(c) British Lion Films
It’s May 1st – which, depending on your point of view, is either International Workers’ Day or May Day, the occasion of maypoles, hobby-horses, fools, Morris dancers, the Lord of Misrule and other things with jolly, if slightly sinister, pagan overtones. I associate May 1st with the latter, of course. Which gives me an excuse to write yet again about Britain’s greatest horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man, whose memorable climax takes place during the May Day celebrations being held on the reverted-to-paganism Scottish island of Summer Isle. If you’ve never seen The Wicker Man, I should say to you now: (1) shame on you; and (2) watch out – this entry will be full of spoilers.
Seven-and-a-half years ago I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates – mostly diplomats and aid workers – held a weekly cinema evening. Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to show a classic horror movie. For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film. They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting the uptight Free Presbyterian police officer with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles). But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”
Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived, Sergeant Howie had his appointment with the wicker man and the room fell silent. The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended – broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy. She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that! Scotland isn’t really like that!”
Later, a Dutchwoman whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang – she had an appropriately Earth Mother-type vibe to her – came over to me with a big smile and said, “I really liked that. But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”
And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is special is its music. (Meanwhile, the lack of music is one reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks – though to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.) The man responsible for the film’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet. Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career. Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by HIV/AIDS infection.
The centrepiece of The Wicker Man’s musical soundtrack is Willow’s Song – sometimes known as How Do – the haunting ballad song by Willow Macgregor, the luscious daughter of the island’s hotel owner, while she tries to lure Howie into her room one night. To ensure that Howie gets the message, Willow performs a nude dance as well. Howie manages to withstand Willow’s saucy enticements – just about – only to discover later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether he’s a virgin or not. Willow is played by Britt Ekland and this is probably her greatest cinematic moment. No doubt when Britt goes to meet her maker, which hopefully won’t be for a long time yet, it’ll be the scene that they’ll show on the TV news as a tribute to her. (Well, it’s either this or a bit from The Man with the Golden Gun – which would you choose?)
(c) Silva Screen
However, it’s not Britt Ekland we hear singing Willow’s Song – the vocals have been attributed, by different people at different times, to Rachel Verney or to Annie Ross. Also, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see during the scene either. (The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and in at least one interview with her I’ve read Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.) Come to think of it, considering how little is really heard or seen of Britt Ekland in this scene, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.
It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown. Much of its mystique is due to its music and Willow’s Song in particular has received a lot of attention, with a number of artists having a go at covering it. I suspect the most famous version is the one done in the 1990s by cinematically-inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps – with vocals courtesy of Kelli Dayton, the female singer whom the band recruited for their most acclaimed album, 1996’s Becoming X. (Not only does Becoming X contain Willow’s Song but if you have the right edition of the album you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man. The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.)
The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it comes with a lush, synthesised sheen. Filmmaker Eli Roth liked the Pimps’ take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen shortly to Roth’s own, hapless protagonists. I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as many other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death. Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies (like John Carpenter’s Halloween) that holds that only characters who prudishly say no to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will escape being victims, while immoral characters will die horribly. In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end. In Hostel, the backpacker who survives the carnage is actually the most promiscuous one.
Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles had done a take on Willow’s Song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlIcy5gOIuo), while 12 years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKlL6x3aIw). Both the Turtles and the Doves’ versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing on them. In 2006 Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell, best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan, covered Willow’s Song and unsurprisingly her version followed a more traditional, folky blueprint (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHpHC54s2s0). And a year later the indie-dance group the Go! Team – a marmite-type outfit whom you either really like or find intensely irritating; I have to say I quite like them – covered it too, although their version seems not to be available on youtube.
Definitely worth mentioning is a version by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who clearly decided to go for it and deconstructed the song totally. They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film – the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out – and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.
Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists at least eight other versions – which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man, but is rebuffed; in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned. Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable. Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too. Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull! And every stroke a bucketful.”*
Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty. These unsettling contrasts have helped the movie’s reputation to grow in the last 40 years, to the point where it’s now seen as a classic of British cinema.
*Maybe this line gave the Farrelly Brothers the idea for the gag in their 1996 movie Kingpin where Woody Harrelson milks a bull – although he’s under the impression that he’s milking a cow.