The Mondo Esoterica Guide to:

Roy Ward Baker

  About Roy Ward Baker:

Born in London in 1916 as Roy Baker, he went to work as an apprentice for the Gainsborough film company and worked his way up through the ranks until reaching the role of assistant director for the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes (1938). With the outbreak of war he enlisted and spent four years in the army before moving to the film unit and shooting several instructional films. The head of this unit was Eric Ambler, a novelist and screenwriter, and after the war he employed Baker to direct his film-noir style mystery thriller October Man (1947) starring the popular British star John Mills. The film was a success and he went on to shoot two more films before a tragic accident brought him international attention.

Morning Departure (1950) was another John Mills vehicle, based on a play about the crew of a submarine trapped in their sunken vessel hoping for rescue. Before the film could be released, a very similar real life incident occurred when a British submarine sunk in the Thames estuary with large loss of life - despite suggestions that the film should be shelved, its release was allowed and the film was publically dedicated to the crew of the HMS Truculent in the opening titles. The event brought the film a lot of publicity on both sides of the Atlantic, and shortly afterwards Baker was offered a Hollywood contract. He helmed several films in America, including the troubled Marylin Munroe in her first leading role in Don't Bother to Knock (1952) managing to elicit a performance considered to be the best of her career. He returned to Britain in the second half of the decade and worked for the Rank company, shooting the enjoyable war-film The One that Got Away (1957) and working on the classic disaster movie A Night to Remember (1958) scripted by his old friend Eric Ambler. Unfortunately, despite his protests, Rank sent him out to Spain to direct the Mexican based drama The Singer Not the Song (1961) with an uninterested Dirk Bogard and a woefully miscast John Mills and the film was a failure (although his has become something of a cult classic in recent years due to this) - he would not work with Rank again. He did produce his own film the following year, the coming-of-age comedy Two Left Feet (1963) but it was poorly received.

For most of the 1960s Baker found work on British television series including Herbert Lom's psychiatry drama Human Jungle (1963/64), ITC's first colour show The Baron (1966), and the action packed The Avengers (1961/69) and The Saint (1962/69). His first return to the screen in 5 years came when he was brought in by the British Hammer Films company to helm their latest production Quatermass and the Pit (1967). The film was a hark back to the studio's breakthrough horror themed sci-fi films of the 1950s, and benefited from a big money co-production deal with Seven Arts. Starring Andrew Keir in a rare but well deserved lead role, it includes the single greatest closing shot in cinema history. He quickly returned to Hammer the next year when temperamental star Bette Davis ordered that director Alvin Rakoff be removed from the set of The Anniversary (1968) and recommended Baker in his stead - he also shot their rather less successful space-western Moon Zero Two (1969). It was while at Hammer that Baker gained the 'Ward', his mother's maiden name, to avoid confusion with Roy Baker, Hammer's regular sound editor.

Into the 1970s Baker was retained for a trio of Hammer Horrors at a time when the company was desperately trying to adapt their product to fit the changing times. The Vampire Lovers (1970) was the first of their female vampire films, and with Baker's strong direction it managed to be both sexy and scary, but Scars of Dracula (1970) was a bizarre attempt to restart the Dracula franchise (while retaining Christopher Lee in the main role) and is completely lacking in sex and scares, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) was one of the studios more daring productions, a cleverly written gender bending twist on the classic tale. Inbetween more ITC television work, now on The Persuaders (1971) and The Protectors (1972) he was snapped up by Hammer's horror rivals Amicus to direct their anthology horror film Asylum (1972) starring Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom, both of whom would return in his next production And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) a more straight forward period horror story considered to be one of the studio's best films. His third and final Amicus job was on the EC Comics inspired Vault of Horror (1973), starring neither Lom nor Cushing, or in fact any big names, meaning that despite being one of their best anthology sets, it soon disappeared. Shot in Hong Kong as a Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) was Baker's last cinema credit in the decade and brought to an end a seven year run of horror movie work - the industry was in decline and within two years both Hammer and Amicus had stopped production.

Baker continued to work, shooting episodes of Return of the Saint (1978) and the tense war-time series Danger: UXB (1979). His last film credit came on The Monster Club (1980) for the former Amicus owner Milton Subotsky and starring Vincent Price and John Carradine - a hark back to the classic Amicus anthology films, it was completely out of its time and critically mauled. Although not working in cinema again, Baker did keep working in television, helming the impressive mini-series The Flame Trees of Thika (1981) - based on the Elspeth Huxley novel, and set in colonial Africa, it starred Hayley Mills, daughter of Baker's old friend John Mills. Mills himself starred as Dr. Watson in The Masks of Death (1984), a well received television film starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes (a tribute to his BBC series in the role from the 1960s). He continued working in television for the rest of the decade, including 13 episodes and a feature length version of the long running comedy series Minder (1979/92) and Peter Bowles vehicle The Irish R. M. (1983) before finally retiring in the early 1990s. A talented and always solid director and some might say underused in his frequent television roles, Baker has achieved fame in cult movie circles for his Hammer and Amicus productions, but in mainstream he will always be remembered best for the classic Titanic disaster movie A Night to Remember (1958).

DVD Reviews: Films directed by Roy Ward Baker

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)
Anchor Bay UK Region 2 DVD
Amicus' surprisingly scary and well made ghost story, thanks to superb acting, and solid direction from Baker.
Highly recommended.
Asylum (1972)
Anchor Bay UK Region 2 DVD
One of the lesser anthology films, with no particularly outstanding stories, but direction is solid.
Only for Amicus fans.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
UK Optimum Region 2 DVD (Ultimate Hammer Collection boxset)
Baker helms one of Hammer's best: well acted and directed, and with a decent, if slightly rushed script.
Highly recommended.
Vampire Lovers (1970)
Alan Young ITA Region 2 DVD
The first of Hammer's female vampire films and certainly their best, erotic and scary in equal measure.
Vault of Horror (1973)
US Fox Region 1 DVD
The sequel to Tales from the Crypt, and far more effective, with a real comic book atmosphere throughout.


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All text in this site written by Timothy Young - September 2007.
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