Night Of The Demon

Fearflix 42

THE WICKER MAN

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People rate The Wicker Man. Find a list of great horror movies, and The Wicker Man will feature.   It has been described as the best British horror film ever and the Citizen Kane of horror movies. This is nonsense, and the people who make these claims need to go out more or at least rent copies of The Innocents and Night Of The Demon.

The Wicker Man has a screenplay by Liverpool born playwright Anthony Schaffer. He wrote the stage play Sleuth. Before he decided to write scripts for movies based on Agatha Christie yarns Schaffer had serious ambition. Sleuth was a thriller but its main concerns were the class system and racism that he felt defined upper class Britain. The play was interesting and a great success but Schaffer has a heavy hand. Schaffer tells rather than suggests, and his characters are not shy about discussing the state of the world.

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Although The Wicker Man suffers from that fault and others it deserves a place somewhere on the best of lists. When the film appeared in 1973, audiences saw something that was bold and different. The film had a fabulous and memorable ending that concluded sinister May Day celebrations. Before that ending, though, there is much in the film that is trite. The plot has not just holes and bold assumptions by the plotters within the film but it also suffers from wayward agricultural theory and manipulated history. The glory of the ending is that it renders inconsequential what happens before the May Day celebrations. The climax is what stays in the memory.

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The film is also undermined by its location and format. Scottish literature has fine moments but hardly any that are erotic. When The Wicker Man was released, the Scots and their culture were not famed for being sensual. To set a pre-Christian and sexually permissive society in a Scottish island demands a lot from viewers who understand Britain. This weakness in the authentic erotic potential of the British was acknowledged by the recruitment of Britt Eckland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt to play the three seductive sirens on the island. All are sexy and convincing as temptresses but none of these actors are British.   Eckland is Swedish, Cilento is Australian and Pitt is Austrian.

The Wicker Man is an 84 minute film and an overextended story. If Amercian censors had looked the other way, Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone could have transformed the plot into a great 30 minute episode. The extra padding in the movie makes it feel at times like a ponderous tour around the sights of the island. True, there is a lot to see and disturb Sergeant Howie, the visiting policeman from the Scottish mainland, but some of the tour and exposition would not be out of place in an episode of National Geographic.

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Music is important to The Wicker Man. A naked Britt Eckland dances around and hums a folk melody while she teases a frustrated Sergeant Howie next door. The tune is seductive and convincing, and so are Eckland and the stand-in who was employed because she had a bigger backside than Eckland. The rest of the music, though, brings back memories of wispy beards, polo neck sweaters and a bad night at the local folk club. Sergeant Howie witnesses the villagers sing a bawdy song in the local pub. The rendition is enhanced by physical gestures from the locals. This scene is embarrassing. When the adults are randy in The Wicker Man, it is like watching drunken schoolteachers, even the pupils feel superior. Apart from Eckland and her friend with the bigger bottom there is one other notable erotic scene. Sergeant Howie steps outside and sees the young village people coupling on the village green. This is shot in the dark, and we see vague shapes writhe, explore and groan. One girl is alone and naked and she is either crying or recovering from sexual ecstasy. In this scene alone the film offers a genuine glimpse into another world and at human beings different from what we have become. The scene also shocks. Even the ducks found on ponds in the middle of English village greens do not behave this way.

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The Wicker Man is dominated by the performances of Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. Woodward is perfect as Sergeant Howie the repressed Christian suppressing his sexual desires before he marries. At times he has to loosen the tight police uniform from his stocky figure so that he can breathe. The man carries the weight of conformity and obligation. When he is forced to wear the uniform of Punch in the May Day celebration, his movements are an awkward and hesitant imitation of fun. The anguish and bewilderment of Sergeant Howie is important to the success of the splendid final scene, and Woodward is excellent at communicating self-righteous protest and indignant anger.

Prior to the haunting climax and exceptional image that reveals the fate of Sergeant Howie, the policeman argues with Lord Summerisle. The aristocrat, played by Christopher Lee, is top man on the island and the person who organises everyone so that they can stay hot and fed. Woodward says and does just enough to suggest an ending within an ending. In that he is aided by a momentary look of doubt by Christopher Lee. Sergeant Howie claims that the way of life of the villagers will not be sustainable, and Lee without saying anything makes it clear that this is a possibility that the smug brain of Lord Summerisle has not considered. For all his limitations Sergeant Howie may be right. Christianity and all the other religions that require devotion and self-discipline prevail because they are superstitions that enable us to be productive and even think for ourselves. This is the paradox revealed within the ending of The Wicker Man. Religious ideas may not survive modern scientific scrutiny but they encourage us to talk and meet, and without oppression and inhibition what would we talk about? Lee is important in this encounter because he does not try to win the scene from Woodward. The modest look and frown of Lee enable us to think about the implications of the ending, not just for Sergeant Howie but the optimistic villagers whose way of life may or may not be ending. Christopher Lee is great in The Wicker Man. In an elaborate wig he is perfect as the smug and well-heeled hedonist, the drippy hippy liberal that will have fun whatever happens and whomever he meets.

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The film was released in 1973. Many think that this was when the sixties decade ended in Britain. The hippie dreams and delusions were over. Part of the appeal of The Wicker Man, when it was released, was that it provided confirmation that the 60s had indeed existed. The rebels and the young from the previous decade had been remembered. The film appears to be on the side of the hippies and it is sympathetic to innocence and freedom. But the final scene is enhanced because it reveals the dark side of innocence and because the previous conversation between Woodward and Lord Summerisle has raised doubts. Hippies did not survive because they were wrong. Their argument was logical but one note, and people are soon bored with repetitive riffs. This is why hunters and gatherers settled for working longer hours in the fields and having fewer orgasms.

Despite the success of Woodward and Lee the confrontation between Sergeant Howie and Lord Summerisle should not have driven the film. Diane Cilento plays the village schoolteacher. The actor was 40 years old in The Wicker Man and still sexual, attractive and a force of nature.   She should have been allowed to dominate the film and to be the main antagonist for Sergeant Howie. It would have given the film much needed erotic tension and allowed more space for the two most interesting characters in the film. The hippie comparisons could have still been retained. Sergeant Howie is a representative of authority in a modern society and loyal to his future wife. The strident Christianity of Sergeant Howie is relevant to the themes and conflict within the drama but it reduces the scope for subtlety.

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The village in The Wicker Man may have pre-Christian religious practices but it is also shaped by the modern world.   The fruit that is harvested on the island is the apple, which is no surprise. As poor Sergeant Howie realises, temptation is everywhere. The failure of the harvest may explain the over-reliance on cans for food but the villagers live 20th Century rural lives. The teenagers wear trendy clothes, and the young men have modern haircuts. This mix of the ancient and modern is explained in one of the too many conversations we listen to as we travel around the island of Summerisle. The explanations make a certain sense until the final scene but by then most of the audience is preoccupied by what will happen to Sergeant Howie. There are memorable images in The Wicker Man but that is because of the subject matter and an inspired icon.   The actual photography is uninspired.  The island looks unexceptional and its landscape ill equipped for the sexual explosion that has taken place within the village. There is, though, a good overhead shot of the Storr on the Isle of Skye at the beginning of the film. It has nothing to do with the film but it is good to see.

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 39

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

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The kids are creepy, and the bad news is that every family has to have one. The kids wear odd padded blonde wigs and have eyes that are pure black. And that is when they are being pleasant. When the children lose their tempers, the black eyes glow like light bulbs and the humans around them either self-destruct or crumple. Village Of The Damned appeared in 1960. The informed view is that the 60s decade did not begin in Britain until 1963. That particular decade needed to be defined by the Profumo scandal, the music of the Beatles and the contraceptive pill. Village Of The Damned may have been made in 1960 but its British preoccupations belong to the previous decade. It is a film that was made by people who witnessed the brutality and mass carnage of the Second World War. Cinema audiences shared the same memories.

On its release the movie was praised by critics. Before then the standard of post-war British horror cinema had been poor. Night Of The Demon, which was made in 1957, was one of the exceptions. Village Of The Damned mixes science fiction and mild horror whereas Night Of The Demon is concerned with black magic. The two films, though, have common characteristics. The cinematography is in sharp black and white, the exposition is methodical, the characters are restrained and have much phlegm, Britain is settled, and evil and good manners are compatible.

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The film is memorable but not a classic. In Village Of The Damned the dialogue is functional rather than inspired, and although there is characterisation it exists to support the narrative. The actors are professional but do not relish their roles. George Sanders is the local professor, and Barbara Shelley is his wife. The early domestic scenes of a loving couple are necessary to what follows but both actors are uncomfortable in these initial encounters. Shelley recovers when she becomes the anxious mother but Sanders never convinces as a serious intellectual.

The structure of the narrative, though, is splendid and it compensates for any limits in characterisation. The film has three parts. The first part reveals the mysterious opening incident when everyone in the village faints for a couple of hours. In the middle of the film mysterious pregnancies affect all the fertile women in the village including a distraught virgin and a woman whose husband has been absent from the village for over a year. Finally, the children appear and cause unease.

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The original novel by John Wyndham was called The Midwich Cuckoos. This is a brilliant title but it was rejected by film producers concerned about profit.   Midwich is the name of the fictional village affected by the odd incident. The name suggests a quandary. These people are obliged to live in the middle of what? In fifties Britain modernism coexisted alongside mediaeval tradition, especially in rural life. What would disappear and what would emerge no one knew. Every age experiences a clumsy mix of present, past and future but the fifties were exceptional. War had unleashed technological potential, and modernity required approval. The rise in living standards were welcomed but anxiety about the future was heightened.  In a still conservative society these misgivings had to be kept secret.  Cuckoos are the birds whose calls every child is taught to recognise. Cuckoos arrive and promise a changing world and sunshine. Warm weather may be pleasant but it ignores the individual tragedy and losers that always follow change.

In Village Of The Damned the children, the Midwich cuckoos, are different, and there will be tragedy. The undiplomatic village doctor is disturbed by the strange eyes of the babies. The children experience rapid growth and demonstrate superior intelligence. Although he realises the children have come from another planet George Sanders, the professor, finds the difference encouraging. The professor is tempted by the idea that his child, or the child that is living in his home, will be cleverer than Einstein.

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Village Of The Damned has warnings about progress but it is never hysterical. The references to the communist world are non-judgemental. It exists as another imperfect social system where the powerful are obliged to make the same difficult decisions about the future. The doubts about what the world will become are universal. Nobody is triumphant in Village Of The Damned. No free market or communist ideology is quoted. Decisions about the future, as the scene with the Home Secretary demonstrates, require thought and the ability to think of the consequences for all.  Minimising damage is more important than victory.

The subsequent confrontational protest about what the modern world had become appeared in the sequel Children Of The Damned. By then the contraceptive pill had been supplemented with marijuana and gloomy hippies had arrived. In Children Of The Damned the alien children are viewed sympathetically.  Non-stoned and puritanical adults kill them.

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Village Of The Damned is not as simple-minded as its unworthy successor. The villagers are not brutish but neither do they endear. From the moment when the villagers faint there are doubts about human status. Fifteen years earlier these humans participated in a worldwide conflict but one whiff of invisible dust from outer space and they are quashed in a moment. At the beginning of the film we see them either collapsed on their machines or at the side of the road. The humans are no different from the sleeping animals. If the horror of the Second World War has persuaded everyone to be peaceful, these uncomprehending creatures will now have to continue without the comfort of conflict or a noble cause.   Resistance provides the hope of survival, and, unable to practise resistance, human beings have no substance and cease to exist. And resistance is more than military combat. Conversation and routine also qualify as organised resistance. It is how we cope with what we avoid acknowledging, our isolation and the destructive nature of time. At the end of the film the villagers prevail but it has demanded more than organised resistance. Sometimes survival requires people in the group, community or nation to be sacrificed. The best of them in Midwich is obliged to sacrifice himself. At that point in the film, when the humans have triumphed, the audience relaxes but the moment that follows is peculiar. Glowing eyes appear in the flames and wreckage. This may have deliberate meaning or be mere tongue in cheek whimsy by a designer. Either way the image is disturbing. Only human beings, and probably the dimmest of them, think they understand what will happen next.

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The British in this film are defined by resistance rather than ambition.   The beauty of Barbara Shelley is important. Her presence somehow represents a whole decade. She is beautiful but ordinary. She has suburban grace rather than charisma and was a woman born to welcome the new comfortable homes. Her clean facial features and neat figure flatter G Plan furniture. The military are a commanding presence in the film but they represent the need for security rather than a desire to conquer.  Experienced in organising resistance the Army shapes society more than is realised. The decisions about future security, the next steps, are made by Army men and not the police.

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The doubts about human status are confirmed when redundant men watch the women they know be used as incubating machines. The men seek solace in the village pub but it provides neither conversation nor solace. These are the gloomiest pub scenes in any film. The protest from the village men is inevitable but ineffectual and embarrassing.  These humans are deluded about their worth and potential.

Misconceived human status has implications for human entitlement. The alien children have one priority, and that is to survive. Like the Nazi supremacists that were defeated, they think they have superior status and entitlement. The conviction the aliens have in their superiority is destructive but humans also have a need to survive and they too have a sense of entitlement. It is this sense that has been sharpened and refined by the capabilities acquired in the destruction that happened in the Second World War. The presence of the military throughout the film confirms modern social ambition. The communities and societies that existed will now also belong to the State. ‘This isn’t a police state yet,’ says a military man, except he pauses before he adds the word yet. The Second World War required communities that had to unite as a nation but the legacy of that unity is the State, and the options for the modern powerful State are troubling.

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Hysteria was taboo in Britain in 1960 but the ‘yet’ was what made everybody anxious. Perhaps it was that anxiety which helps explain the headstrong irresponsibility that began in 1963. Of course, we have made progress since those primitive times, just look at the large phones and small British cars in the film. Today it is different. In 2016 we are anxious not just about the future but each other. UKIP and many of the people who voted to leave the EU hope for a society that resembles fifties Britain.   Some of them imagine independent communities and yearn for the self-effacement and lack of pretension that existed then. The military culture and control and the self-censored doubt are ignored. The rest of us, those who are more critical of Britain and its past, are also anxious.  We wonder about the eyes that we saw at the end of the film.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.