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Archive for October, 2010

Happy Halloween!  In honor of the (apparently) late, lamented Watching Hammer, I offer this nostalgic list, written at their request just before the site ceased posting new material:

Sincerest thanks to Watching Hammer for inviting me to contribute a Top Ten.  Since Hammer’s heyday ended when I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, I haven’t had the experience other contributors did of seeing these films on the big screen, and was forced to content myself with TV, home-video and convention screenings over the years.  In my infancy as a genre-film aficionado, I thought Hammer was a bunch of pretenders who had the audacity to remake our beloved Universal classics, but our friends across the Pond had the last laugh because now, at any given moment, I’d probably rather watch a Hammer than a Universal, much as I love them both.  And the fact that my future wife and I bonded in high school by chatting about these films during chorus class didn’t hurt.

As the guy who had a hard time getting his list of favorite films on his own blog down to 100, I found it difficult to limit myself to ten, and must give an honorable mention to The Phantom of the Opera before beginning.  So, rather than subject myself to further agony, I am listing them in chronological order.  I make no apologies for including both of the films written by the object of my obsession, Richard Matheson, because I genuinely believe they were two of Hammer’s best, although this is really a list of favorites rather than those I would rank as “best” by some mythical objective standard.  Here goes…

The Quatermass Experiment:  Given my focus on writers, it’s no surprise that I think Nigel Kneale was one of the best things ever to happen to Hammer.  He might not have agreed at the time, since he was unhappy with both the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead and the adaptation (by Richard Landau and director Val Guest) of his seminal BBC serial, but since some chapters of the TV version are lost, we’ll never be able to compare them in their entirety.  Be that as it may, Quatermass’s struggle to learn what happened to the three-man crew of his first space rocket is eerie and suspenseful from the start, as he learns that contact with an alien life-form has made one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) absorb the others and begin mutating.  It was Hammer’s first big success, and rightly so.

Quatermass 2:  Many years ago, when New York’s outstanding Film Forum repertory cinema was still in its old Watts Street location, I arranged with my friend Greg Cox (now Matheson’s editor at Tor and a successful author of franchise fiction) to attend a screening of the Quatermass trilogy.  When I told him we might want to arrive early, he laughed and said, “Matthew, these are old British SF films from the ’50s and ’60s; we won’t have any trouble getting in.”  Well, the line was literally around the block, but we did get in.  Due to the vagaries of television programming, I think this was the first time I’d seen the original since childhood—perhaps the first in its entirety—and the first time ever for the sequel, which really wowed me.  Donlevy and Guest were back (the latter sharing script credit with Kneale this time), as Quatermass copes with a government conspiracy that turns out to represent an alien invasion.  The scene of the politician who has fallen into a vat of toxic liquid is a particular standout in this gripping and inventive thriller.

The Curse of Frankenstein:  With its unprecedented full-color gore and sumptuous period production values, this set the template for Hammer’s most famous films and established the “dream team” of their early days, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and up-and-coming genre superstars Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature).  Cushing’s Baron is a fascinating character, and Hammer wisely built the ensuing series around him rather than the Creature, who gets dissolved in a vat of acid at the end.  Hazel Court is the delectable cherry on top as Elizabeth, and I love Cushing’s chutzpah as he yells, “Look out, Professor!”…while pushing the poor old guy—whose brain he needs—off a balcony, in order to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:  In all fairness, I haven’t seen a number of the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, but of those I have, I would rank Peter Cushing as second only to Basil Rathbone in the role.  In most cases, Rathbone easily surpassed his material, much of which was not derived from Conan Doyle, but here, the above dream team (minus Sangster) provided a top-notch vehicle, complete with the always-welcome Andre Morell as an unusually intelligent Watson.  Although relegated to the role of the imperiled Baskerville heir, Lee adds considerable heft, and Cushing is a delight as he rips into lines like, “There are many strange things to be found upon the moor—like this, for instance!”  (Cue the loud “Thwock!” as he slams the ceremonial dagger into the table.)

Fanatic:  One might be forgiven for mistaking this as another of Hammer’s post-Psycho psycho-thrillers, written by Sangster and bearing similar one-word titles:  Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, Hysteria.  But as much as I love Sangster’s seminal scripts for Hammer in the ’50s, I think Matheson far surpasses him in this adaptation of Anne Blaisdell’s Nightmare (whose title presumably had to be changed to differentiate it from the Sangster film).  Stefanie Powers is lovely and believable as the American girl imprisoned by her late former fiancé’s mother, equally well played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her growing realization that her captor is a dangerous religious fanatic rather than a harmless eccentric gives the film a satisfying dramatic arc.  Throw in the young Donald Sutherland as a mentally challenged servant, and you’re good to go.

Dracula—Prince of Darkness:  This is my wife’s favorite movie, but that’s not the only reason I’m including it.  I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege to give this the nod over what we Yanks think of as Horror of Dracula, especially since Lee’s distaste for the script (Distaste the Script of Dracula?) led him to omit his dialogue.  Still, I’ve always preferred Prince; maybe I never got over the fact that Sangster had Harker get turned into a vampire, just as Dan Curtis did in the Jack Palance television version—a plot point, I might add, that is not found in Matheson’s published teleplay.  But I digress.  Andrew Keir pinch-hits beautifully for Van Helsing as rifle-toting Father Sandor, and rich entertainment is provided by the interplay among the ill-fated Kent family, with Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer amusingly cast as Charles and Diana and the ever-popular Barbara Shelley as the prim Helen, whose transformation into a sensuous vampire is most extraordinary.

Quatermass and the Pit:  Feel free to criticize me for devoting almost a third of my list to ol’ Bernie, but remember, I could have included Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, as well.  Reuniting Keir (as Quatermass) and Shelley, this is truly a thinking man’s SF film, as Quatermass discovers a five-million-year-old Martian spacecraft that is buried beneath London and holds surprising secrets about mankind’s evolution.  With Roy Ward Baker [see “A Career to Remember”] succeeding Guest, and Kneale bearing sole script credit, it once again showed the triumph of good writing over pathetic special effects—in this case, those finger-puppet Martians.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave:  Yeah, we Bradleys love us our vampires (Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter almost made the list as well), and I’ve always had a big soft spot for this follow-up to Prince, an affection that not merely the presence of Veronica Carlson can explain.  The redoubtable Rupert Davies as the monsignor has a lot to do with it, as does the spectacular climax, with Dracula knocked over his own battlements and impaled on a giant cross.  One of Fisher’s periodic hospitalizations forced Freddie Francis to direct this, but although he told me when I interviewed him that he was more interested in the young lovers than in Dracula, I think that once again, the story of the non-nosferatu characters is strong enough to keep us going in between visits from Lee.

The Devil Rides Out:  A pinnacle for all concerned.  Dennis Wheatley justifiably praised Matheson for his exciting adaptation of Wheatley’s somewhat verbose novel, and Lee has a rare heroic (not to mention sizeable) role as the Duc de Richleau.  Charles Gray is also outstanding as the Satanist villain, Mocata, and although the usual complaints are leveled at the skimpy special effects, see Quatermass and the Pit for my response to that.  With the usual superior contributions from Fisher and James Bernard, this is horror at its fast-paced, non-jokey and intelligent finest.  Lee and others have argued that it is ripe for a remake, but since you know it would just turn into another CGI-fest, I’m not sure I agree.

The Vampire Lovers:  I’d be lying if I said that naked women in general, a naked Ingrid Pitt in particular, and lesbian vampires didn’t influence this choice.  But, in my defense, look at the record:  you’ve got Cushing as the devoted and devastated father, General von Spielsdorf.  You’ve Jon Finch, soon to be brilliant in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in a supporting role.  And, perhaps most of all, you’ve got what may be the most faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with Baker at the helm.  Threadbare production values be damned, this is a good movie.

BOF Addendum:  Now I’ll sit back and wait for Drax to complain (albeit with love) about the absence of visuals.  I keep telling him I am the Word-Man.  Word-Man.  WORD-MAN!  BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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It Begins…

News about the advent—and I use that term advisedly; for me, after thirteen years, this is like the B.C./A.D. split—of Richard Matheson on Screen is percolating through the Internet, and I would like to thank those who’ve so graciously commented on Richard’s reaction to the book (see “The Only Review That Really Matters”).  Although I haven’t seen any formal reviews yet, prolific pop-culture author John Kenneth Muir has promised one at his Reflections on Film/TV blog, noting that, “So far, the book is very, very good; very thorough and interesting!”  Because Richard wrote the classic Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the irrepressible “Rear Admiral” Greg Cox has also been talking up the book on a message board (if that is the term) called The Trek BBS.

I Am Legend Archivist John Scoleri, who teams with Peter Enfantino on the sublime A Thriller a Day… blog (where, natch, I commented at great length on Matheson’s “The Return of Andrew Bentley”), has gone above and beyond the call of duty in championing the book.  Inspiring a frustrated academic’s wet dreams, he has not only plugged it, but also twice used it as an honest-to-God resource at their sister bare•bones e-zine site for his series of posts devoted to the first appearances of Matheson’s short stories.  And, as if that weren’t enough, John has also mentioned the book on other people’s websites, e.g., in his comments on Slade Grayson’s Bookgasm review of Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two (http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/sci-fi/matheson-uncollected-volume-two/).

Pride of place must go so far to the Fangoria site, where Tony Timpone recently interviewed me about the book, but since they offer such an embarrassment of riches, you may need to use a link (http://www.fangoria.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2440:chronicling-richard-matheson&catid=36:demo-articles&Itemid=56) to find it.  Mind you, this is before they have even received their copy of the book, which Tony said they will most likely review at some future date.  Refusing to be outdone, über-BOF-booster Simon Drax has both rhapsodized about the interview over at Ichiban Weapon Ready, and tumblred (this is a word?) about my Tor.com series “Richard Matheson—Storyteller” in another identity as The Creep in the Art Department.

Alas, while we’re on the subject of the blogosphere, I must sadly report the apparent demise of the Watching Hammer: The Hammer Films Review site, which has not run a new post since July 13 (during which time my e-mails have gone unanswered), although for now I’m continuing to list it in my blogroll in memoriam.  Never one to waste good material, I’ll be taking the Top Ten Hammers list they had asked me to compile just before the site went dark, and posting it here on BOF later today for Halloween.  Aptly, their last post is another Top Ten by Holger Haase, who holds forth at his Hammer and Beyond site about the films, as well as the participants and their careers outside of Hammer, and has expressed abundant interest in Richard Matheson on Screen.

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After some delays related to their exhaustive “Steampunk Fortnight” coverage, Tor.com has my latest installment of the “Richard Matheson—Storyteller” series up, along with the usual yummy artwork.  This one covers the remainder of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, along with such related works as Matheson’s The Comedy of Terrors and Corman’s The Terror (both 1963), plus AIP’s other Poe films.  I’m still awaiting word from my contact there—who is presumably up to her, um, hips in steampunks—about the direction of my next post, so I can’t say when or even what to expect, but as always I shall hope in my modest way that it will be worth the wait.

In other Matheson-related news, a new Twilight Zone feature film has just been announced that is said to be utilizing stories written by Rod Serling and You-Know-Who for the original TV series.  Hey, that sounds like a great idea, especially considering the universally high regard in which the last attempt to rehash Zone episodes for the big screen was held, especially after it resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two illegally employed child actors.  Richard had already opined back then that it wasn’t wise, but I suppose nothing can withstand the current Hollywood steamroller of sequels, remakes, “re-imaginings,” reboots, et alia, so let’s just lie back and think of England.

The most intriguing, and potentially exciting, news from my personal perspective (and what else would you be looking for on this blog?) is that for several days last week, Richard Matheson on Screen—despite having just come off press in the first place—was out of stock pending a reprint.  I say “potentially exciting” because I have no idea how far off the mark my instant quip of, “Gee, they sold all forty copies already!” might have been.  But it seems safe to conclude that demand must have exceeded McFarland’s expectations, however modest those might have been, and I’m relieved to see that it is once again listed as “available for immediate shipment,” so there is no waiting…

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All Messed Up

I owe Joe Kane (aka The Phantom of the Movies) an apology, because I’ve been so fixated on talking up my own just-released book that I’ve neglected to do so with his, Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever.  Full Disclosure Dept.:  Joe not only is related by marriage to one of my closest friends, but also has published several of my articles in his excellent magazine, VideoScope.  As if that weren’t enough, his book shares the same imprint, Citadel, and in-house editor as a little number of mine they called The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, and yet I don’t need to be completely biased in Joe’s favor—which I am—to see that his book just may be the last word on the subject.

Up until now, the only volumes from the groaning shelf of Night literature in my personal library were John Russo’s The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (1985) and Paul R. Gagne’s The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero (1987).  Indeed, with Russo being the film’s co-writer, I wondered why I needed another one, but Joe decisively settles that question.  With the benefit of an extra quarter-century’s perspective, he has interviewed what appears to be every surviving NOTLD participant, as well as soliciting contributions from Wes Craven, Frank Henenlotter, Allan Arkush, William Lustig, Larry Fessenden, Lloyd Kaufman, Roy Frumkes, Peter Jackson, and Danny Boyle, who discuss its effects on their lives and work.

For all its sequels, remakes, and imitations, Night is unique, and Joe really gets to the heart of the special circumstances that made it so.  These range from the serendipitous and oft-over-analyzed casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben, a role written to be race-neutral, to George Kosana’s celebrated ad-lib as Sheriff McClelland, “They’re dead.  They’re…all messed up.”  The story has its dark side as well, like the royal screwing that Image Ten (formed by members of Pittsburgh’s Latent Image commercial/industrial film house for the sole purpose of producing Night) got from their distributors, and the copyright snafu that put the film in the public domain, so that any two-bit company—including my erstwhile employers at GoodTimes Entertainment—could release it.

Ironically, many of the factors likely to hamper NOTLD worked to its advantage, most notably its microscopic budget and the concomitant decision to shoot it in increasingly obsolete black and white.  Along with the largely non-professional cast, which with no stars present had the added advantage of leaving viewers uncertain which ones would live (answer:  none), this gave the film a documentary-style realism, in spite of its fantastic subject matter, that makes it immeasurably more effective.  Because he did not have to adhere to a studio schedule, writer-director George A. Romero could take his time in post-production; as Joe notes, “The final film boasts nearly 1,100 cuts, far more than your average high-end Hollywood movie of the time.”

Like many of Joe’s contributors, I have my share of Night memories, but being too young to see it in the theater, I first caught it on TV late one night in 1979 at the age of sixteen and, lifelong wuss that I am, wondered if I could get through it.  In 1981, while I was working at the Duchess Drive-In in Fairfield between high school and college, a co-worker in neighboring Bridgeport—then a very tough town—was kind enough to rent it, which was a big deal in those early days of VHS, so that I could see it uncut.  And in 2000, I had the pleasure of chaptering and writing the copy for the GoodTimes DVD; you can damn well bet the first words on that box were, “Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend,” and that Chapter 10 was entitled, “All Messed Up.”

A surprisingly large percentage of the book is devoted not to Night itself, but to the afterlives of its creators and the zombie subgenre it single-handedly spawned, with commendable end matter covering the various versions on home video, plus documentaries, goofs, spoofs, redubs, and the inevitable “Where Are They Now?”  I’m not normally a fan of reading screenplays—Matheson’s notwithstanding—yet I enjoyed “Jack” Russo’s original (Romero is also credited on the finished product), which is reproduced here and, perhaps because some sections have very little dialogue, feels almost novelistic.  This draft represents the film quite closely with a few exceptions, e.g., it does not include Judith Ridley’s character of Judy, and Barbara survives the climactic massacre.

I could pick some nits, if only to prove that I’m not totally Joe Kane’s beyotch, but they’d be few and far between, like the opening “Raves for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead” that contain the same Amazon.com quote twice.  Having just slaved over indexing Richard Matheson on Screen, I was especially sensitive to the fact that Joe’s first two references to Matheson were omitted from the index, while his discussion of anomalies in the end credits ignores one that has always piqued my curiosity, i.e., the name of Judith O’Dea’s character is spelled “Barbra” (as in Streisand).  It should say something that such minor quibbles are about the worst faults I could find with this book, for our beloved Phantom has outdone himself documenting a horror classic.

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The Two Towerses

In 1964, Austrian actress Maria Rohm (née Helga Maria Grohmann) met British producer and sometime screenwriter Harry Alan Towers (aka Peter Welbeck), whom she wed in 1982, and their personal and professional lives were inextricably intertwined until Harry died at the age of 88 in 2009.  A frequent friend of this site, Maria Towers had begun acting at the age of four with ten years at the Vienna Burgtheatre, and later spent more than a decade in front of the camera—primarily in Towers productions—before moving behind it to be his producing partner.  Harry’s half-century in the cinema, or even just the joint filmography of the two Towerses, is beyond the scope of this post, but I did want to pay tribute to him on what would have been his 90th birthday.

I know little of Harry’s early success in radio in the 1940s and in television in the ’50s, which is why I was delighted to learn from Maria that he completed a forthcoming autobiography, which I anticipate with pleasure.  “Harry, an RAF Flying Officer, was extremely prolific in those early days, writing and producing many programs,” she recalls.  “Among them was Much Binding in the Marsh, which Queen Elizabeth II favorably mentioned to Harry when they met on his 74th birthday in St. Petersburg, Russia during the filming of Bullet to Beijing [1995].

“Harry was also instrumental with Lew Grade in starting commercial TV in England,” Maria added.  He worked in radio with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles, who later played Long John Silver in Harry’s Treasure Island (1972) and lent his voice to Ten Little Indians (1974).  The prolific and oft-pseudonymous Spanish exploitation filmmaker Jesús (aka Jess) Franco was the second unit director on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965), and directed nine films for Towers between 1968 and 1970, most of them starring Maria.

The fact that Maria was a gorgeous woman who enjoyed “bringing eroticism and sexuality out into the mainstream” undoubtedly endeared her to audiences and Franco, who is notorious for his sensational subject matter.  I’ve often cited as a high-water mark of this trait the scene from The Bloody Judge (1970) in which Maria’s character is compelled to lick blood from a naked female corpse.  Over the years I have been admittedly critical of several Towers productions, especially Franco’s, for their high sleaze quotients and inversely proportional budgets, yet Harry’s career has long fascinated me for its international flavor, the high caliber of many of his collaborators (most notably and consistently actor Christopher Lee), and his reliance on famous literary works.

Harry’s cinematic oeuvre comprised about 100 films in countries from Austria to Zimbabwe, and I believe he pioneered the polyglot international co-productions whose credits often looked like the result of some demented Euro-Mix Master.  Among the best known are eight inspired by the work of Sax Rohmer, including five with Lee as arch-villain Fu Manchu, the first of which, Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), is among Harry’s finest, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as Fu’s nemesis, Nayland Smith.  But the Green-free sequels—Sharp’s The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Jeremy Summers’s The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), and Sr. Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)—sadly and steadily declined in quality.

Another of Harry’s most durable properties was the Agatha Christie whodunit Ten Little Indians, which he filmed three times over as many decades, starting in 1965 with Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Fabian (!), Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Wilfred Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, and Dennis Price.  The 1974 rendition, a BOF childhood fave, deployed an equally enviable cast, including Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, Richard Attenborough, and Charles Aznavour as well as Maria.  It also boasted two former Bond villains, Gert (Goldfinger) Fröbe and Adolfo (Largo) Celi, and a standout score by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, but the 1989 version had considerably less star power, highlighted only by Lom (in a different role) and Donald Pleasence.

Ironically, the producer of Franco’s Eugenie…the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970) also specialized in family fare such as Black Beauty (1971) and The Call of the Wild (1972), the latter directed by the late Ken Annakin and starring Charlton Heston.  Maria told me that while filming Anna Sewell’s equine classic, she broke six ribs when training to ride side-saddle, and was—to say the very least—uncomfortable when she had to get back on the horse a week later.  Like Eugenie, the Franco-Towers-Rohm Justine (1969) was based on the writing of the infamous Marquis de Sade; the trio also joined forces for Venus in Furs (1969), adapted from the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, thus neatly encompassing the eponyms of sadism and masochism.

I have written repeatedly of my qualified admiration for the best of the few Franco films I have seen, Count Dracula (1970), which along with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is probably the most faithful version, pace a certain Mr. Matheson.  The film’s threadbare production values are an undeniable debit, but Lee was afforded more screen time and a greater fidelity to Stoker’s character than in most of his Hammer entries as the Count, backed by Lom’s Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski’s Renfield, and another fine Nicolai score.  On the distaff side, Mina and Lucy (for whom we named our two adopted shelter cats) were respectively played by Maria and Franco’s tragic first muse, Soledad Miranda, who died at 27 in an auto crash that same year.

Within the horror/SF genre, Harry adapted such notable authors as Verne (Rocket to the Moon, 1967), Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970), Wells (The Shape of Things to Come, 1979), Poe (The House of Usher, 1989; Masque of the Red Death, 1991), Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera, 1989), Conan Doyle (The Lost World, 1992), King (The Mangler, 1995), and Haggard (She, 2001).  Outside it, he had a go at Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989) and revived Len Deighton’s “Harry Palmer” in Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996).  The Towerses also returned to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (Black Arrow, 1985) and Jack London (The Sea Wolf, 2001), as well as tackling newer versions of Dorian (2001) and Rohmer’s Sumuru (2003).

“I remember Harry deeply regretting that some of the films hadn’t turned out better.  Raising enough money was usually the problem, also he tended to rush from project to project which did not always help the quality of the films.  Harry never stopped coming up with new ideas and trying to finance them until the very end.  That’s who he was, for better or for worse.  Often this caused him great disappointment, because at the beginning he was always filled with a vision which had to be changed, bit by bit lost its luster because of insufficient finance.  This led to the need for co-producing partners in other, non-English-speaking countries, which in turn brought with it concessions in casting,” Maria recalled in an e-mail that I quote with her kind permission.

“Having said that, Harry and I would not have met had he not been looking for a German actress in Vienna for City of Fear [1965], where Constantin were the co-producers.  We used to search for better solutions during countless hours of tossing ideas back and forth, mostly in the middle of the night.  It’s not a simple life for an independent producer.  Still, Harry was not a company man, couldn’t have worked for a major studio.”  Maria has provided him with a fitting epitaph indeed, affectionate yet clear-eyed about the unavoidable shortcomings of his large and diverse body of work.  So let us remember Harry Alan Towers as a unique, industrious, path-breaking, colorful figure who made my favorite cinematic era, the 1960s and ’70s, far more interesting.

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Phone message from Richard Matheson, October 15, 2010, 8:13 PM EDT:  “Hi, Matthew.  You just cost me a whole day of writing.  They delivered your book today, and I’ve been spending the whole day looking through it.  It’s fascinating.  You really did a great job on it.  It’s beautifully done, extremely complete.  I haven’t finished it yet, but I wanted to call and thank you for sending it, and tell you how impressed I am with the work you did on it.  A beautiful job.”

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Last night, I was surprised to learn that director Roy Ward Baker passed away on October 5 at the age of 93; surprised because, as is so often the case with someone so long off my personal radar, I had assumed he was long gone already.  I see now from the IMDb that he was working in British television as late as 1992, although the most recent credit I’ve seen is Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984), with frequent Baker collaborator John Mills as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes.  Of course, most people in the mainstream wouldn’t recognize his name in the first place, although they should thank him for giving Marilyn Monroe a solid early dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) during a sojourn in Hollywood.

Said sojourn also included, of all things, the 3-D thriller Inferno (1953), with Robert Ryan as a wealthy man stranded in the desert by his adulterous wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover, but soon afterward he was on his way back home to England.  There, Baker made the best film I’ve seen about the sinking of the Titanic, the 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord’s nonfiction bestseller A Night to Remember.  Unlike other Titanic films, e.g., the eponymous entries directed by Jean Negulesco in 1953 and that What’s-His-Name guy in 1997, Night found sufficient drama—to say the least—in the historical events themselves, without focusing on fictional characters and their soap operas, with Kenneth More heading a “usual suspects” cast (including Honor Blackman).

Baker was a prolific television director, notching episodes of such series as The Avengers, The Saint, Department S, The Champions (Alexandra Bastedo—woo-hoo!), Journey to the Unknown, The Persuaders!, The Protectors, and Return of the Saint (starring Ian Ogilvy, a fave of Madame BOF).  But to genre fans, Baker will always be recognized as one of the best of the second-tier Hammer directors, by which I mean most of those below big dogs Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis.  According to Dennis Fischer’s worthy McFarland tome Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, his association with Hammer was an indirect result of A Night to Remember, since they wanted a technically savvy director, familiar with special effects, to helm Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

Known Stateside as Five Million Years to Earth, this SF epic was adapted by Nigel Kneale from the third of his BBC-TV Quatermass serials, with Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir in fine form as the titular scientist, who investigates the contents of a Martian spaceship found buried beneath London.  Oddly, top billing was given to James Donald, fondly remembered from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963), as Quatermass’s self-sacrificing colleague, Dr. Matthew Roney.  The effects are wildly uneven, with the finger-puppet Martians seen in the flashback sequences a hilarious low, but Baker’s command of the complex material was firm, and he wisely reunited Keir with his Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966) co-star Barbara Shelley.

Having known Bette Davis in Hollywood, Baker next replaced Alvin Rakoff when the latter did not hit it off with the star in The Anniversary (1968), a black comedy scripted by the studio’s resident expert on psycho-thrillers, Jimmy Sangster.  I have seen neither that film nor Baker’s next Hammer outing, but given the conspicuously low reputation of Moon Zero Two (1969), I should perhaps be grateful that it is somewhat elusive today.  Perhaps notable only as the first space Western—a dubious precedent, perhaps, for Peter Hyams’s Outland (1981)—it was co-written by second-generation Hammer honcho and mediocrity-meister Michael Carreras, and as much as I love The Andromeda Strain (1971), I doubt that leading man James Olson set the screen on fire.

My other favorite among Baker’s Hammer credits is The Vampire Lovers (1970), with Ingrid Pitt as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” backed by Peter Cushing and Jon Finch, and although its lesbian bloodsuckers pushed the envelope for its time, Baker kept it tasteful and, above all, serious.  His vampire credentials thus established, he bracketed Hammer’s ill-conceived modern-day Dracula films with two period outings that merit a closer look.  Scars of Dracula (1970) gave Christopher Lee a little more to do than usual, even throwing in a few dollops of material from the novel for a change, while for me to note that The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) was the first kung-fu vampire film is misleading, bolstered as it is by Peter Cushing’s presence as Van Helsing and Baker’s atmospheric direction.

In between, Baker directed Hammer’s offbeat Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), my enjoyment of which will be forever hampered by my loathing for Ralph Bates, and—like Francis—worked the other side of the fence by making several films for local rival Amicus.  These included two of their trademark anthology films:  Asylum (1972), adapted by Robert Bloch from his own stories, and The Vault of Horror (1973), based on the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s.  He also directed one of the better stand-alone Amicus films, —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), and after that company’s dissolution, Baker was reunited with producer and co-founder Milton Subotsky for another omnibus film, The Monster Club (1980), based on the stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

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