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The Wicker Man - By Andrew Tupling

People interpret what is or isn’t scary in their own way –for some, it’s dark corners and the thing which exists in the corner of your eye when you’re alone. For others, either through experience or perspective, real life is much more frightening than anything a trip to the cinema might be able to conjure up. Most people, though, view horror in a fairly straightforward way– it’s vampires, it’s werewolves, it’s ghosts, it’s an unstoppable force in a hockey mask, it’s blood. Quite often, people dismiss the human element which can often be the most unsettling aspect of any horror film, and it’s the human element which is the most important aspect to The Wicker Man, because that’s all there really is to it – there’s nothing other-worldly (unless you want to count religion as a whole, which is another matter completely) and nothing which would be called horror in the conventional, black and white sense. Yet if you were to look up any of those Top Ten Horror Film or Best Of All Time Horror Film lists, The Wicker Man will be there more often than not. Maybe it’s even been referred to as being the greatest British horror film of all time by more than one critic, yet it’s not particularly scary on the surface – instead, it’s a progressively escalating experience which starts off as a seemingly straightforward missing person mystery, and gets evermore unnerving through an expert build of uneasy atmosphere and the contrast between different faiths and belief systems. By the time you get to the end and the film has reached its now famous final few minutes, you’d be hard pressed to think of a more horrifying and unsettling experience – and regardless of whether or not you’re a big fan, sit somewhere on the fence, or don’t have much time for it, you have to admit that’s not bad for a bloodless film with a couple of musical numbers which was pretty much disowned by its makers upon release.

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If you’re reading this, there’s every chance you’ve seen the film. Even if not, you probably know the story – Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels from the mainland to a remote Scottish island to investigate claims made in an anonymous letter he received – it’s alleged in the letter that Rowan Morrison, a young girl from the island, is missing, but when Howie arrives on the island, nobody will admit to sending the letter, and nobody will initially admit to having any knowledge of the girl either. Howie is a very rigid Christian, who refuses to be swayed from the path defined by his faith. Everything on the island goes against the way he lives his life – the island community is Pagan, openly sexual and worship nature instead of a more defined higher being. Any element of Christianity on the island is long gone and forgotten, and Howie’s dour, regimented nature and demeanour is a sharp contrast to that of the jovial and relaxed – although undeniably peculiar and insular – locals. As Howie gets ever more irate by the lies and attitudes of the islanders, he continues to search for the girl under the impression that she is being held against her will somewhere on the island. His time on the island coincides with the annual Mayday festivities, and whilst Howie hopes that he’ll find his answers during the celebrations, the truth is something he never came close to suspecting…

As mentioned above, The Wicker Man had more than its fair share of problems on release and beyond – it was edited for its 1973 UK release, and Warner Brothers in the US only gave it a very limited theatrical run a year later. It saw the light of day again in the late 70s in a more complete cut, which was also the version which would be released on home video in the 80s, but it wasn’t really until the DVD era that The Wicker Man found itself treated with the respect most would say it deserves.

But why is it so revered still? There are a number of reasons – firstly, and perhaps most importantly, forty years later, it remains almost completely unique as a film. Yes, there was perhaps inevitably a sort-of remake in 2006, but does anything reallycompare to The Wicker Man? Is there anything else you can think of which is more similar than not? Anthony Schaffer’s screenplay is a very simple one, yet one which is also deeply literate and meaningful. As a self-confessed sucker for films which use their location as a central character, The Wicker Man gets things absolutely right – there’s always something to look at in the background, and from the initial flight to the island to the final scenes on the beach, there’s always the sense that you’re miles from anywhere, and that should you need help, it’s not coming.

The cast is collectively as good an example of ideal casting as you’ll find – Edward Woodward, fresh off five years playing Callan on ITV, brings credibility to Sergeant Howie. Unwavering in his outlook and convinced that with God by his side, he’s in the right, the virginal Howie is the antithesis to the islanders and everything he does in in direct contradiction to how they choose to live their lives. Woodward plays Howie as perfect foil for the locals, and it’s all but impossible to think of anyone else in the role, such is the level of credibility he brings to the part. Indeed, it’s particularly difficult to imagine how things might’ve turned out had Peter Cushing been cast as Sgt Howie, as was initially pitched. Christopher Lee apparently took the role of Lord Summerisle in an attempt to break free from Dracula, and was so committed to the project that he worked for free. To this day, he still speaks about The Wicker Man with a great deal of affection, and it’s easy to see that he’s having great fun throwing himself into the balance of eccentricities and menace Lord Summerisle drifts between depending on your perspective. Fitting in perfectly with the overall tone of the film, the Lord Summerisle character is both subtle and stylish, and whilst Lee will forever be remembered for being Hammer’s Dracula, he’s unquestionably on much better and more sinister form here.
 

 

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Woodward and Lee might be the ones who come to mind first when thinking of The Wicker Man, but the supporting cast is rounded by credible and worthy character actors such as Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Aubrey Morris and an obviously dubbed but very alluring Britt Ekland, complete with the now famous bottom double. The truth is, all are so good that there’s no weak link, nobody to drag the film down. As an ensemble, it’s probably as good as it gets, especially for the era.

At its core, The Wicker Man is a film which depicts a battle between faiths – Howie and Summerisle are both dedicated to their God. Falsely secure in his religion, Howie is digging his own grave the longer he spends on the island, and blissfully unaware of this until the very last. Initially, it’s easy to view Howie as the more ‘normal’ person and the islanders as the eccentric crazies, as time goes on the lines become blurred slightly, but both sides have absolute certainty that what they are doing is absolute, and there’s nothing wrong about their behaviour or how they treat people as a result of their convictions.

Up until the last few minutes, The Wicker Man is reasonably sedate, but all its doing is lulling you into a false sense of security with its cheerful songs and bright sunlight. It isn’t until the missing girl finally appears that things fall into place at last. And it doesn’t matter how many times you see it, how prepared you might be, or how many times it’s been parodied (even once by The Muppets) - when Howie finally realises his fate, the look of terror on his face, his pitiful and pointless cries for help and pleas for mercy are genuinely terrifying and one of the true great scenes in horror –or any – film history. As the first sentence reads, people interpret what is or isn’t scary in their own way, but can anyone honestly say that they don’t find this scary – your whole belief system and the way you’ve lived your life is exposed as a sham. Your God can’t help you. Nobody can, and you’re suffering not at the hands of beast or demon, but other human beings. There’s really nothing scarier than that.
 

 

FFO commissioned Brandon Schaefer of www.seekandspeak.com to reimangine this classic slice of British horror - here is his take on the project:

"...the poster pulls from a lot of different places, but the main thrust plays off of the Christian story of the serpent offering an apple from the tree of knowledge and the consequences that come from taking that deceptive offering. It felt like it synched up with so much that was going on throughout the film. Howie is a devout Christian who, after being deceived and learning the truth about Summerisle, finds himself cast out of the world, alone in a burning effigy, crying out for God. The island of Summerisle is famous for it’s apples, stemming from an earthy crunchy set of beliefs. That society is ultimately rotten, however, given the foundations that it’s based on. The fish mask on the snake is a nod to the final act of the film which, well…is more than a little bizarre."

The Wicker Man screenprint measure 40x30 inches (Uk Quad), two colour screenprint onto Somerset Velvet 300 paper.  Limited to 50 prints only, each hand-numbered.  Available on 15th March 2013 from www.frightfestoriginals .com.  £40 for a print shipped to the UK, £50 internationally.  time of release will be announced on Twitter via @frightfestorigi

So, another epic print to add to our growing collection.  Any comments on Brandon's print or suggestions for future projects, please let us know below, or via our Twitter feed.

Stay creepy

FFO

 

 

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FrightFest Originals - Original limited edition screen printed film posters from the UK

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