Tag Archives: The Wicker Man

Halloween Terrors

By Andreas

You know what’s really scary? Like terrifying, bone-chilling, never-sleep-again scary? Sure, I could start answering that question broadly with, say, death and loneliness and bodily harm. But I’d rather start small with a few images—the direct, visceral language of the horror movie. So here’s a taste of what scares me, via some of my favorite horror classics…

Cat People

As Poe described it in “The Raven”: “Darkness there, and nothing more.” Is it a panther, or just an inky blur shifting against the wall? The water in the swimming pool plays such tricks with the light. You could be in mortal danger, with a big cat preparing to tear into your neck, or you could just be seeing things. That’s the visual genius of Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot The Seventh Victim) at work, implementing the flair for ambiguity that defined RKO’s Val Lewton unit. It’s such a blurry, disorienting image, but it conjures up a world of pain and possibility. At times like this, you have to ask yourself: “Are you afraid of the dark?”

The Wicker Man

Shot from this angle, those islanders gathered around the vast wicker effigy look like a welcoming committee. They’re here to usher Sergeant Howie along to his destiny, an outcome preordained by his actions, his self-righteousness, and his obliviousness. And isn’t that the most disturbing fate of all? To know that you’re not merely being dragged off to die; as a matter of fact, your personal flaws guaranteed this ending. This is horror at its purest: to be hopelessly, helplessly drenched in anticipation of your imminent, ritualized death. And to top it all off, the air fills with pagan song. The Stepford Wives

This image encapsulates so many powerful fears: the loss of individuality, personhood, free will; the domination (and destruction) of women by a conspiratorial council of all-knowing men; the disappearance of anyone to trust. It’s all in Bobbie’s face as she rattles off idiotic phrases like “How could you do a thing like that!” This once-vivacious woman has been reduced to a babbling automaton, realized with grotesque plausibility by Paula Prentiss. It’s a tragedy and a nightmare.

Onibaba

One last fear-inducing image, this one from Japan, as a monster/woman braves the elements. A lightning flash illuminates her face, now usurped by a demonic mask. It’s the stark conclusion to a religious allegory that’s been transformed into a sweaty, carnal horror story. This is nature at its most basic: total, unrelenting chaos engulfing a vicious, unhappy world. In a perversely moral turnabout, this selfish woman gets what’s coming to her—and we, the viewers, are left with nothing but an empty, scared feeling by this masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave. Happy Halloween, everyone!

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Link Dump: #22

Crookshanks may be half-Kneazle, but he’s still a KITTY! so voilà, here he is. Look at that cute, flattened face and orange fur! Magic kitty! As you may have noticed, we’ve had something of a posting renaissance here lately, with both Ashley and I adding new content with surprising frequency. In case you’re wondering: yes, I do want a cookie. With that, here’s a wide gallery of entertaining links plus some weird-as-fuck search terms:

  • This NYT article about the new “Disney Baby” line of merchandise reads like satire, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. And terrifying. And deeply fucked-up.
  • According to the Toronto Sun, Jane Fonda was recently visited by physicist Stephen Hawking, who apparently loved her in Barbarella.
  • My friend Jacob hipped me to this very funny but also disturbing essay by sci-fi writer Larry Niven, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” It’s about Superman’s chances of reproducing.
  • The latest feminist Twitter meme sparked by the awesome, hard-working Sady Doyle is #DearJohn, which opposes the recent attempts by certain Republican congressmen (like teary-eyed Speaker John Boehner) to redefine rape as part of their anti-abortion agenda. (Go to Tiger Beatdown for more on the fight and how it’s progressed.)
  • Here’s a catalog of (frequently film-inspired) works by sculptor Andy Wright, many of which are disturbing in their realism.
  • eCards are amusing enough, but ultra-depressing/funny eCards? The fun never stops. They’re bleakly funny, and also very well-written.
  • Robin Hardy of The Wicker Man fame has made a sequel to his masterpiece, entitled The Wicker Tree. Watch the trailer; it’s very cool.
  • The Guardian has two articles of interest: first, a fairy pretentious but occasionally insightful piece by Will Self on True Grit and the Coen Bros., and even better, a look at England’s obsession with dystopian fiction (like Brazil and Children of Men) from Danny Leigh.
  • Cinephiles rejoice! Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies again, and we have a rich young woman named Megan Ellison to thank!

We had our fair share of bizarre, ridiculous, and horrifying search terms this week. Highlights included “fuck cuddle” (awww…) and the also-cute “old fashioned cunt stories,” as opposed to those nontraditional, newfangled cunt stories. We had two peculiar gay-related searches, “irrational gays” and the oddly judgmental “lolcats are proof of gayness.” (What is this, a witch-hunt?) One search term takes the cake for grotesque excess and redundancy, “nude dead raped killed girl murder,” but the most suggestive, baffling term of all was “female sex giant animation movies.”

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The Wicker Man: Sex, Songs, and Summerisle

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like crops after a human sacrifice.]

Andreas:

Last night, Ashley and I watched Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) together for the second time. It’s a fascinatingly dense movie, one that begs to be rewatched, brimming over with conflicts: between the insular culture of Summerisle (a fictional island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland) and the outside world; between puritanical repression and sexual liberation; between superstitious tradition and scientific modernity; and between poor, misguided Sgt. Neil Howie and the pagans he runs up against.

The Wicker Man is such a strange, unconventional horror film. It starts out as a rural mystery, when Sgt. Howie comes by plane to Summerisle to search for a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. And, unsurprisingly, the film pulls out the old “all is not as it seems” card – but the trope is deployed in such a creative way that the viewer’s never really on solid ground. The inhabitants of Summerisle are like a society beholden to trickster gods, refusing to give Sgt. Howie (and, in turn, the viewer) any clues except those which are methodically parceled out: a little girl’s story about a rabbit, a doctor’s cause of death, a gravestone. But the whole mystery is like a conspiracy of red herrings, in which every citizen of the island has a part to play.

This investigation is complicated by the unreliability of Sgt. Howie himself, a troubled outsider who turns to his faith in Christ for answers. As played by the late Edward Woodward, Howie is easily disturbed by the behaviors he witnesses on Summerisle, and spends much of the film standing at the edge of the frame, staring in horror at the heathen rites being celebrated. He comes with the authority of England’s law (making him “king-like” in the pagans’ eyes), yet finds that Summerisle doesn’t play by his rules. He only has a badge, but they have deeper, older magic.

Even when he’s not actively fighting the islanders’ traditions, Howie stands out in contrast to his surroundings, and this keeps the conflict always visually on the surface. In his black uniform, he makes a bad fit with the rolling green hills and crashing waves, while the pagans are constantly bedecked in smiles and bright, springtime outfits – often reds and yellows. They’re fully in communion with their island, and Howie, as a foreign pathogen, must inevitably be wiped out.

But the film is beautifully, endlessly ambivalent about whose side is right. The islanders are presented as cheerful, earthy, musical people, fully content in their way of life, with Howie as a sour interloper. However, several cracks appear in their façade, suggesting underlying problems with their lifestyle. For example, their very reason for bringing Howie to the island is based in the failure of their crops the previous year, and the film’s ending leaves the question open: will Lord Summerisle be vindicated the following year, or was the island really not meant to bear fruit?

The islanders also embrace a number of irrational, violent traditions, frequently inviting comparison to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The entire third act is devoted to these increasingly bizarre rites – the animal masks, the pentagram formed by the chopping swords, and finally, the live sacrifice within the title edifice. There’s no real reasoning behind them other than the sheer authority of Lord Summerisle and his ancient pagan beliefs. Christopher Lee is great here; his usual urbane villainy (see Dracula, Scaramanga, etc.) is coupled with an easygoing love of life and sincere desire to help his people.

His charisma and immorality are all the more frightening because they’re not motivated by simple evil, but rather by political necessity and self-preservation. I think this is The Wicker Man‘s triumph: it manages to express multiple nuanced arguments rather than providing the audience with a right and a wrong. It shows us a sexually frozen man always on his guard (reminiscent for me of Batman in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as he comes face to face with people enjoying themselves in ways he can’t understand, and at the same time gives us hints as to why we should fear for his life.

It’s a great and blood-chilling moment toward the end when Howie realizes that it isn’t Rowan Morrison who’s in danger at all, and I think this captures the film’s narrative well. It isn’t about the islanders endangering each other’s lives; they act as one. It is about Howie himself, his internal and external struggles, all of which work together to deliver him into Lord Summerisle’s hand. He is the individuality to their conformity; he is the moral guardian to their libertines. In the end, the values and traditions of Summerisle show their teeth, and consume Sgt. Howie within their eeriest and darkest rite, incorporating his ashes into the cycle of death and rebirth.

Ashley:

The Wicker Man is an interesting little gem of a movie. If it weren’t for the fact that most people going into the film expect something of a horrifying nature, you wouldn’t really know what to expect from the get-go. It’s one part mystery, one part horror, two parts musical and just a tiny bit of dark comedy thrown in there for good measure. I’ve seen this movie about four times now and I’m left with a different impression of it each time. With this viewing I found myself taking note quite often of the parallels between Sgt. Howie’s ramrod-straight, religious attitude and the citizens of Summerisle’s free-spirited, phallic-symbol loving, orgies-in-the-field (yeah, there are totally orgies in the field) Paganism.

From the very beginning these differences are one of the main driving forces of the film and I found myself thinking about how off-putting Howie’s behavior is. It makes him kind of inaccessible as a protagonist. Unless you are also a staunch, strict religious person, you’re probably not going to relate to his disapproving, judgmental looks, his tut-tutting of these apparently happy, care-free people, and his unwavering belief that HIS God is THE God and these heathens are wholly sinful and wrong. It’s an interesting trick the movie plays on the viewer; you don’t root for Howie or really want him to come out triumphant because it seems like all the threats he perceives are completely in his head and the product of his own fears and intolerance.

But there is still this underlying sense of unease, just below the surface of the film. You know these people are strange, you can sense they’re hiding something from Howie but is he truly in danger? It isn’t until you get more than halfway into the movie that you begin to suspect that, hmmm, maybe these people ARE really fucked up (in a totally dangerous way) and maybe Sgt. Howie IS in peril.

It isn’t until the very end, for me anyway, when Howie is faced with the titular figure, faced with his own mortality that my heart starts to pound for him and I feel sorry for him and want him to escape and come out triumphant. It’s an incredibly powerful scene; Howie begins to scream out to his Christian God and you feel his terror cut through you. And to the very end, I was noting the parallels between the two faiths: as the effigy burns Howie prays and sings out to Christ as the citizens of Summerisle sing about the coming of summer.

And therein lies something that, if the movie were without it, it would not work as well. The music. This movie is weirdly part musical and it just adds to the ethereal weirdness of the island. Sgt. Howie looks on in disdainful confusion and disgust as the citizens sing lewd songs about the Landlord’s Daughter and as the young boys tug (or jerk) strategically placed ribbons while circling a maypole and learning the importance of fertility during the Maypole Song. Oddly enough, these songs don’t seem random or out of place; it fits so perfectly with the otherworldly strangeness that is Summerisle that it only makes sense that these people like to break out into song.

And the soundtrack, which was entirely composed by Paul Giovanni, is a huge part of the different moods and atmospheres of the film. While the playful, suggestive lyrics and tunes of the aforementioned songs create an air of festivity and liveliness the slower, throbbing, earthier melodies of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song give portions of the film a deep, strange sensuality: they’re inviting you, tempting you, just like they’re tempting Sgt. Howie, to come deeper into this world of carefree lust and spiritual sexuality.

And speaking of which: Willow. Oh, Willow, be still my heart. Sucker that I am for a beautiful girl, I love the character of Willow. Played with a gentle sensuality and purposeful, knowing innocence by Britt Ekland, she’s a soft, luscious but dangerous aspect of the film. We first see her as the friendly, soft-spoken, object of lust for the inn patrons, the landlord’s daughter of the song, dancing around and bringing dinner to Sgt. Howie.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear, as with all the shady citizens of Summerisle, that there’s more to this salacious siren than originally thought. During a climactic (in more ways than one) scene, Willow sings her song, inviting Howie and writhing sensually around her room, pounding the doors and walls and touching and stroking the many phallic shaped objects in her room.

It soon becomes clear that this strumpet is just like the rest of the citizens of Summerisle: hiding something. She has an agenda, her every move and word have a purpose and it’s all tightly woven into the fabric of the all-encompassing tapestry of the plot. Everything that is said and done by these islanders, from the moment Howie’s plane touches down and even before that, is carefully calculated and purposeful. He was brought here for a very specific purpose: a “willing, king-like, virgin fool” is needed for sacrifice and it’s all so airtight by the end of the film that you are just as stricken by it as Howie is. In so many other movies, with a plot device or requirement that insanely specific it would seem overreaching and ridiculous; but the citizens of Summerisle live their lives by ancient tradition. They put toads in the children’s mouths to cure sore throats. This seems perfectly normal as far as their traditions go. It just happens to be chillingly homicidal.

As Andreas and I were watching last night we talked a lot about how, despite the crazy rituals involved in this Pagan faith, is it any more or less crazily demanding than any other religion? At the core of this film, along with a lot of other themes and ideas, is the idea of faith. What faith and belief makes people do. There are constant clashes of faith between Howie and the inhabitants of Summerisle and neither side will back down from their beliefs, even when it leads to murder. And even the act of murder and death are two completely different things when look at through these two faiths. To Howie and the viewers, he is being murdered. To the islanders, they’re just trying to save their crops. Howie will not die; he will be transmuted into their successful crops.

Andreas:

So that’s The Wicker Man, a film of bottomless complexity which entangles eroticism, religious tradition, man’s relationship to the earth, and utter terror. It’s worth noting that the director, Robin Hardy, has only directed one other film, and has a follow-up to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree, due out next year. Will it compare in any way? I hope we get a chance to find out. (There was also a 2006 remake, but we don’t like to talk about that.) Till then, we’ll go on pondering the fate of Sgt. Howie and the motives of the islanders, reaping a bountiful harvest of entertainment from this horror masterpiece.

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