24 July 2014


If one considers Edwige Fenech the queen of the Italian giallo subgenre, Susan Scott its fiery Spanish duchess, and Anita Strindberg its icy Swedish countess, then Carroll Baker must surely rank as its distinguished American lady-in-waiting.

The daughter of a travelling salesman, Baker was born in Pennsylvania in May of 1931. After college, she headed to New York where she studied at the Actors Studio and dabbled in Broadway.

She was cast in the popular 1956 James Dean vehicle Giant...but it was really her thumb-sucking performance in Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll the same year that got her noticed by the public and set her career in motion.

Indeed, 1957 saw Baker garner an Oscar nomination for her work in Baby Doll, and a Golden Globe win for Most Promising Newcomer.

She rounded out the decade in the all-star Big Country (1958), and kicked the '60s off in similarly strong fashion with John Ford's classic epic How the West was Won (1962). Notable films for Baker in the first half of the '60s include The Carpetbaggers (1964) and the biopic Harlow (1965), which chronicled the life of cinema's original blond bombshell from the 1930s.

Baker worked steadily throughout the 1960s, before heading to Italy in the latter half of the decade and starring in a number of thrillers and homegrown gialli.

Her first bonafide terror outing was The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), directed by Romolo Girolami. Baker plays newlywed Deborah, who finds she's married a man who just *may* have killed a former flame...and someone's out to make her pay for her hubby's shady past.

Baker followed this with a quartet of thrillers directed by genre vet Umberto Lenzi. The first of these was 1968's Paranoia (also known as Orgasmo), where she played a wealthy widow tormented and exploited by a pair of demented siblings.

Her second Lenzi outing was So Sweet...So Perverse (1969). A complicated Diabolique-style giallo, the thriller concerns a married couple who hear a domestic spat in an adjoining apartment and decide to investigate.

The pair discover a beautiful woman (Baker) who leads them down a path of lies, intrigue, double crosses...and murder. Also starring Erika Blanc and with Sergio Martino at the helm as executive producer, So Perverse is an effective thriller that features a solid performance from Baker.

Baker's third teaming with Lenzi was A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Race car driver Helen (Baker) suffers a terrible auto accident. She receives an invitation from ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel) to spend some rehab time at his secluded villa. But once there, her ex-hubby's current wife offers Helen $100G to murder Maurice. Will Helen accept the money and get rid of him? Or will she be drawn into an entirely different web of deadly deceit?

Taking a little break from Lenzi, Baker next made the crime thriller-cum-giallo The Devil has Seven Faces (1971). Directed by Osvaldo Civirani and co-starring handsome George Hilton, Baker features here in a double role as identical twin sisters involved in a diamond heist - and who end up fighting for their lives at every turn.

In 1972, Baker hooked up with Lenzi one last time for Knife of Ice. The plot is deceptively simple: as a child, Martha witnessed the death of her parents, a tragedy which left the poor girl utterly mute. Now an adult, the silent Martha (Baker) welcomes her cousin Jenny to her quiet country home...but soon Jenny is found murdered. When similar brutal killings begin to plague the countryside, could all the crimes be the work of the same killer? Who could it be? Tightly directed by Lenzi and showcasing Baker in fine form, it's a giallo definitely worth seeking out.

Baker pulled a one-two terror punch in 1973 by making both Kiss Me, Kill Me and The Flower with the Deadly Sting. A sort of S&M horror tale, Kiss Me (aka Baba Yaga) features Baker as a witch who seduces an impressionable female photographer...and leads the woman into a nightmare world of human depravity.

Directed by Gianfranco Piccioli, Flower with the Deadly Sting tells the story of a surgeon who accidently kills his girlfriend (she's impaled on a faux flower with iron petals), but he tries to cover it up by hiding the corpse. Soon, more unexplained deaths occur (it's a giallo, after all) and the inevitable question becomes: is the doctor the real killer?

Baker fleshed out the '70s by appearing in two other noteworthy horror efforts. In The Next Victim, a 1974 TV episode from the acclaimed Brian Clemens Thriller series, Baker plays a wheelchair-bound woman who finds herself alone in her apartment building one weekend. But she's not alone. Soon, she's terrorized by a psycho-on-the-loose - and a deadly cat and mouse chase ensues.

In 1978, she made the south-of-the-border horror Cyclone directed by René Cardona Jr. Also known as Terror Storm, it's a sort of disaster-cum-cannibal survival flick about a group of tourists who end up adrift on the ocean after they're hit by a catastrophic cyclone. They try to endure as best they can but when their food runs out, they must really depend upon each other...for sustenance. Baker delivers a most poignant performance as a beleaguered pet owner in this bleak - but oddly memorable - little moodpiece.

She worked in television as recently as 2003. And although her brief flirtation with continental horrors has long since passed, Baker will most certainly be remembered by horror buffs for the string of well-made, enjoyable gialli and thrillers she made in the late '60s and throughout the '70s.

NOTABLE FILMS YEAR
Cyclone 1978
Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool 1971
The Devil has Seven Faces 1971
The Flower with the Deadly Sting 1973
Kiss Me, Kill Me (aka Baba Yaga) 1973
Knife of Ice 1972
The Next Victim 1974
Paranoia 1968
A Quiet Place to Kill 1970
So Sweet...So Perverse 1969
The Sweet Body of Deborah 1968
The Watcher in the Woods 1980
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