Monday, 27 October 2008

Animals are fine, but their acceptability is limited. A little child is even better, but not NEARLY as effective as the right kind of adult.

No 485 - The Wicker Man (1973)
Director - Robin Hardy

As we creep ever closer to Halloween I feel like I should watch some films which are the famous 'horrors'. The list has a few classics on it but I have decided to begin with The Wicker Man. Mainly because we're all going to Shunt for Halloween, and the theme is Wicker Man themed.
Now, I have only watched this film the once during my first year of uni and as is becoming distressingly common with films in this blog my previous experience involved being drunk and passing out about half way through.

I had vague memories of strangeness and nudity - and decided that I should watch the film to refresh my memory on the kind of clothing that would be suitable for the night.

It is certainly a strange strange film - and a film that has a lot of subtext.... As Toby and I watched it we were having discussions about whether the film was hinting t the fear that came with the demise of the hippy generation or whether it is talking about religion (the heathen pagans fare very well as they prepare for the May Day festivities whilst the staunchly Catholic Sergeant Howie ends up almost literally in Hell).
I certainly found the religious aspect of the film interesting, especially looking at how the majority of the problems come from Howie's inability (or refusal) to accept other faiths. As he becomes more disgusted with his surroundings, so the villagers feed his fear by become more and more sinister and acting in a manner which gets increasingly detached from the Christian 'norm'.

This is what I want to talk about. The amazing slow build of tension. The structure and pacing of the film is much more akin to an Eastern horror creating a slow sense of unease rather than resorting to the shock tactics which are such a staple of Western Horrors, especially these days. The villagers connive and lie as they gentle manipulate the policeman in their plans, they effortlessly change their story as the policeman sees through their tall tales, no one on the island panics or contradicts what the others say. It is almost as if the island has a hive mentality, as soon as the story needs to be changed, the whole island is there to back up the the changes.
It is not just the sense of conspiracy and plotting which gives the film its uncomfortable feel, it is also the footage Pagan rituals and spells which occur.
One scene of note is where Britt Ekland's character Willow tempts and seduces Howie through a wall. She writhes naked in her room as Edward Woodward suffers in his own room trying to resist the allure of the song and thumping he can hear through the wall.
The initial allure of the scene is, of course, Britt Ekland. She is a very beautiful lady - which makes the scenes of her dancing around naked a naturally pleasing sequence. But there is more to it than that. She frequently sings and looks directly into the camera, destroying the security of the fourth wall and targeting the viewer directly. This is combined with the strange rhythmic thumping she performs against the wall and against her own body.
It is a scene which is both immensely sexual but with strong sinister undercurrents. A theme which runs throughout the whole film.

It is very late - and I have work in the morning and I'm very tired and some crappy horror film has started on channel 4. So I'm going to cut to the end - but will probably return to this blog entry tomorrow. However I can not end my typing without speaking about Christopher Lee. His Lord governs all aspects of the island and runs the ceremonies which take place upon it. He is however an educated man who discusses his views on religion and understands his family history very well. This is the key aspect of what makes the film so frightening. Nothing is outwardly sinister (until the final few scenes) it is just portraying a world so alien and different to what we are used to in our sheltered British homes, that it disquiets us and puts us to edge.

I will continue talking about this tomorrow, but for now I must sleep.....
OK, I have been to sleep - all feels much better... So let us talk again about the sense of unease and the clever use of religion and intolerance/refusal to understand.
We have to begin by looking at this film as a story of an island where a child is missing. This is an island which believes in a very old Pagan faith and which has very old rituals and traditions. Along comes inspector Howie who is a very strict Catholic. It is true that the island is not helpful to him once he arrives, often being deliberate hindrances who won't do a thing until they have been authorised by Lord Summerisle, however you can empathise with the islanders. It is fair to assume that they have had previous encounters with people from the mainland and they may now be naturally on edge about these visits. And their unease is not entirely unfounded. Although Howie is primarily there to find the missing child, he does frequently attack the island's faith and traditions, this is made worse as the time gets closer and closer to May Day, which appears to be the most important day in the Island's calender.

However.... although you can explain the island's distrust of Howie, and explain why the entire island appears to be against him as he tries to solve his case, this is slightly weakened by the final few scenes.... The film is slowly building up a level of unease, accompanied by a very light and accessible 70's folk score which sounds instantly recognisable, causing an interesting contrast to the not at all recognisable events unfolding on screen and culminates with the marvellous scenes of the May Day festival including the iconic shot of Christopher Lee dressed as a Lady. There are also so many lines and shots from this section that had been copied by the League of Gentleman... it is interesting to see their influences.

Lets talk about the May Day festival, it is introduced by silent animal masked villagers following Howie around the village before reaching the titular Wicker Man. For whilst you can explain naked frolicking and orgies in graveyard as part of a different faith it is hard to condone human sacrifice. And again the question of religion comes into play. The island sings their joyous Pagan songs (accompanied with a jaunty dance) as the wicker man is lit. The singing, and the crackles of flame, drown out Howie's desperate cries and prayers to a Catholic deity.

This film is a very interesting exploration of tolerance and religion, which probably has far more to say on the matter than I have discovered. It is also a masterclass at the slow burn build up of subtlety, unease and tension, something that western horror films are distinctly lacking these days.
It is worth watching just to see the excellent Christopher Lee and just in case you're feeling shallow, it is worth watching just for all the nudity!

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