The Wicker Man

I spent most of my first viewing of The Wicker Man (the 1973 film, not the remake) in a state of bewildered readjustment. Before watching it, I’d heard only enough about it to know it was generally regarded as one of the great British horror films, and this had of course primed me with a number of preconceptions, all of which were thoroughly dashed the moment the folk of Summerisle started singing their cheery, bawdy ditty, “The Landlord’s Daughter”. By the end, I really wasn’t sure what sort of film I’d been watching. I knew it had a powerful ending, but as to the film that preceded it, I didn’t know if I liked it.

The Wicker Man: The Summerislanders sing "The Landlord's Daughter"

But I kept thinking about it. Perhaps this is true of all the best works of art; they’re like problems you’re compelled to solve, sometimes long after they’re over. They haunt you, and require you to watch or read or listen to them again, and again, and perhaps again, always learning something new, but never all there is. So I found myself watching The Wicker Man again (and again, and again), trying to work out what it was, what had drawn me back to it, and why I was coming round to thinking of it as a truly great film.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I was wrong-footed from the start because I can’t quite think of The Wicker Man as horror. It doesn’t fit my own (no doubt rather quirky, and never put into words) internal definition, though it certainly has one of the most shocking endings of any film I’ve seen. (Though not the usual horror-film version of shocking, in the way that, say, the hand shooting out of the ground at the end of Carrie is shocking. That’s shocking because it’s unexpected. If anything, the ending of The Wicker Man is shocking despite being so very expected, which is all the more a feat.) Anyway, I watched it again a few days ago, and I think I might have finally worked out why I don’t think of it as a horror film. It all comes down to a bit of a confession.

Police Sergeant Howie, in the world he's comfortable with

Throughout, I find myself identifying with both sides of the story — both Police Sergeant Howie and the Summerislanders — but in different ways. Howie, you can’t help identifying with because he’s your point of view; you start from his position of knowing nothing about Summerisle, and learn about Summerisle as he does. The only thing is, you don’t get to like him, however much time you spend with him. In fact, you get to like the Summerislanders a lot more. They’re such a down-to-earth, happy bunch. They’re so refreshingly uninhibited. They sing, they dance, they have a good time. What’s more, they work as a community (whereas Howie isn’t even liked by his fellow policemen). And they have the wild-haired but dashing Lord Summerisle as their leader, who, as he’s played by Christopher Lee at his most charming, can only be a plus point.

This does tend to blind you to just how nasty what they do to poor Sergeant Howie is. It was only when I stopped and thought about it, after watching the film for a fourth or fifth time, that I realised how wrong it is to accept what the islanders do to Sergeant Howie, and even to feel he deserves it. (And I don’t even have the islanders’ excuse that they think it’ll improve their crops. I’ve no doubt that, as Sergeant Howie says, doing the wicked wicker thing to him won’t make the slightest difference, and next year it’ll be Lord Summerisle’s turn. So in a way, I’m even worse than the islanders. I’m happy to see Howie die simply because he’s a prig.)

Lord Summerisle and the Wicker Man

Perhaps this is because, rather like Lord Summerisle himself, The Wicker Man has such an open sort of charm. It’s not as suave as Christopher Lee, but it has the same earthy honesty and pagan vitality. The central conflict of the film is repression (in the form of uptight Sergeant Howie) versus folky-bawdy disinhibition. Howie, in his starch-stiff uniform and starch-stiff face, his clipped, disapproving accent, his devotion to the law, hasn’t the flexibility of mind to even comprehend that there might be other ways of life than his own, and is horrified to find there are. (And then is so affronted by the forms they take, he’s incapable of appreciating how many underlying similarities there are; for instance — as Lord Summerisle points out — the belief in parthenogenesis, and the redeeming power of sacrifice.) Howie is identified with modern civilisation, through his constricting uniform, his aeroplane, his robotic-voiced loudhailer. The Summerislanders on the other hand wear loose clothes, sway their hips, speak in a free folky lilt, sing, drink, frolic in graveyards, jump naked through fires, and generally enjoy themselves. They’re not hung up on sex and death, but have quite come to terms with them, and with their own bodies; Howie, on the other hand, has holy-fied sex and death into something remote, codified and unliving — into something quite literally disembodied. Compared to Sergeant Howie — even though we spend almost the entire film in his company — the Summerislanders are just so likeable.

The Wicker Man: Howie concentrates on disembodied death; the Summerislanders celebrate embodied new life.

If only they weren’t a bunch of murderers!

That’s the thing. By the end of the film, I’m so much on the islanders’ side, it takes an effort to appreciate what an awful thing it is they do. And, when it comes down to it, I guess I don’t think of The Wicker Man as a horror film simply because I’m too much on the side of what I really ought to be calling the monsters.

Bob Johnson & Pete Knight’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter

I can’t believe there’s never been a prog rock band called Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, but if there had been, this is the album they’d have released. Based on the 1924 novel by the real-life Edward John (etc.) Plunkett — better known, of course, as Lord Dunsany — The King of Elfland’s Daughter, released in 1977, was actually helmed by two ex-members of folk-rock band Steeleye Span, accompanied by a small cadre of vocal talent including the likes of P P Arnold, Mary Hopkin, Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee — yes, Christopher Lee, ex-Dracula, ex-Lord Summerisle, and Saruman-in-waiting. Lee has quite a prominent role on the album, in fact, providing the narration linking the tracks (taken from Dunsany’s own prose), as well as singing/performing (it is the most actorly piece on the album, verging between being sung and spoken) “The Rune of the Elf King”.

I’ve been trying to get hold of this album for some time, even going so far as to make my one and only (entirely unsuccessful) venture into the world of BitTorrents (which I try to avoid, as I much prefer the artists involved to get their dues). Fortunately, a recent Amazon search turned up a CD reissue from Second Harvest, apparently dating from 2007, though it must have appeared on Amazon only recently. It’s a no-frills digipack (it would have been nice to have had a lyrics booklet and something about the history of the album), but at least the music is there. And the music is, I’m glad to say, very good.

Dunsany’s novel is written in that fairy-tale-for-grownups mode that was one of the cultural casualties of the Second World War (along with the more fantastic aspects of Art Nouveau, which it could be said to embody in prose), and, like Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (another example of the genre, from 1926), is as much about fantasy as it is a tale of fantasy. It opens with the men of Erl approaching their lord with a request that, I can’t help feeling, many would like to make of our current administration: “We would be ruled by a magic lord.” (Or at least one who can make us suspend our disbelief in politicians.) And so the Lord of Erl sends his son, Alveric, into nearby Elfland, to woo Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. This Alveric succeeds in doing, much to the dismay of Lirazel’s father, who does not want to see her made mortal. And so he sends a troll with a rune to fetch her back.

Johnson & Knight retell Dunsany’s novel in nine songs and nine brief pieces of narration (which are, annoyingly, joined to their respective tracks on the CD reissue. I spent a bit of time dividing them up before importing it into iTunes.) The style veers between the delicate folkiness of Mary Hopkin (who provides the voice of Lirazel, and sings the album’s anthemic closing piece, “Beyond the Fields We Know”), the bluesiness of Alexis Korner (as the Troll), and the weird wildness of P P Arnold (as the Witch), whose vocal acrobatics on “Witch” would recall Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”, if only they didn’t precede them by a year. Christopher Lee’s “Rune of the Elf King” is the most dramatic, though least song-like piece, with Lee’s delivery of the line “Why should my daughter be taken by pitiless years?” achingly desperate and expressive. Catchiest tune of the lot, though, must be “Too Much Magic”, sung by the wonderfully-named Derek Brimstone, along with a chorus of school children. It’s a cheery mix of hand-clamped-to-his-ear folkish lilt and old-time singalong. You could imagine the mock-Edwardian audience of The Good Old Days joining in with its chorus:

Magic, magic everywhere,
Magic in the very air
Elfin horns are blowing, there is
Too much magic.
We dare not go a-wandering
For fear of what the night may bring
A curse upon all elvish things,
Too much magic.

(For full lyrics, and details of the album’s release, see this page.)