Director Robin Hardy was present for a screening of his 1973 film The Wicker Man and a 10-minute clip of his upcoming feature The Wicker Tree at the 92nd St. Y in Tribeca on All Hallows Eve. Once heralded as the “Citizen Kane of Horror Films,” by Cinefantastique Magazine, The Wicker Man remains relevant today with its nod towards an outwardly polite and perfect community obfuscating malignant religious fanaticism and featuring the age-old fight between pagans and Christians.
The Wicker Man follows the good Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he attempts to uncover the whereabouts of a missing girl last seen on Summerisle in Scotland, a beautiful, private island filled with song, ritual, and customs from a time long, long ago. Howie bears witness to many instances of bizarre behavior: outdoor orgies under a moonlit sky; a naked woman in a cemetery, weeping with her chest pressed against her beloved’s headstone; unclothed children jumping over bonfires.
In a particularly memorable scene, the innkeeper’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), performs a fully nude dance while singing for Howie at her bedside. She croons and pounds on the wall as Howie sweats and is tortured by want in the adjacent room. He does not succumb, through, and come morning tells our temptress he is saving himself for marriage — for he is a Christian and that is what a Christian does.
As the film progresses, Howie finds the island folks’ ways more and more unnerving, and no one wants to talk about the missing girl. A visit with Lord Summerisle (Sir Christopher Lee in a part written just for him) reveals what Howie had suspected: These people are pagans. Howie asks, “What about Jesus Christ? What of the Church?” To which Summerisle proclaims that Howie’s god had failed these people whereas the old gods gave them back hope, made the crops grow. And how is the Christian god’s virgin birth any different than the children’s fertility ceremonies, jumping over fire, hoping to coax divinity into their womb? Isn’t it better to conceive a god anyway?
Lord Summerisle and his people have been very forthright in their beliefs, but it’s almost as if the townfolk were putting on a show for Howie. Is this artifice a trick? As May Day approaches, will he find the girl that he now believes will be sacrificed to bring the crops back?
Watching The Wicker Man projected on the big screen reminded me of what a great film it is, from its acting to song to social commentary. The 35 mm (1.85:1) print of the director’s cut looked excellent. The color scheme paints the town of Summerisle in pastel hues and brown/blacks. The negative has very few artifacts, and the mono sound is very clear. I was, however, not a fan of the audience as it giggled its way through the film, an obvious response to the absurdist nature of Woodward having to play the straight man against a town of would-be loons and naked children.
The acting is solid, particularly on the part of Lee and Woodward. This is Lee at his finest, a fact which the actor has recalled many times during interviews about his career. Woodward is terrific, caught between his duties, his god, and a culture he finds despicable and only, in the end, left as a martyr to his god and a sacrifice to another. Rounding out the cast, Hammer harlot Ingrid Pitt plays the librarian as a very centered and levelheaded pagan, teaching both the students and Howie the power of nature and the old ways. Britt Ekland is sunning as the alluring and sometimes naked Willow. And, in a memorable bit part, Aubrey Morris (A Clockwork Orange) plays the gravedigger with all smiles and crazy laugher.
As the lights went up, Robin Hardy was introduced by a girl in a white lace dress with red ribbons and raccoon mask, aping the disguises the pagans wore during their May Day celebration in The Wicker Man. Hardy commented on the remake, which he seemed not to be a fan of. He felt the filmmakers followed the plot but left out the fun and music. America, he said, has wonderful folk songs they could have used as he did with his film, and the remake actually inspired him to direct his new feature The Wicker Tree.
Hardy spoke about his approach in The Wicker Man — whereas contemporary horror films go for bloodletting in the first few frames and continue the carnage from there on in (a technique which he sees as valid), his film builds empathy and “throws you a whammy” at the end – a cancer in an idyllic, fairytale atmosphere. He pointed out two themes woven into The Wicker Man, one of sacrifice and the other of drive — people going to extraordinary lengths to get what they want. Hardy then noted the ending of The Wicker Man references the trials at Nuremberg.
Next, he introduced a 10-minute (rough cut, the sound was incomplete) clip of The Wicker Tree (2010), which follows The Wicker Man in “style” and slightly in story. The clip was not a 10-minute chunk but rather snippets of various scenes in the film. Beth (Brittania Nicol) is a born-again Christian music star with a haughty Britney Spears past and a cowboy boyfriend, Steve (Henry Garrett). Both are missionaries sent by their reverend to bring the “Lord’s love” to Scotland. During their trip, Beth’s beau takes a dip in some sacred springs with a voluptuous libertine only to find himself in another scene cornered by the strange townsfolk singing and out for blood.
Beth is then attacked but is able to break free by shoving a broken bottle up the kilt of her attacker. Cut to an old maid comedically removing the shards as the Scotsman moans and groans. Elsewhere in a kitchen a naked lady, perhaps dead, is basted in oil. The pagans are at it again — getting in jabs about Jesus and attempting to kill the Christians that are there to save them. Beware of bonfires, my friends.
The footage I saw of The Wicker Tree looked silly and outrageous, if a bit heavy-handed. There were no shots shown of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle for that footage had yet to be shot. But, even if The Wicker Tree is a miss, and let’s hope it’s not, conversation and controversy are bound to arise about its very blatant subject matter.
When The Wicker Tree clip finished, Hardy went on about The Wicker Man’s resurrection. Dumped by Warner Brothers after two screenings, a print made it out to college campuses, and the kids loved it. With renewed vigor Hardy wanted to recut the film to match his original version. Warner would not give him the negative but said he could make another from the print. And who had the only negative? Roger Corman (whom Hardy noted as one of his heroes). The same college kids that gave The Wicker Man its due raised money to have the film recut. With that reel, Hardy and Christopher Lee traveled the U.S., showed the film, and it found its audience. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hardy also offered up a real-life story of paganism in modern Scotland. Of note was a certain ceremony he was witness to wherein a dashing horseman galloped out into the countryside followed by villagers on horseback. Through some digging he uncovered that this was in fact a “king for a day” ritual (a nod to this notion of “king for a day” is referenced in The Wicker Man by the costume Punch worn during the May Day celebration) where the “fool” is made “king” for just one day. In olden times towards the end of the year the fool pays a deadly price; today’s version, he observed, was just ceremonial (Hardy even chased down the stampede in his car to see what was going on).
I wish Hardy could have told us more stories of old Scotland, but time was up and the audience were ushered into a room for some sing-song sessions of folks wearing masks trying to recapture the haunting melodies of The Wicker Man. The sound was interesting, but I would have preferred my standard apocalyptic folk to that cacaphony. And with that, the evening ended for myself. I felt lucky to have seen Hardy speak and to find a renewed love for the film that should continue to be seen by today’s horror hounds.
Big thanks to The Third Floor for hosting the event.
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