01 May 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: SUMER IS ICUMEN IN

The distress call "mayday" is derived from the French "m'aider", meaning "help me", and has nothing at all to do with 1 May, also called May Day. But I still thought it was a fun bit of trivia to share with all of you. No, May Day is more about honoring the change of seasons, and celebrating the generative power of nature, and human sacrifice. Or, y'know, one of those things less than the others, but it's still closer to the spirit of the thing than burning a man alive to bring back your goddamn honey.


I would contend - and am, indeed, about to - that The Wicker Man is one of the all-time perfect horror movies. I am referring, of course, to the 1973 The Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer at the absolute peak of his influence - it was three years after Sleuth was staged, and one year after it was filmed in the same year as Shaffer's script for Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy - and not at all the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage thing from 2006, as has come to be regarded in later years as one of the truly misbegotten projects of the 2000s, and a film that has never been described by anyone as "all-time perfect" in any context at all. So let's not spend any more time talking about it.

The '73 Wicker Man, anyway: I am probably talking out of turn when I say it is perfect. For a start, there's the rather nasty question of what version of The Wicker Man I'm even referring to: for reasons that are so complex and bizarre and at times positively outlandish (rumours of the film's negative being buried in a landfill beneath a motorway out of sheer spite) that I'd rather not even gloss over them, other than to say "disastrous series of rights issues in the UK and U.S." the film was initially released in one of those watered-down ways that happens when a distributor would almost rather lose money than admit that they have control of a property - Margaret Syndrome, we can call it nowadays - and rediscovered years later by some hardcore fans who managed to spot it during its brief release, along with the urgent cheerleading of its most famous star who was at times the sole voice keeping memory of the thing alive. In all of this, a 102-minute version was brutally chopped down to 88 minutes with a significantly re-ordered first act, and I would call this "the movie that was seen for years thereafter", except that in reality, The Wicker Man spent a comfortable length of time seeming to be the next best thing to a lost movie. Eventually, it resurfaced in a "director's cut" that still only clocked in at 99 minutes, and for reasons that do not make any damn sense, this longer version was the primary version available on VHS but only received DVD release in a super-limited edition handled by Canal+ in Europe and Anchor Bay in America. So here we are, and it's next to impossible to legally see the 99-minute version, which is why I never have; and so my claim of perfection is based on a bastard cut and based only on what I've read of the partial restoration, a demonstrably inferior bastard cut. Which would tend to invalidate the customary definition of "perfect".

That all being said, even the shitty ripped-apart version of The Wicker Man is just all kinds of amazing. It is a truly unique horror movie, one of the odd handful throughout history that doesn't really seem to have been influenced by anything and has no obvious heirs, not even its own remake. One could argue in good faith that it is no horror film at all, and only barely a thriller, and that the final act, where the overriding off-kilter atmosphere finally blossoms into extravagant terror, is operating in some other register altogether than horror, though I am content here to hold with tradition and suggest that, however alien and idiosyncratic the film's claim to any genre, "horror" describes it as well as any other word, other than "musical", and I'm 100% not joking.

Depending on which cut you're looking at, the film begins in different places, but in all cases, the nugget of it is that Scottish police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) has received an anonymous letter asking him to investigate the disappearance of a teenager girl, Rowan Morrison, from the island Summerisle in the Hebrides, a place known for the high quality of its fruits and vegetables. This he does with stern zeal - it will eventually became apparent that he does little without zeal, and does nothing at all without being stern - though his investigation hits a snag when the locals all claim not only not to know of a missing person case, but to have never even heard of Rowan Morrison.

By the time this becomes clear, it's too late to leave, so Howie beds down for the night at The Green Man, a peculiar inn frequented by peculiar locals, who sing bawdy songs about the innkeeper's daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) without offending her, or the innkeeper MacGreagor (Lindsay Kemp), or anyone at all besides a starchy, huffy Howie; before the night is over, he has to endure hearing Willow sing, naked, as she glides around in the room next to him (it has never been absolutely clear to me how much of this is "real" and how much is Howie's fantasy, or nightmare), and only his fusty, self-loathing, monstrously Puritanical religious beliefs keep him locked in his room, safely unblemished; it is, in fact, at this moment that we learn that Howie is so devout that even well into his 30s, if not indeed his 40s (Woodward was 42), he's still a virgin.

That said, it would appear that something about this experience, or the sight of a bunch of islanders rolling around on the lawn in what can best be called a very quiet orgy, has entranced him, because despite being ready to storm right off the night prior, Howie spends the next day hunting around Summerisle. He finds a number of odd things, though all of it speaks to one truth: that the entire island is populated by worshipers of an ancient nature religion, Celtic in flavor, whose freedom about sex shocks and disgusts Howie, and whose flippant disregard for physical death and simple belief in reincarnation horrifies his spirituality. And all of this leads, eventually, to the current Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose grandfather, 104 years earlier, came to this island and restored the old pagan religion to inspire the locals he intended to employ with a more joyous, forgiving faith than the musty Presbyterianism they were living with at the time.

To go much further is to head right into spoiler territory, and while it's essentially impossible to talk about The Wicker Man in any meaningful way without discussing the last 20 minutes, and in significant detail, I don't want to get there yet. For right now, I want to focus on what is, for the most part, the driving tension of the movie, and the reason it is so marvelously unusual in horrordom - or in moviedom, for that matter.

The Wicker Man is about the conflict between a version of Celtic paganism and Christianity; this is obvious, and essential, and does not need pointing out (though I can't help but point out that the chief reason that the 2006 film was never going to work, though not the reason it turned out so poorly, is that the specifics of this dynamic are too irreducibly British, if not indeed irreducibly Scottish, to survive the transplant to America), but it always does to get everybody on the same page. What is trickier, though, is the nature of that paganism and that Christianity: it's not just pagans, but playful, joking, singing pagans, who are unfailingly polite and genial and warm; and it's not just Christianity, but a shrill, deprivation-driven Christianity of self-punishment and neurotic judgment of everyone and everything remotely pleasurable. Howie, to be perfectly frank about it, is a nasty, alienating dick, throwing his weight around and being as mean and petty as he can manage, and acting in no way like a decent person let alone a heroic detective solving a crime. And yet - this "and yet" is the heart and soul of the movie, and the main proof that Shaffer's script is such an unmitigated triumph of control of point-of-view and mood, and that Hardy's direction is so precise and merciless - we're on Howie's side anyway.

Because, cheer and sunshine and the best apples in Britain and everything, but Summerisle and the pagans living on it are just not right. I have watched this movie four times now, and I have never yet figured out how they do it, though at this point my primary guess is that Hardy and cinematographer Harry Waxman shot virtually the entire movie with inordinately flat focus, leaving everything on the same plane no matter how deep or shallow the individual shot is, and making it all feel much, much too close, and it's that closeness that gives the whole movie a certain uncomfortable feeling. A second guess is the use of color, which all seems a bit too vibrant for the lighting involved, like it's fake somehow.

That's the thing of it, too, for a long time it's more of a feeling of unease than an actual thing that you can point to and say, "nope, that's creepy". The film creates atmosphere as well as any horror movie of the sound era; but where the contemporaneous Italian horror cinema, for example, was all about an atmosphere of the uncanny and of a certain cosmic vileness that makes everything horrible and unreal, The Wicker Man is a movie that manages to create, in watching it, something akin to the heightened feeling of queasiness that comes right before a storm. But it does this entirely under the surface: obliquely, it's all about a shouty cop being rude to odd, and even outright weird neo-pagans, but neo-pagans who seem unfailingly nice. It is a sign of how far from anything else the film is that Christopher Lee, an actor who ordinarily can make even the blandest sort of normal seem forbidding and threatening, here projects a beaming, avuncular spirit of cheerfulness and love in the midst of peculiarly anti-modernist, phallocentric nature-worship.

Howie's right, of course, all along - and now I fear that I need to spoiler warning you all away, though I think this is one of those movies were the only thing most people know is how it ends, so maybe not. Still, if you don't want to know, go away - I think it's clear by now how I feel about it. Still around? Well, then you probably are aware, or don't mind me telling you, that those pagans were actually playing an incredibly sophisticated game of chess using Howie as all the pieces on the board, letting him maneuver himself into the position where he can be burned alive. And before I get into the heady stuff, I've got to say: the first shot of the Wicker Man, which in my copy comes along about 80 minutes and 40s seconds into the movie, never falls to make me heart jump into my throat, and it absolutely does not leave for the rest of the movie. And here is where confusion and an off-kilter feeling finally coalesce into raw horror of the most urgent, primal sort: the deep down human horror of being trapped in a fire, and especially a fire in the form of a huge reed giant.The Wicker Man is a real triumph of design, for if it is, after all, meant to be a throwback to a prehistorical religion, it needs to work more on a primal level of terror than a "civilised" kind of fear of weapons and metaphorical monsters. And for me, at least, it achieves this.

But that is the immediate, gut reaction one has to the sequence. The thing that pushes The Wicker Man into masterpiece territory, here and elsewhere in the film, is the marriage of a gut awareness - of the ghastliness of the Wicker Man, of the low-simmer threat of Summerisle - with super-literate, heavily intellectual conceits of morality, proper behavior, and the correct function of religion. And first, let us be grateful to the filmmakers for being so *ahem* agnostic on that last subject. What is undeniably clear at the end that Howie is right and the villagers are wrong in a moral sense; what is not at all clear is that either he or they or any of them are right philosophically. Arguably, Howie does die in a state of religious transcendence, achieved only after he begs and pleads in a most undignified way (debasing himself mere seconds after Lord Summerisle robustly promises him the honor of a martyr's death, surely no accident of screenwriting); frankly, it reads more like shock to me. But the point, of course, is that in the last moment of his life, Howie finds religion as a source of peace and strength, and not a way to savage himself and establish smug superiority over everyone else: a horrifying way to come to that sort of clarity, but this is a horror movie. As for the pagans, well, the mere fact that they are singing such a jolly round over the screams of the dying animals and man in the Wicker Man - and the sound design is damned eager to make certain that we always hear the carnage louder than the celebration - is all that we need to be certain that they are warped, so warped that even to call them "evil" implies a moral balance that seems absent from the sheer un-humanness of their behavior.

You could spend a lot of time unpacking the religious themes and iconography in the film; I am content not to, and merely to point out that it's there. I have other things I want to touch on before wrapping this up, chiefly the acting. And that, of course, means chiefly Woodward and Lee, though special attention should be given to Annie Ross, who dubbed Ekland; because the slight mismatch between her words and Ekland's mouth is very much the creepiest thing in the first part of the movie, especially during that nude song and dance where the sound is apparently coming from some other plane of reality. But aye, let us stick with the two biggest names: Woodward, ably creating a totally unsympathetic protagonist who we nevertheless understand and mostly allow to be our POV; and Lee, giving basically the best performance of his career, the broadest and most human and most inviting and ultimately most devastating. He's helped a great deal by Shaffer's razor-sharp dialogue, making Lord Summerisle into a bit of a playful wit that we can't help but like as he scores points on the annoying Howie (a personal favorite: in response to Howie's shock at seeing young woman dancing naked around a bonfire, "Naturally! It's much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on!"). Still, there's so much of it that's all Lee: his exquisite refusal to allow us to ever know whether Summerisle really believes the pagan religion he leads, or if he simply uses it as a tool, an ambiguity that crescendo's in Lee's unreadable response when he finds that Howie is quite correct, that Summerisle is the next one on the chopping block if this sacrifice doesn't work. An undercurrent of menace (because he's Lee) mixed with truly genial affection for life and everything; it's truly magnificent, one of the great horror movie performances imaginable.

These, then, are the twin suns around which The Wicker Man orbits, Woodward and Lee; the standout elements in a film where virtually everything is going right, all the time. It is a quiet horror film that is much more thoughtful than visceral, and that much more devastating for it; it is challenging in ways that aren't obvious even when you're watching it. And whatever the hell genre it is or isn't, it's such an unflaggingly cinematic construction from head to toe that I find it more, not less, of a masterpiece as its mysteries become more familiar and its shocks turn into old friends.

8 comments:

Michael James Roberson said...

Damn, I didn't know the director's cut was that hard to come by. Now I wish I hadn't gotten rid of my VHS copy.

Great movie and a great review, though.

Sssonic said...

I think I'd be willing to describe the "Wicker Man" remake as an "all-time perfect" unintentional comedy, for whatever that's worth.

As to the original, I think you hit it right on the head: its most effective weapons are the simple, inescapable, but also-prior to the very end-kind of inexplicable sense of unease it builds up for the people and places of Summerisle, and the performances of its lead actors. It's also probably one of my personal favorite films to address the idea of modern-day Christianity vs. Ye Olde Paganism, right up there with 1981's "Dragonslayer".

Thrash Til' Death said...

One of my all time favourites, and it's largely due to my adoration for this movie that I also love the 2006 Nic Cage version as a goldmine of unintentional comedy. The director's commentary on the UK DVD is almost as good; Neil LaBute defends the film to his last breath, also surreptitiously blames the film's most notorious moments - "how'd it get burned?"; "not the bees;" "step away from the bike", et al. - on the not-present-for-commentary Cage.

Have you seen Robin Hardy's sequel "The Wicker Tree" yet, Tim? If so, any thoughts? If not, what do you make of the negative buzz surrounding it?

Kelsy said...

I watched this movie this evening on your glowing recommendation--the 99 minute version is on Amazon Instant Video.

I just about had an anxiety attack the last half hour of the movie, from anticipation and from suspense about where the ritual would lead next. I haven't felt so icky (for lack of a better word) after a movie in quite some time. Thanks for bringing this version to my attention.

Tim said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words! This was a review I've been meaning to right for ages, and it took a lot out of me to finally get it down, so I'm glad to know it turned out well.


Thrash Til Death- I haven't seen The Wicker Tree, in part because I don't have any problem at all believing that it's as bad as I've heard. But one of these days, I'm sure I'll take the plunge, if only for perverse curiousity.

Kelsy- Thank you for making me aware that the 99-minute version is right at hand! Annoying, though, that it's still impossible to track down on an in-print DVD, to say nothing of a Blu-Ray.

Neil Fulwood said...

Basically: yes. You've nailed everything I love about this movie.

As regards the LaBute remake, there's a magnificent video on YouTube that recuts its most spectacularly awful moments to the Benny Hill theme music, pausing only to sample "step away from the bike". It was worth the remake going into production purely for it to be satirized so mercilessly.

Re: 'The Wicker Tree' ... I'm steeling myself to approach it ...

Ava Daniel-Johnson said...

I am one of those kids who watched it when came on tv in the old days (pre cable) I was younger and I loved it then. I still do. But then again, my parents (really my mom) used to let me watch stuff like this when she shouldn't have. Nope I didn't have nightmares, I just had a love for the unusual and the creepy. I am 42 now. I also have fond memories of watching The Secret of Harvest Home. I love anything with Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, etc.

Chris D said...

Pssssssst, this might be of interest to you!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Wicker-Man-Anniversary-Blu-ray/dp/B00E5BTJGG/ref=pd_cp_d_h__0

No word on a US release, and sadly the "Final Cut" is a 91-minute version that Hardy oversaw rather than the full 102-minute version, but it restores the scene order that he felt was crucial to the film, at least.