Saturday, September 1, 2007

How Do

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

During the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, from which Halloween was derived, Druids burned huge sacrificial wooden effigies known as Wicker Men atop sacred hilltop sites. The Wicker Men were sometimes filled with animals, prisoners of war, criminals, and other sacrifices to Druid deities.

WHILE Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing and Madeline Smith were bringing Hammer’s Frankenstein saga to an unrelenting grisly end with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1972), Christopher Lee was filming in Scotland, working for free in a role specially written for him. Although marketed as a horror film, Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN is a counterpoint to the flamboyant excesses of the Hammer tradition, and a genuine genre misfit, equally resembling a detective story, an erotic thriller, a religious allegory, an art film, and even a musical. Hardly the “CITIZEN KANE of horror” as labelled by Cinefantanstique magazine, it became lost in a tangle of bad marketing, careless editing, and public indifference. The work does however remain a solid cult favourite, its status reinforced by a series of outlandish behind-the-scenes stories: the master negative was apparently lost when it was inadvertently included in a shipment of disposable material buried beneath the then under-construction M3, for example, and rumours circulated of inhumane acts towards animals. Lee even offered to pay for his critic friends to view the film when the bewildered new regime at British Lion refused to distribute it.

Edward Woodward, in a role intended for Cushing, is Sergeant Neil Howie, a humourless policeman whose devout religious views cause him to look dimly upon any kind of heathen activity. When he receives an anonymous letter informing him that a young girl is missing on the beguilingly remote Scottish island of Summerisle, he flies out to investigate, consequently discovering a community of pagans - led by Lord Summerisle (Lee) - who worship the old Celtic gods and have rejected Christianity. In the schools, children are taught to venerate male genitalia, while at night outside the public house, couples copulate openly. Howie’s faith further comes under assault when a naked Willow (Britt Ekland), the sensual daughter of the innkeeper, offers herself to him in an adjacent room while singing the haunting How Do (indeed, Paul Giovanni’s celebrated score often moves the story along rather than the dialogue). Convinced that the missing girl is intended as a human sacrifice for the islander’s May Day celebrations, Howie realises too late that she is part of a scheme to ensnare “the right kind of adult.”

The cover for Optimum’s 3-disc DVD of THE WICKER MAN, containing the original 84m theatrical release, the 99m director’s cut, and the soundtrack CD.

Within this structure of a miniature Holy War, Howie is no Sherlock Holmes, but the viewer is convinced by his dogged persistence, although his dour disposition and puritanical outlook makes it difficult to fully sympathise with the character. This investigative outsider is just one of many horror film clich├ęs playwright Anthony Shaffer spins into his games-laden script: the raucous pub that falls silent on his arrival, a journey by carriage to the castle of an overlord, and the midnight exhumation of a coffin, are all present and correct. But the climax - in which the Sergeant is improbably manoeuvred into, and subsequently burned to death, within a sixty foot Wicker Man, is one of British cinema’s most visually arresting final scenes.