Robin Hardy 1929 – 2016

 

From www.rue-morgue.com

 

The director and writer Robin Hardy, who passed away earlier this week, made only a handful of movies.  And only one of those movies had any influence – but what an influential movie it was.  He was the director of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, which regular readers of this blog will know is a big favourite of mine.  It might not be quite the greatest horror movie ever made, but it’s surely the greatest one ever made in the United Kingdom.

 

And for my money, there’s nothing in the history of the British film industry that compares with its final image.  This shows the head of the burning wicker man – within which luckless virgin / policeman Edward Woodward has just been sacrificed by a community of pagans on a remote Scottish island – collapsing before the Atlantic horizon, which is glowing like a furnace while the white disc of the evening sun sinks behind it.

 

The movie / TV fan website Den of Geek marked Hardy’s passing by providing a link to a 2008 article written about the film by one of its supporting stars, the late Polish actress Ingrid Pitt.  In it Pitt amusingly spills some beans about the making of The Wicker Man: including how Edward Woodward’s biggest irritation about being inside the wicker man was not the flames licking up from below, but the sacrificial animals that were sealed inside the thing in the cages above and were peeing down on his head; or how her co-stars Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento spent the shoot moaning about their troubled marriages to their film-star spouses, Peter Sellers and Sean Connery respectively.

 

http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13755/the-ingrid-pitt-column-the-making-of-the-wicker-man

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Hardy’s other films were the 1986 Irish movie The Fantasist, which I haven’t seen – few people have seen it – but which certainly sounds interesting; and 2011’s The Wicker Tree, a spiritual if not a direct sequel to The Wicker Man.  As I wrote about The Wicker Tree in this blog two years ago, the sequel isn’t an outright disaster, but it’s slipshod and uneven in tone and is badly let down by the non-performances of its two American leads.  It shows how unique The Wicker Man was in its perfect balance of horror, humour, music and bawdiness – a balance that you probably couldn’t achieve twice.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=3915

 

Before his death Hardy was trying to raise funds for a second Wicker Man sequel, provisionally entitled Wrath of the Gods.  But although we’ll never see that film now, The Wicker Man’s DNA is evident in a number of other movies made during the past two decades, most notably Julian Richards’ Darklands (1996), David Mackenzie’s The Last Great Wilderness (2002), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011); and no doubt it’ll influence more movies in the future.

 

And back in May this year, Radiohead paid homage to The Wicker Man in the charming but sinister video for their recent song Burn the Witch, which depicted pagan sacrifice in a stop-motion-animated English village inspired by the 1967 children’s TV show Trumpton.  Spookily, the creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, died on June 30th, just two days before Hardy did – a coincidence that suggests there exists a deadly Radiohead Video Curse.  (Perhaps for their next release, Thom Yorke and the gang might want to make a video about Tony Blair, filmed in the style of a Michael Bay movie.)

 

(c) XL Recordings

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Nowt as queer as folk-horror

 

(c) British Lion

 

Establishment film critics and film historians in this country may find it an uncomfortable truth – a source of embarrassment and dismay, even – but for long periods a sizeable section of the British film industry has been dedicated to cranking out horror movies.

 

Specifically, there are two periods when British horror filmmakers have been prolific.  The first was from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s,  This was when studios like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the British wing of American International Pictures (AIP) knocked out macabre products, some of them full-blooded gothic fantasies, others more downbeat, psychological and set in the urban present.  The directors who made such fare ranged from the critically acclaimed (Michael Powell, Jack Clayton and Roman Polanski) to the – at the time, at least – critically derided (Pete Walker, Michael Armstrong and Norman J. Warren).

 

The second period has run from the late-1990s until today and again the directors involved have ranged from the critically applauded (Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Gareth Edwards) to the critically frowned-upon (Alex Chandon and Jake West, whom I’m sure are bothered not one jot that most critics don’t like their films).  This time, though, the emphasis has definitely been on the downbeat, modern and urban – and indeed, grungy, nasty and nihilistic.  Even at the moment, while reports appear in the media about the British film industry being, yet again, in deep shit, these usually-unheralded and beneath-the-radar British horror movies just keep on coming.  In the past two years, off the top of my head, I can think of Before Dawn, Byzantium, Cockneys vs Zombies, Berberian Sound Studio, Sightseers, A Field in England, The World’s End, The Seasoning House, In Fear, Borderlands, The Quiet Ones, Stalled, Scar Tissue, Soulmate, Blackwood, The Last Showing,  Following the Wicca Man, White Settlers and Monsters: Dark Continent.  (Okay, I haven’t mentioned Strippers vs Werewolves, but who’d want to?)

 

Curiously, what British horror films in the past and nowadays have seemed reluctant to do is to embrace the macabre folklore, traditions and history of the British Isles themselves.  When they haven’t been dealing with deranged killers in contemporary settings – Carl Boehm as the crazy photographer stalking models and dancers in Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 movie Peeping Tom, Sheila Keith as a cannibalistic granny drilling people’s heads open in Peter Walker’s grim 1972 epic Frightmare, feral kids and / or psychotic hoodies running amok in James Watkins’ 2007 movie Eden Lake and in a dozen other modern British horrors – they’ve dealt with tropes that’ve been borrowed en masse from Hollywood and from continental Europe: vampires, werewolves, zombies (a lot of zombies recently).

 

To be fair, even before the cinematic era when Britain – and Ireland – had a burgeoning gothic literary tradition, writers like Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley,  Charles Maturin, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker often used the European mainland for both the settings and the inspiration of their most famous stories.

 

And when the first wave of British horror-filmmakers did mine Britain’s past for ideas, they often didn’t look beyond the days of the British Empire (which admittedly loomed large in recent British history at the time).  Hence, you get a strain of ‘colonial horror’ films like The Reptile (1966), The Oblong Box (1969) and The Ghoul (1974), in which upper-class Brits went abroad, behaved badly, got cursed by the natives and then returned home with guilty, horrible secrets as their punishments.

 

(c) BFI

 

Nonetheless, over the years, critics and cultural commentators have come to identify a British-horror-movie sub-genre known as ‘folk-horror’, wherein the horror springs from sinister things that, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, bustle in the hedgerows of eerie, mysterious and rural old Britain.  In August 2010 even the ultra-prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound saw fit to devote an issue to ‘the films of old, weird Britain’.  So in this post, and in a later one, I’d like to write about what I consider to be the best ten (or so) British folk-horror movies of all time.

 

Night of the Demon (1957)

“It’s in the trees!  It’s coming!”  Fans of Kate Bush will recognise this line from the opening of her 1985 song Hounds of Love.  It’s sampled from Night of the Demon, an appropriate choice with which to start this list because it appeared just as the first British horror-movie boom was kicking off in the late 1950s.  Furthermore, it’s based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, one British writer who wasn’t reluctant to dig into homespun folklore and legends for scary ideas.

 

The druidic runes in question are those inscribed on some parchment given to investigator Dana Andrews by black-magic cult leader Niall McGinnis, after Andrews has antagonised him with his scepticism.  Not only does the parchment foretell Andrews’ death at a particular point in the near-future, but it also seems to be bait for something big and diabolical, presumably pagan in origin, which has begun to stalk him – and it’s going to catch up with him, fatally, at the time predicted.  If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Sam Raimi quietly borrowed it for his 2008 horror opus Drag Me to Hell.

 

With filming locations that include Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, the British Museum and – where better? – Stonehenge, Night of the Demon is an atmospheric and intelligent movie.  It has a wealth of lovely little details.  Reference is made to the celebrated lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one that on a lonesome road / doth walk in fear and dread / and having once turn’d round, walks on / and turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend / doth close behind him tread.”  Disconcertingly, McGinnis makes his first appearance performing magic tricks at a children’s party.  And it’s creepy – up to a point.  The sequences where Andrews notices something trailing after him, getting ever closer, signified by a weird rattling sound and an odd-looking ball of smoke floating in the distance behind him, are wonderfully unsettling.

 

Alas, producer Hal E. Chester didn’t believe that the scariest things are those left to the imagination.  Overruling the wishes of Andrews, director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, he insisted on inserting, into the movie’s climax, footage of a big, scaly, warty monster.  (The bloody thing has always reminded me of the clay-motion creature featured in 1970s TV advertisements for the British sweets, Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”)  Needless to say, this wrecks the suspense that Tourneur has built up during the preceding movie.  Bennett was particularly incensed and once claimed that if Chester “walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

 

(c) BFI

 From zillastyle.blogspot.com

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

East Anglia is one of my favourite parts of England and 1968’s Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price and was directed by Michael Reeves (who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25), is possibly the most East Anglian movie ever.  It deals with a figure from local history, the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins, and it turns the County Suffolk countryside into an unsettlingly pretty backdrop for Hopkins’ brutal activities.  Among the movie’s locations were Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford, and Dunwich and Orford on the Suffolk coast.  Also used in the area were two aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, which were converted into studios for filming the interior scenes.

 

Witchfinder General’s climax was shot inside the castle at Orford and locals old enough to remember it recall how screams emanated from the castle dungeon for three days solid.  Orford Castle belongs to English Heritage and I’ve heard that originally the film was supposed to finish with a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he toned things down slightly in his script – instead, he had hero Ian Ogilvy hack Price bloodily to death with an axe and gouge out another villain’s eyeball with the spur on his boot.  As you do.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on at all during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of villainy, which is now considered as one of his best performances.

 

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)

Tigon Films, the studio responsible for Witchfinder General, made this movie two years later.  It’s also set in rural England in the 17th century and comes across at times like a particularly phlegmy BBC costume drama, one where actors and actresses clad in wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes tramp through the mud between thatched cottages and address one another in heavy accents as ‘Master Gower’, ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’.  However, it’s suffused with far more blood, nudity and paganism than you’ll ever get in a BBC costume drama.

 

The film begins with a farmhand accidentally turning up a hideous something from the soil whilst ploughing.  Before long, there’s an outbreak of devil-worship, human sacrifice and general debauchery among the local youngsters as they come under the spell of a supernatural entity – presumably the thing unearthed in the field.  Blood on Satan’s Claw seemed particularly freaky to me as a kid because it contained a number of young actors and actresses whom I knew from watching various innocuous comedy and drama shows on 1970s TV: Simon Williams (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Michele Dotrice (from Some Mothers do ’ave ’em) and, playing the spectacularly ill-fated Cathy Vespers, Wendy Padbury, who’d just finished a stint as Patrick Troughton’s companion in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

The best performance, though, is given by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, the local minx who becomes the entity’s voluptuous high priestess and worships it in a ruined and deconsecrated church.  In real life, the church is to be found at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire.

 

Directed by Piers Haggard, who filmed many of the outdoor scenes at low angles to give the impression of something looking up at the human world, out of the soil, Blood on Satan’s Claw is distinguished too by a lovely, folky but sinister score by the Australian composer Marc Wilkinson.  Wilkinson uses a cimbalom (an East European hammered dulcimer, once popular with gypsy musicians) to great effect and I’ve heard that he later gave advice to composer, singer and musician Paul Giovanni – who’d be responsible for the equally beguiling folk music featured in the next film on my list.  Which of course is…

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

However, I’ve written enough posts about this film in the past, so I won’t go on about it here.  Except to mention the locations it was filmed at in Scotland: Anwoth, Burrow Head, Castle Kennedy, Creetown, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Port Logan and St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway region; Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; Plockton on the Highland coast; and the Isle of Skye, which provides the view of the Old Man of Storr rock formations in the movie’s credits sequence, seen while the doomed Edward Woodward flies his seaplane to the island of Summerisle.

 

(c) British Lion

 

And that was really it as far as folk-horror was concerned in the UK’s first horror-movie boom.  A few other films used the idea that witchcraft was being practised behind the curtains of rural Britain’s cottages and farmhouses – for example, the 1964 black-and-white movie Witchcraft, directed by Don Sharp and starring an ailing (at times visibly drunk) Lon Chaney Jnr; the 1966 Hammer movie The Witches, with a script by Nigel Kneale based on Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own; and 1976’s Satan’s Slave, directed by Norman J. Warren, scripted by film critic David McGillivray and starring Michael Gough with an unfeasibly bushy moustache.  However, I don’t consider any of them to be much good.

 

(c) AIP

 

In 1970, after Witchfinder General, director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriters Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking mounted an Elizabethan-set horror movie called Cry of the Banshee, wherein a witch-hunter, again played by Vincent Price, is punished by a witches’ coven who summon up a Celtic faerie demon called an aos sis – not the banshee of the title – and send it after him and his family.  However, the film was low-budgeted and interfered with by its producers and the result was disappointing.  Still, the credits sequence, animated by a very young Terry Gilliam, is worth seeing.  Some movie fans, meanwhile, have expressed love for another Don Sharp movie, 1973’s Psychomania, which incorporates witchcraft and a pagan stone circle into a plot about English Hell’s Angels becoming indestructible zombies.  I like Psychomania, though it falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category rather than into the ‘actually good’ category.

 

‘So bad it’s good’ is the only way to describe 1988’s Lair of the White Worm, directed by the once-great Ken Russell, and of which the Guardian once said: “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed the buttons one by one…”  It stars Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton, a languid aristocrat living in the remote English countryside who finds himself having to do battle with a monstrous worm-snake-dragon creature that’s inhabited a local cave since prehistory – the film’s cave scenes were shot in Thor’s Cavern in the Derbyshire Peak District.  Grant also comes up against one of his neighbours, played by the sultry Amanda Donohoe, who’s actually a snake-vampire creature in human form and who acts as the beast’s high priestess.  Yes, I bet these days Hugh Grant doesn’t advertise the fact that he has this movie on his CV.

 

Helping Grant out is Peter Capaldi, playing a resourceful but very stereotypical Scottish archaeologist who discovers that the snake-vampires can be hypnotised by the sound of the bagpipes, just as real snakes are by snake-charmers.  Meanwhile, the scene where the fanged Donohoe bites Capaldi under his kilt makes Lair of the White Worm worth its DVD rental price alone.

 

(c) Vestron Pictures

 

The film has a chaotic script.  When Ken Russell isn’t loading on the psychedelic flashback scenes that see early-Christian nuns being raped by Roman legionaries and crucified Christ-figures being crushed by giant snakes, he goes to town on worm / snake / phallus imagery – the shot where a vacuum-cleaner tube entwines itself around Catherine Oxenberg’s ankle is just one of many.  Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some interesting references to British legends about monstrous ‘worms’ – eel-like dragons – terrorising the countryside, such as the one about the Lambton Worm that supposedly took place by the River Wear in north-east England at the time of the Crusades.

 

The legend of the Lambton Worm was commemorated in a lusty folk ballad written by Clarence M. Leumane in 1867 and the song gets an airing here – with its title changed to The D’Ampton Worm, in acknowledgement of the name of Grant’s character.  Unfortunately, its performance by Emilio Perez Machado and Stephen Powys, who show more enthusiasm than subtlety, makes it the most clodhopping folk song ever to grace a British folk-horror movie: “John D’Ampton went a-fishing once, a-fishing in the Wear / He caught a fish upon his hook he thought looked mighty queer…”  Paul Giovanni it is not.   (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJEq6_foO-o.)

 

There were, thankfully, better things to come…  (To be continued.)

 

Barking up the wrong tree

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

I’m a big fan of 1973’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, and about paganism on a remote (and fictional) Scottish island called Summerisle.  Indeed, I’ve posted about it several times.  For the sake of completeness, I feel I should write something too about its semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, which was also directed by Hardy and appeared two years ago.

 

I don’t particularly want to, but I feel I should.

 

For a decade The Wicker Tree was a movie that you occasionally heard rumours about but you wondered if you’d ever actually see.  The film was originally mooted in 2002, with the curious title of The Riding of the Laddie and with Hardy doing both directing and writing duties.  Acting names linked with the project then included Sean Astin, Ewan McGregor, LeAnne Rimes, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee – Lee, of course, had appeared in The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, the charismatic, crafty and decadent aristocrat who orchestrated all those pagan practices on Summerisle, and he’d more recently appeared with Astin and McGregor in the Lord of the Rings and second-cycle Star Wars movies.  No film appeared, but Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel with a different but equally curious title, Cowboys for Christ.

 

(c) Luath Press

 

A fresh attempt to get The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ before the cameras took place in 2007, but before this, in 2006, there appeared an American remake of the original Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn.  Set not on a Scottish island but on an American one, where a matriarchal neo-pagan community keeps its menfolk in shuffling subservience, tends to a giant complex of beehives and will do anything, however horrid, to ensure that its honey-harvest remains healthy, the remake received rotten reviews.  Indeed, it received five nominations at that Oscars-for-terrible-films, the Razzies Awards.

 

I avoided the thing out of principle, until one day I found myself on a long intercontinental flight and noticed it was offered as an inflight movie.  So I decided to give it a try.  Afterwards, I felt like chucking myself out of the nearest emergency hatch.

 

There’s many things to hate about The Wicker Man remake, including its lack of humour and its lack of music – the original was very amusing and had a lovely soundtrack of folk songs, compiled, sung and played by the late Paul Giovanni.  But what I found worst about it was the craven way it ducked the Christian-pagan conflict that was central to Anthony Shaffer’s script in 1973.  The original has an uptight Free Presbyterian police sergeant, played by Edward Woodward, searching for a missing girl on Summerisle and seeing the beliefs he’s held unquestioningly for so long treated by the pagan islanders with a mixture of incomprehension, ignorance and ridicule.  The exchanges between Lee and the increasingly-blustering Woodward mock Christian assumptions in a way that you rarely see in a horror movie.  For example: “We’re a deeply religious people.”  “Religious?  With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests?  And children dancing naked!”  “They do love their divinity lessons.”  “But they are… naked!”  “Naturally!  It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”

 

The 2006 remake avoids all this and blandly keeps shtum about the religious beliefs, if any, of the investigating police officer.  I presume this was to avoid offending cinema audiences in church-going Middle America.

 

Meanwhile The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ was scheduled to start shooting in 2007, but didn’t, and then again in 2008, but didn’t again.  It was meant to be shot in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, which had provided the original Wicker Man with locations such as Creetown, Anwoth, Port Logan, Castle Kennedy and (scene of the unforgettable climax) Burrow Head.  However, the Dumfries and Galloway plans fell through too.

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that filming actually commenced, close to Edinburgh in the towns of Haddington and Gorebridge and the district of Midlothian.  By this time, the stars originally connected with the film had disappeared, except for Lee, and Lee’s participation in the project was severely curtailed after he hurt himself in a set-accident whilst shooting another film.  For a time, Joan Collins was said to be appearing in the film too, but she didn’t make it into the final cast.

 

Completed at last, the film – now called The Wicker Tree – was unveiled at a movie festival in 2011, got a very limited release in the USA in 2012 and later that year crept out with barely a whisper on DVD in the UK.  What reviews it received were unenthusiastic and I didn’t feel any urge to spend money on it until a month ago, when I saw a copy of the DVD selling at a discount in HMV.  So now that I’ve watched it, what can I say about The Wicker Tree?

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Well, kudos first of all to Hardy for restoring the Christian-pagan conflict that the re-makers of The Wicker Man brushed under the carpet.  His main characters are a young Texan couple, Beth (Brittania Nichol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), who are serious evangelical Christians.  Not yet married, they wear purity rings, and they perform a gospel / county-and-western singing act.  Hardy tries to make them interesting by giving them backstories – before seeing the light, Beth was a dodgy Lolita-like pop starlet and Steve had a gambling addiction – but both Nichol and Garrett are deficient in acting ability, which creates a vacuum at the film’s core.  (Their inadequacy underlines how great Edward Woodward was when he played the equivalent role in The Wicker Man.)

 

Beth and Steve’s church in Dallas sends them to Scotland on a mission to convert the ‘heathens’ there.  Presumably by ‘heathens’, they mean ‘atheists’ or ‘members of misguided Christian denominations who’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘pagans’.  In Scotland, the young twosome get invited to the village of Tressock in the Scottish Borders by the local Laird, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The Morrisons are keen that the duo should participate in Tressock’s May Day celebrations, and…  Well, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you’ll know where this is heading.  What bothered me was how upfront the Morrisons are about being pagans – proper pagans, not just atheists or whatever.  I’d have thought their openness about worshipping ancient gods would warn Beth and Steve that this is all very fishy and they should be running 500 miles in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t.  The pair of them, one can only conclude, are really stupid.

 

Also, as Tressock isn’t a distant island like Summerisle, but a village on the Scottish mainland, I’d have expected people in the surrounding, normal villages to start making a connection between Tressock’s odd customs and the way that people are vanishing there every May Day.  Logic, however, is not The Wicker Tree’s strongpoint.

 

Unfortunately, quite a few things are not the film’s strongpoint.  Whereas the humour in the original film was admirably balanced between wit and bawdiness, here the humour is all over the place.  Some of it fails to be funny at all and there’s at least one scene, involving Jacqueline Leonard, her butler (played by Clive Russell) and a dead pet, which feels like it belongs in another pagan-themed British movie, the 1988 meisterwerk that is Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.  Now when I’m in the right mood – i.e. after consuming about ten pints of beer – Lair… seems so deliriously bonkers and camp that it’s rather enjoyable.  But I’d have liked a new instalment in The Wicker Man series to be a bit more… you know, dignified.

 

Elsewhere, things are dropped into the film almost randomly, never developed or never explained.  There’s a nice idea involving a local nuclear power station, run by Morrison, where an accident in the past caused the area to be contaminated and the men to become sterile – hence the community’s interest in those fertility rituals that are part-and-parcel of paganism.  In the original movie, Edward Woodward gradually learns about the parlous state of Summerisle’s agriculture, which explains why the islanders have turned to human sacrifice – desperate situations require desperate remedies.  Indeed, he confronts Christopher Lee with this fact at the film’s climax.  Here though, the nuclear-power-station storyline simply disappears halfway through the film.

 

On the other hand, the wicker tree of the title turns up near the end without any explanation.  The object looks admirably sinister on the movie poster, but what is it actually for?  What does it symbolise?  Why does it have to be a wicker tree?  One gets the impression that Hardy and his producers decided at the last moment that, in order to attract fans of the original movie, they needed a wicker something.  And a tree it was.  But they didn’t have any time to integrate the thing into the script.

 

There’s a final disappointment with The Wicker Tree.  Its predecessor took a real delight in exploring paganism and showing how the belief-system had, subtly, permeated every nook and cranny of the outwardly normal-seeming community on Summerisle – down to the sinister human-shaped and animal-shaped confectionary on sale in the local sweetshop.  (Check out this youtube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZKd9UbdoJY.)  But The Wicker Tree has no such interest in detail.  Tressock is full of pagans, there’s going to be a sacrifice on May Day, and that’s mostly it.

 

Actually, because Tressock is supposed to be in the Scottish Borders (where I’m based), I assume Hardy drew some inspiration from the ‘common ridings’ festivals held by the Borders towns during the summer.  As well as commemorating historical events like 1513’s Battle of Flodden, they celebrate an old practice whereby townspeople would ride along the boundaries of the local common lands and guard against encroachment, raids and plunder by lawless brigands.  Hence at the festivals you get masses of people on horseback, in riding gear, trotting through the countryside and splashing through the rivers.  Also, in one festival, the Kelso Civic Week, the principal man is known as the ‘Laddie’.  So I’m guessing this is how Hardy got his original title, The Riding of the Laddie.

 

And there’s a sequence near the end of the film where Steve – persuaded to become the principal in the Tressock festival – takes part in a traditional event that sees the Laddie pursued by the villagers, on horseback.  This slightly resembles a scene from a proper Borders riding, but in the real thing, although they may look like they’re on a hunt, the riders aren’t chasing anything.

 

For the record, there’s little, if anything, in the Borders common ridings that can be traced back to paganism.  The equestrian events I’ve just described celebrate a practice that started in the 13th and 14th centuries, long after the worship of Celtic deities had died out.  None of the ridings take place as early as May Day — they only really get going in June.  The Peebles festival, the one I have most experience of, is called the Beltane, which obviously sounds pagan and Celtic, but it was actually inaugurated in 1897 as a way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  You’ll see a fair number of men dressed up as women — at the Beltane, for example, in the fancy-dress parade and during the Rugby Club show that’s traditionally performed outside Peebles’ Tontine Hotel — which is certainly something of a pagan trope.  But I very much doubt if any of the participants believe they’re acting in imitation of old pagan fertility rituals.  More likely, they’re just having fun with fishnet stockings, mini-skirts and lots of chest and bum-padding.

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

But anyway, back to The Wicker Tree.  For all my criticisms, I did enjoy it considerably more than The Wicker Man remake.  As I said, like the original film, it pitches Christianity against paganism and it attempts to be humorous, though sometimes not successfully.  And like its distinguished predecessor, it draws on folk songs for its musical soundtrack, though inevitably, without Paul Giovanni, the music isn’t quite as good this time around.  And if you can see beyond Nichol and Garrett’s non-acting, the supporting cast is fine.  Graham McTavish is solid as the villainous Lachlan Morrison – McTavish, incidentally, is best known for playing Dwalin, the fearsome Mohican-headed, Glaswegian-accented dwarf in The Hobbit movies – and Clive Russell gives a performance of enjoyable, pantomime-style villainy as Beame, his lumbering manservant.  The injured Christopher Lee, alas, is reduced to a cameo performance.  We catch a glimpse of him in a flashback, appearing to a young Lachlan Morrison and encouraging him to go to the pagan side.  He might be Lord Summerisle but this is never made clear.

 

The best performance, though, comes from the strikingly-named actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays the village’s resident nymphomaniac / temptress.  Her role corresponds to that of Britt Ekland in the original Wicker Man, but Hardy’s script makes her a more nuanced and sympathetic character and Weeks tackles the role so whole-heartedly that she totally eclipses the vapid Nichol.  Particularly good is a dreamy scene where Garrett happens across Weeks while she bathes naked in a country stream, hoping that the river deity will impregnate her.  One only wishes that the film had contained more moments like this.

 

Also good – in a chilling way – is a scene near the end where Tressock’s population turns on the Christians, chanting a pagan song with the same lyrics that were in a gospel song that the duo, earlier, had sung to those villagers.  As well as being disturbing, this acts as a subtle reminder of Christianity’s predilection for borrowing things from older religions, to make itself more palatable for converts.  Just as you’ll find in old churches carvings and sculptures of things that are recognisably pagan, so Beth and Steve’s Christian song turns out to have a pagan antecedent.  Actually, this scene should have served as the film’s climax, but Hardy insists on following it with further stuff – and the further stuff isn’t as good.

 

To sum up, then, The Wicker Tree isn’t as bad as The Wicker Man’s American remake, but it’s disappointing nonetheless and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants their fond memories of the 1973 classic to stay unsullied.

 

The irony is that the original Wicker Man is now seen as a milestone in a British movie sub-genre that’s been dubbed ‘folk-horror’.  In British folk-horror films, the threat is something that comes from Britain’s own historical or folkloric past – such films don’t rely on monsters imported from continental Europe or from Hollywood, such as vampires, werewolves or zombies.  And just as The Wicker Tree limped out on DVD in 2012, a slew of new British folk-horror movies, made by younger filmmakers and of a higher quality, were also appearing.  I’ll be writing about those films in another post, very soon.

 

An appointment with Willow’s Song

 

(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.)

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=murBjRV896Q

 

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUFDhf4XBaI

 

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.