The Lost World Of Underground Filmmaking: Richard Baylor and Cirsium Delectus

The last gasp from an acclaimed member of the cinema of transgression ought to have been his stepping stone to bigger things.

In the early 1990s, Richard Baylor was a significant player in the second wave of transgressive cinema and the emerging underground movie world that combined horror, fetish culture and experimental art. That he did so as an American living in England – Ipswich, to be precise – was all the more impressive. It wouldn’t happen now.

He released two collections of short films  – You’ve Made Your Bed… Now Die In It! (featuring the films Thoughts from the White Walls, Dum Dum and Good Things Happen to Those Who Love the Lord) and The Holy Trinity (featuring Dead Love, Jesus Hates You and My Funny Valentine), both sold on his Eye Fuck International label. Neither release went anywhere near the BBFC, of course, and it’s unlikely that either would have passed.

These two releases were very much in the underground experimental tradition, low on narrative but high on boundary-pushing imagery, punk rock attitude and cut-up experimentalism. They marked Baylor out as a filmmaker to watch, and his UK location made him unique – beyond Baylor and his contemporaries Damon Barr and Marie Anne Ferral, no one else in the UK was really doing anything like this.

For his third release in 1993, Baylor stepped up his ambition and shot a narrative film – a bona fide movie, albeit a short one. At 45 minutes long, Cirsium Delectus felt like a calling card showing his movie-making abilities with the hope of stepping up to feature production. Based loosely on the case of ‘The Sunset Slayer’ Douglas Clark, the film tells of the bizarre relationship that forms between Carol (Lisa Correll) and Richard (Richard Munn), after she picks him up hitch-hiking. When he finds that he has nowhere to stay, she offers him her spare room, which he accepts happily. However, when he picks up a girl and takes her back, Carol flips out. Once she calms down, she persuades him to stay for one last meal. Unbeknown to him, it is drugged, and while he is unconscious, she takes ‘compromising’ pictures of him with an underage girl. Now, she has him in her power, which is bad news for him. Cruising the streets, they pick up a prostitute, who Carol tells Richard to screw; during sex, Carol kills the girl. But for Richard, this is just the beginning of his nightmare…

Cirsium Delectus was quite the achievement for Baylor, who created a tightly woven tale of sexual obsession and madness. It was no mean feat for a director used to ten-minute shorts to make a movie about the length of a US TV show on a minuscule budget, but Baylor handled it with deceptive ease. His direction was assured and fluid and his treatment of the story showed admirable restraint, without holding back on the more lurid elements of the story. So yes, there was sex (surprisingly raunchy) and violence, but it never threatened to overwhelm the plot – rather, it remained an integral part of the film. Sunset Slayer Douglas Clark had long proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was set up by his kill-partner Carol Bundy, and Baylor took a ‘what if he’s telling the truth?’ approach in this film, creating a provocative and daring look at how the truth can be manipulated. With a brooding score from artists including Costes and Whiteslug helping to build the atmosphere, this was far and away Baylor’s finest work to date.

Oddly though, Baylor not only failed to capitalise on the movie but quickly dropped out of the underground scene entirely. While Cirsium Delectus would attract the attention of international underground film festivals and archives, Baylor seemed to have burned himself out with the project. Perhaps the fact that it didn’t provide a bigger break – something that his UK location was always going to make hard – was disheartening, or perhaps family life simply got in the way and he had to return to normal life. He wouldn’t be the first former transgressive culture leading light to slip back into workaday normality – if that’s what happened.

Today, there is scarcely a record of Baylor’s work. Copies of the VHS tapes surface once in a blue moon, but none of them seems to be online – if you know better (or, indeed, if you are Richard Baylor), feel free to let us know. Short of the director re-emerging, there seems little chance of the work being re-released, which is something of a tragedy.


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