The researcher would like to thank the Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the writing of this review.
Well, even as I type this, Christmas is just around the corner and so I thought I should do an appropriately seasonal review. There don't seem to be any particularly Christmassy films out this year - unless your idea of a joyeux noel is a visit from the Nazgul - and so after some shallow thought I've settled on Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man as this week's offering. Partly because it's one of my favourite films, but also because it's deeply and fundamentally festive (although I feel I should point out that the festival in question isn't Christmas, nor anything like it). It also contains some lovely pantomime elements such as a transvestite dame (of sorts) and a cheerful singalong at the climax. Although having said all that it works equally well as a summery film - I find it a particularly excellent accompaniment to a barbeque.
The Wicker Man has had a famously tortuous and occluded history. Very, very, very loosely based on an obscure 1960s pulp thriller, it was scripted by the late Anthony Shaffer as an intelligent suspense thriller with fantasy elements. The production company, British Lion, virtually disowned it (mainly a result of corporate politics), hacked nearly a fifth of the running time from the original cut, and barely released it in the cinema. Legend has it much of the missing material now lies beneath a motorway in southern England. It seems that everyone involved in the project has their own contradictory account of the production. (For one such account, see BluesShark's article on The Wicker Man).
The film occurs at the end of April, 1973. Devoutly religious policeman Neil Howie (a remarkable performance by Edward Woodward) visits the remote community of Summerisle, off the Scottish coast. He's received an anonymous letter alluding to the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison - but the islanders claim no such girl exists. Howie is revolted by what he sees as the loose morals and licentiousness of the community, and his suspicions are further aroused when he finds evidence of a conspiracy to hide Rowan's disappearance. Something completely different is aroused by the landlord's seductive daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, though it would be invidious not to mention the major contributions made by her body double and the woman dubbing her voice), but Howie resolutely ignores her.
From the community's schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) and its lord (Christopher Lee, who may yet hit the big time in the movies if he can only get a part in a film people actually want to go and see) Howie learns the truth - Summerisle has renounced Christianity and returned to the worship of ancient Celtic nature-gods. The May Day festival is only hours away, and Howie has a horrible suspicion as to Rowan's role in the proceedings...
It's normal to class The Wicker Man as a horror movie but it's a highly unusual one in both style and themes. It's straightforwardly (some might even say plainly) photographed and directed, probably due to the tiny budget. But there is a genuinely unsettling atmosphere - the viewer empathises with Howie throughout, and shares his sense of being a stranger in a very strange community. There are some truly eerie moments emphasising how, beneath the surface, this is a society totally unlike our own. Adding to this is Paul Giovanni's soundtrack of - brace yourselves - folk music. At several points the islanders burst into song, a startling occurence to say the least (the most memorable of these occasions is Ekland's all-singing, all-dancing, all-nude solo number, one of the movie's most weirdly powerful sequences). The result is a strong sense of a community returning to traditional ways, and also a stark reminder that this is not a by-the-book gothic melodrama like many other British fantasy films of the period.
The other differences are more subtle and thematic. Most horror films are about sex, one way or another, and usually the message is that sex means death - consider Dracula's mock-seduction of his victims, or the rules of slasher-movies as satirised by Scream. The Wicker Man is different. Here, sex means life, fertility, and 'the regenerative influences'. Howie's rebuttal of Willow's advances is crucial to his role in the story. Furthermore, most horror films take place in a universe of strict moral absolutes - there is Good and there is Evil, and the two are unmistakable. Again, The Wicker Man is different - the script is scrupulously fair in comparing Howie's beliefs with those of the island (although Robin Hardy's complaint that Christopher Lee's long on-screen association with the powers of darkness was likely to prejudice the audience against him and the islanders seems justified). It does not play ethical favourites, operating in the grey area where society, morality and religion overlap. It suggests an absolute moral relativism, where Good and Evil have no objective existence. It is from this concept that the film draws so much of its ability to disturb.
Of course none of this would matter if the film was badly written or acted and it has nothing to worry about on either count. Woodward gives the performance of his life as the stubborn Christian copper - it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part (Peter Cushing was considered for it but rapidly discounted as Shaffer and Hardy already had two Hammer veterans - Lee and Ingrid Pitt - in the cast). Lee, in a role written for him, uses his stock-in-trade patrician authority to devastating effect, while Diane Cilento is impressively matter-of-fact in another key role. The script builds subtly and cleverly - even in the standard, butchered version - towards one of the great plot reversals in cinema history, where the significance of the title becomes horribly apparent.
And, you lucky, lucky people, the British TV premiere of the director's cut of The Wicker Man is on one of the, ahem, non-BBC channels at 11.40pm on New Year's Eve. If you live in the UK I hope you'll consider watching it (what do you mean, you've got plans that night?!?); don't be put off by the dated opening credits or clearly-miniscule budget. Open yourself to the film's power and I guarantee you'll have trouble sleeping afterwards. Merry Christmas everyone!
Next week: we brave the biggest heavyweight clash since Godzilla and Mothra last faced off, as the Boy Who Lived, Winner of the Triwizard Trophy and Seeker of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, takes on Sauron the Necromancer, Master of the Pits of Utumnol and Ruler of Mordor, for the title of 'world's favourite fantasy adaptation'. Yup, it's Harry Potter vs The Lord of the Rings! Don't fail to miss it.