although credited as a director in the 1940s, his big break came in 1953, when he directed the suspenseful Don’t Bother to Knock, starring Marilyn Monroe in the atypical role of a troubled babysitter, opposite Richard Widmark. But the film for which he will best be remembered is the Rank Organization’s A Night To Remember (1958), based on Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the Titanic. Unlike other cinematic versions of the 1912 disaster, Baker’s film cared not for a romantic subplot trivializing the doomed ocean liner but strove for historical accuracy and a realistic, claustrophobic style, terrifying the British movie-going public.
After a falling out with the Rank Organization, Baker spent most of the 1960s working in television, directing episodes of The Avengers and The Saint. His experience in TV made him prime fodder for Hammer, who, like many studios, preferred to keep budgets low. But besides being an economically minded director, Baker brought along a refined level of seriousness to his projects.
Simpson notes, “Baker had always been very frank and warm about his experiences on the Hammer films. When he started working with Hammer, on Quatermass and the Pit, he treated it quite rightly as a serious drama, and that was always his policy.”
Ingrid Pitt, who played Mircalla Karnstein in The Vampire Lovers — Hammer’s first foray into the world of busty vampire seductresses — recalls that Baker was also a gentleman, especially when handling some of the studio’s more lyric subject matter, such as the nudity and gory lesbian love scenes. “I had thought that there was going to be a lot of leering and blood dripping from canine teeth, she tells Rue Morgue from London. “Roy explained that there had to be that side of but when the blood lust was dormant he just wanted a sweet, natural girl having a pleasant time.”
Simpson adds that the film would not be as revered without Baker’s particular touch. “The producers on The Vampire Lovers might have wanted something more salacious, but Baker treated the script straight and, with the actors he had at his disposal, produced something far more respectable than a lesser taken might have.”
Although Pitt only worked with Baker that one time, the colleagues kept in touch throughout the years, often visiting for tea. “He was a lovely man and I will miss him like mad, especially on Grand Prix weekend,” she says, when he would “drop in and give his opinion on the latest crop of overpaid and under performing drivers.”
This article was originally published by Rue Morgue Magazine, issue #109, April, 2012. It appears here in a slightly edited form.