Feb 5, 2006

Wicked Smaht

By B.E. Earl

02/05/2006 8:54 AM EST

Hey kids! Have you ever watched a film and decided that you didn't really like and/or understand it at first only to decide at a later time that you actually did like it and that it has gotten under your skin a bit? This happens to me an awful lot. It happened just recently with a so-called classic horror film called The Wicker Man from 1973. As you know, both Slyde and I are big fans of the horror genre, but neither of us had ever seen this classic until I had the chance to purchase the DVD sometime last week.

Let me give you a brief set-up to the movie. In modern day (early 70's) Scotland, a policeman (Edward Woodward) from the mainland is lured to a small island in the Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He encounters a strange group of villagers who act as if they had never seen the girl before. He also encounters the islander's strange religious and sexual practices which is disconcerting to him as he is a devout (and quite repressed) Christian. Suspecting that the girl has been sacrificed or is about to be sacrificed as part of some neo-pagan ritual, he stays on the island in an effort to save the young lass. I'll not go any further in case any of you haven't seen this gem, but let's just say things start to go awry for our young, repressed hero.

I'm not quite sure why I gave it a thumbs-down after my first viewing. It surely wasn't what I expected. There were horror elements to be sure, but I certainly wouldn't classify it solely as a horror film. The first half of the film played out almost as a musical, if you can believe that. There were songs sung in pubs, in fields, around the maypole, and even one extraordinarily strange seduction sung by the landlord's daughter to the policeman while in different rooms! It also didn't go a long way towards explaining some of the strange imagery on the island, but I guess at that point I had already semi-given up on the film.

That next day, however, I found that it HAD gotten under my skin a little. I began to research a little of the background of the film and it started to fascinate me even more. You see, this film was the brainchild of writer Anthony Shaffer, director Robin Hardy and star Christopher Lee. In fact, Lee was not paid a dime for his acting in this film although he continues to call it his favorite film that he had ever worked in. This project was very close to his heart and he wanted to see it completed. Had he accepted his normal fee the film may never have gotten off the ground. Mr. Shaffer had wanted to do a smart, contemporary British horror film which then turned into a morality play, and partly made that weird left turn into musical/drama. The studio which had made the film (British Lion, I believe) was sold soon after shooting had completed and the new head of the studio, Michael Deeley, was not quite sold on the film. In fact, after an early viewing of the film with Shaffer and Lee, he asked them what they thought of it. They believed that it was one of the finest things that either of them had worked on. He replied that it was quite possibly the worst film he had ever seen.

Well, if the head of your studio believes that about your film it ain't gonna be easy to get them to distribute it. They tried to convince Roger Corman to distribute it in the US, but his offer was too low for the studio to accept. It soon found another distributor, but without the clout that Corman could bring to the table the film shot quickly to obscurity even though it drew rave reviews. However, it soon began to rise in the underground as a cult classic. Theaters were playing the film at midnight showings to sold-out audiences. With the advent of VHS (and DVD later on) the legend of the film has continued to grow. There are fanzines, websites and festivals dedicated to the film. One disappointing note is that the original negative to the film has been lost to history. It is believed that it was accidentally included in some garbage that was used for landfill in England's M3 motorway. Mr. Lee deduces that was a direct result of the dislike that Mr. Deeley had for the film!

So, with new information in hand I decided to watch the film a second time and damn if I didn't love it this time around! Even the weird musical scenes were a delight to watch. And the conflict between the repressed Christian ideology of Woodward and the neo-pagan joy of the villagers was especially juicy to behold. Britt Ekland (dubbed by Annie Ross to portray a Scottish accent), Ingrid Pitt (strangely, the producers kept her Polish accent) and Diane Cilento were all beautiful and quite magnetic on the screen. But it was the thoroughly delightful Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle that stole the show. He was funny, thoughtful, smart and not at all outwardly evil as the ringleader of the neo-pagans. A very different Lee than the one I had grown up on when he was doing all those Hammer horror films. He didn't look so awful in a dress towards the end of the film either. I guess you have to see the film to understand that last bit.

Now this classic is being remade for 2006 release with Nicolas Cage as the police officer. They've also switched locales from an island off Scotland to an island off the Puget Sound in Washington (or somewhere in Maine...I've seen both written). Now, I hate to bash a movie before it is released, but I am of the opinion that they should have left this one alone. If they had to remake it I would have preferred that the producers keep the Scottish flavor as the influence of the Celtic pagan rituals will be hard to maintain in an American version. And Nicolas Cage? Ugh!

Anyway, as I stated in the opening sentence, I like when a film gets under my skin a bit. This one had me researching Celtic pagan rituals which is not so easy since the history is murky at best. You see there was no written documentation of these rituals, so what remains today sometimes feels like a bad game of telephone...but played over a couple of thousand years instead of whispered around the room at a party. The maypole, the fire dance, John Barleycorn and the wicker man itself all are a part of early pagan practices although any specifics are hard to come by. This film left me wanting more, and I think that is one of the marks of a truly great piece of art.

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