Thursday, 21 June 2012

Time of The Wicker Man

Here in Finland, we Finns gather to celebrate Midsummer this weekend. Most of us nature-loving people go to remote locations, such as summer cottages by forest lakes. This celebration goes all the way back to the times of pagan rituals, and still today, there is a number of folk magic one can do on the Longest Night of the year. One tradition involves burning a bonfire. I don't know if there are some pagans actually for real believing in this stuff still living today. If there are, they are probably some lame "alternative" teenagers or hippies using the excuse to get stoned and laid. But I'd like to think these communities would be much like the village of Summerisle in a certain beloved British horror classic. The Wicker Man films, of which there are already three, are set on the 1st of May. But since we Finns rather drink hard and wreck up our towns on that day*, it seems more fitting for Midsummer, which is a celebration filled with magic and mystery. So come along!

The Wicker Man (UK, 1973)
Director: Robin Hardy

One of the greatest films to ever come out of Great Britain was, like The Devils before it, maltreated terribly by puritan assholes and uptight censors. A number of minutes depicting pagan rituals and unconventional behavior were cut from the print and, according to legend, buried underneath a highway pavement. We will never have those minutes back, but at least the versions we have, both Theatrical and the longest-possible Director's Cut, feel like complete films and not torsos where there's something important missing.

It is a very peculiar horror film in that it doesn't start at all like a horror film and very rarely has to rely on any kind of horror tropes or scares during its course. The tension builds up very slowly and only at the end it's taken to its horrific extremes. The result is a film which probably won't wash away from memory ever once one has watched it. Even acclaimed actor and star Christopher Lee considers it as one of the strongest pieces of cinema he ever was attached to. I'd say the same thing is true concerning also the late, great Edward Woodward who plays the lead role.

And Britt Ekland has also never been sexier.
The religious city cop Sergeant Howie (Woodward) arrives to Summerisle, a remote Hebridean island which houses a small village. Howie is trying to solve the case of a missing teenaged girl, Rowan Morrison. But on the island, he founds that the village residents aren't very helpful with his investigations and don't seem interested in the case. They are busy preparing for Mayday festivities. Howie becomes more and more disgusted as he realized that the villagers are practicing a pagan religion rather than Christianity. He feels he's also being tempted to join their sinful ways. For example by the beautiful Willow (Britt Ekland) tries to lure him to her by singing and dancing nude at the hallway of his inn. Howie however attempts to stay pure and determined to solve the case. He goes to question the island's patriarch and leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who explains the community is preparing for the rites of spring which should bring them good harvest. Howie becomes convinced that Rowan is being prepared for sacrifice.

The film hits a bullseye while dealing with its themes. It was made right in the middle of the hangover from the late 1960's hippie movements and their obsession with native and New Age religions "more close to the nature", and the apocalyptic, religious climate of the 1970's. The decade would see a number of horror films rise about fears of abandoning God and turning to the devil after the release of The Exorcist that same year.

It's hard to put a finger around what makes Wicker Man's atmosphere seem so threatening. The film is shot mostly at daylight and while the villages might seem a bit loony, they act like decent, friendly individuals. The horror, perhaps, then stems from a fear that such facades hide blood-thirsty thoughts. Also chilling is the thought that one can't reason with a group of like-minded people due to them being more concerned with their strong belief in ancient native religions are seen here as malignant. Hardy combines these primal fears with notable confidence and small gestures, that bring them into flesh. This is a real gem of a film.


Wicker Man (USA, 2006)
Director: Neil LaBute

The American remake of British classic seemed to be in good hands with the acclaimed art director LaBute and the eccentric, but reliable (when directed by someone talented) lead actor Nicolas Cage. But that was not to be. In fact, the remake turned into the basic model of how not to remake classic films in Hollywood, and as such, almost a parody of every shitty remake we have had to endure during the Noughties. The YouTube crowd took the film as its own, and the worst parts of the film have been continuously played out in compilation clips. Sadly, those give out the idea that this film would be so-bad-it's-funny, when in fact it is just boring and tedious for the first 75 minutes and features that one YouTube clips worth of joyous insanity at the very end.

Sheriff Edward Malus (Cage) has recurring nightmares of failing to save a small girl and her mother from a car accident when he was a highway patrol man years ago. His former fiancée Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan) sends him a letter asking him to find her missing daughter Rowan. Willow lives now in a remote island Summer's Isle, where an odd religious cult grows honey in large fields filled with beehives. The leader of the cult is the enigmatic Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn). Malus isn't concerned about the religion practiced there, he only wants to find the girl and solve why they burn puppets and wear silly masks. The main plot of the cultists here is needlessly complicated and elaborate to the point of stupidity. The same goes for their religious rituals. The original Wicker Man rose horror from the opening scene's texts that hinted that the way of the pagans on present there could be based on actual research on cults. The only research used to produce this thing here was Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage checking their bank account numbers for the studio.

As I mentioned, it is a pure example of how Hollywood's studio committees ruin even good stories. First of all, everything even close to controversy gets toned down reasonably. That's why the main character can't be a devoutly Christian, but flawed person, who's facing an unknown but well-organized and balanced heathen community. The hero should be a brave and bland everyman who's facing a cult of pure evil and madness. No shades of grey here, the film only has a black-and-white worldview. Also out the door is are all kinds of underlying sexual threats and any nudity. I do kind of appreciate the change of the cult to a matriarchy, but it is not used in any way cleverly. The end result just makes the film oddly sexist and misogynist.

Second, everything has to always be about a family, so connections are made between characters even though the story wouldn't need them. Cage's motivation to find Rowan is that he is her father. Third, not understanding subtlety, everything must be explained to even the stupidest audience members by the clearest way possible. Which usually means characters spurning exposition for no other reason. Fourth, or really a continuation of the last point of misunderstanding the original, all the hard directing tricks such as atmosphere-creating, slowly rising suspense, have to go in the way of horror clichés. People pay to see a horror movie, so the film has to remind people that it is one, which means ghostly visions, found mutilated bodies and creepy giggling witches and little children at every turn. The only connection to the original that the bigwigs care about is one or two famous visuals or lines that can easily be used in marketing. Fuck all that. I won't recommend a shitty horror remake to anyone, but rather to save some time and watch some of Nicolas Cage's finest freakouts on YouTube. It's faster, and free, and no money from it goes to funding any more of these sort of abominations.

★ 1/2

The Wicker Tree (UK, 2010)
Director: Robin Hardy

Unhappy with the way the license for the title of Wicker Man was used to produce the dumbed-down below-average remake, Hardy decided to direct an indirect sequel while in his 80s. Wicker Tree is only Hardy's third theatrical film, and it has also had quite a difficult making process. The filming took almost two years due to the project running out of funding. Hardy also saw how difficult his brand of subtle horror was to sell for distributors. The film was shelved for another two years. Only this year has seen it arrive on DVD in the UK. The film is based on Hardy's own 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, which already tells a little bit on how Hardy developes the themes and ideas of the original film.

Two American missionaries, Beth (Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett) are devout evangelic Christians, engaged to be married, and adamant in staying virgins before that happens. They go around Scotland singing songs about reforming and turning to Christ, to little avail. But then they are spotted by the wealthy landowners Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), who invite them to visit their remote village of Tressock. The pair lives at the Morrison's mansion and wait for an opportunity to preach to the community, while their generous hosts plan to have some use for them in their upcoming May Day celebrations.

Unfortunately, Hardy has lost touch on how to build the tension. He attempts a similar approach to his original classic, as much time is dwelled on the villagers in their seemingly innocent routines and such, with suggestions to foul play becoming more and more apparent as time goes on. The problem is that this time he isn't afraid to use one or two horror tropes, blood and cannibalism. It seems clear that nowadays you probably can't do a serious horror film without a drop of blood in it, but Hardy's way of delivering the more gory scenes is frankly ludicrous and breaks the strong illusion of reality so carefully implanted in its predecessor. Furthermore, the scenes depicting villagers talking this and that are quite poorly scripted and cheaply shot, making it resemble one of those British countryside dramas that air during the middle of the day on state-funded TV channels, as no one watches them except sock-knitting grannies.

Hardy also deals with Southern State Americans and their religious ways way too crudely. It isn't helping that Beth and Steve aren't really that interesting or likeable to be able to carry the movie in the same way that Woodward, brilliantly presenting all his character's flaws, could.
The film has a few elements of black comedy, particularly in the finale. Since the film mostly isn't very funny, it has to be said that it's themes aren't consistent. But occasional scenes do still flash the same brilliant mind that made a genuine classic all those years ago. Pity he can't replicate the success, but at least we shall always have the original.


* Midsummer is by contrast usually celebrated by drinking hard and wrecking up a countryside cottage.

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