The 2012 London Olympics are in full-swing so I’m celebrating all things British with a 3 part rundown of some of our finest films, covering the genres of Comedy, Horror and Kitchen Sink Realism.
This is in part a rebuke to the overrated waffle that is Chariots of Fire, a film annoyingly held up as the epitome of what British cinema has to offer. Nonsense. The 3 movies I have chosen each demonstrate a particular facet of the British character whilst standing up as genuine classics in their own right. My Gold Medal for Horror goes to the 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man.
Britain is one of the most archaic countries in the world, shrouded in blood-drenched history and legend. It’s a potent draw for both native inhabitants and visitors from across the globe – and perfect material for director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth). Their film The Wicker Man is steeped in ancient folk myth and Pagan rituals, and the film expertly draws on this rich mythology to create a potent atmosphere of dread.
Few horror movies have an ambience as bizarre as The Wicker Man. For a genre routinely cluttered with workaday slasher movies, vampire tales and the like, The Wicker Man stakes a claim to being genuinely unique, in the early stages resembling an amusing fish-out-of-water comedy before slowly cranking up the tension prior to the chilling finale.
The late Edward Woodward gives a terrific, slow-burning performance as the devoutly Christian (and virginal) Sergeant Howie, who is dispatched to remote Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. No sooner has Howie arrived on the island when he finds himself in conflict with the locals – people seem reluctant to talk and fornication is rampant, even in public.
Howie finds his belief system challenged, especially when faced with the seductive daughter of the local barkeeper (Britt Eckland, famously doubled by a ‘big-butted’ stand in during a famous nude scene). It all builds to a terrifying end-game, presided over by the eccentric but Satanic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
No discussion of The Wicker Man could proceed without a reference to its troubled production history. Even when Rod Stewart’s threat of buying the film’s negative proved hollow (he was Eckland’s boyfriend at the time), Hardy was forced to edit the movie drastically. After 20 minutes had been removed, famed exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman recommended the excision of another 13 minutes. The original negative has long been considered lost (a famous urban legend maintains it was used as part of the supports in the M4 motorway).
The film was originally released at 87 minutes long as a B-movie supporting Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now but several other versions exist: one at 95 minutes, which arranges the events in chronological order; and an extended directors cut lasting 99 minutes, also in chronological order and also containing footage of Howie prior to his arrival on Summerisle. Such a convoluted history means the film has attained a status as mythical as the rituals celebrated on Summerisle itself.
A terrific sense of verisimilitude pervades the movie – the sense of time and place is really quite eerie. Filmed during the winter of 1972 in Scotland, the filmmakers do a remarkable job of convincing the viewer that the story takes place during the height of summer. Much of the credit can go to the unmistakable soundtrack, composed by Paul Giovanni and Magnet, the latter a band assembled for the purposes of the film.
Much of the score takes the form of folk songs, both original and pre-existing. The visually striking opening sequence in which Howie makes the fateful trip to Summerisle is an arrangement of Robert Burns’ ‘The Highland Widows’ Lament’. Elsewhere, Magnet band members Michael Cole and Dick Wren contributed deceptively whimsical but menacing numbers such as ‘Willow’s Song’ and ‘Fire Leap’. If any horror shares a genetic connection with the musical, this is it.
The authenticity in the locations, the filming and the music creates a palpable sense of atmosphere that is both familiar and deeply alien. As we are exposed to the culture of Summerisle along with Howie, we feel we have stepped into a time warp, and that we are being re-connected to ancestral myth. Frivolous and naive as the inhabitants appear, there is the gut-wrenching feeling that Howie is being led further down the rabbit-hole. When he emerges out the other side, the revelation is truly horrifying.
The film’s emotional impact would be minimal were it not for Woodward’s performance. His ability to sketch Howie’s bemusement, anger and eventual terror is extremely powerful, and reinforces one of the film’s elemental themes: apparent normality coming face to face with something completely baffling. It’s one of the most famous themes in horror cinema (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre et al) but rarely is it demonstrated as eloquently as here.
And presiding over it all is the dark prince, Christopher Lee. The actor famously stated the character of Lord Summerisle was his favourite, and that the film itself was his favourite too. Convivial and genial, Lord Summerisle masks chilling depths, which rise to the surface during the infamous finale. His performance is a microcosm of the film itself: surprising, amusing and ultimately very shocking indeed.