Another one that I have had a hankering to write about for some time – it’s doubtful whether I will be able to add anything new to the discussion of Robin Hardy‘s seminal, Anthony Schaffer-scripted study of a heathen community that starts out as an atmospheric missing-person thriller before dovetailing into pure horror at the climax, but God hates a coward, right? Here goes…
This has been described by Cinefantastique as the Citizen Kane (1941) of horror and by its star, horror legend Christopher Lee (who did not take a salary for his work on the film), as the best frightener that he ever made.
Not sure if I quite agree with either of those sentiments (for me, Gordon Hessler’s Scream and Scream Again (1970) was the most disturbing horror that I ever saw with ‘Dracula’ himself in, and turning Kane into the be-all and the end-all as far as movie comparisons go is a bit silly), but there is no doubting the abiding power of a film that serves both as a fascinating study of paganism in modern times and a flesh-crawler, pure and simple.
Hardy’s original film ran some 120 minutes, and was then cut by the director himself (much to Christopher Lee’s disappointment, so the story goes) to the 99-minute running time of its release. This, horror upon horror, was then further cut to a mere 87 mins, and has only relatively recently been restored to its original length. However, the quality of the director’s cut is not particularly good, given that video-tape footage was all that remained of certain key scenes, as the original negative of the full-length version was apparently used as landfill in the M3 motorway in England (which Christopher Lee has said was done on purpose, because of renowned producer Michael Deeley’s apparent hatred of the film).
In fact, the current version is still incomplete, with a lengthy speech concerning apples made by Lee’s character Lord Summerisle being the section cut by Hardy from the original version, and which is now believed to be lost forever, more’s the pity.
So, what’s it all about then? Well, playing the games that you would only expect from playwright Anthony Schaffer (he of the simply marvellous Sleuth (1972)), the film opens with a title card thanking, on behalf of the producers, “the residents of Summerisle for this privileged insight into their religious practices”. Then, we are introduced to Scottish mainland policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), an uptight, virginal Christian copper, who has received a letter informing him of the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, from Summerisle. It’s a remote island off the coast of Scotland that’s renowned for its abundant, sweet apples, other agricultural produce and its very liberal society but, upon arrival there, Howie finds the locals to be singularly unhelpful, with their initial denial that Morrison even exists changing to the claim that the photo Howie has of the girl is not in fact Rowan. The girl’s own alleged mother is similarly vague concerning whether Rowan is her child (‘You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice’) and, investigating further, Howie is appalled to find the island to be steeped in paganism and rife with drunken excess and overt sexuality, which includes the promiscuous ‘landlord’s daughter’ Willow (Britt Ekland), who goes so far as to ‘offer her honour’ (such as it is) to Howie in one of the film’s key scenes. This features a naked woman (in fact, this was a body-double for Ekland, who would not let herself be filmed naked below the waist as she was pregnant at the time) dancing and singing to Howie through his bedroom wall – the good sergeant, however, chooses to remain faithful to his betrothed, who’s back on the Scottish mainland:
Howie: It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I don’t believe in it, before marriage.
Willow: Oh, do you let that stop you?
Howie: Yes, I do.
Willow: I must say you are a gallant fellow, Sergeant…I expect you won’t want to be around for our May Day celebrations tomorrow…not the way *you* feel…
Not taking the hint, convinced that the islanders are keeping a macabre secret about Rowan and perhaps foolishly choosing to preserve his virginity, Howie determines to get to the bottom of the mystery alone. And so he does…
The film’s sense of time and place is peerless (it was actually filmed in Dumfries) and the atmosphere it generates is helped enormously by the extraordinary musical score, tight, credible scripting from Schaffer and a sense of mounting dread that culminates in one of the most powerful denouements ever filmed (with a very last shot that is simply magisterial). Robin Hardy, who is still with us, has recently completed work on The Wicker Tree (2010), based on his own novel Cowboys for Christ which, unlike Neil LaBute’s appalling The Wicker Man (2006) starring Nicolas Cage, is not an ill-advised remake, nor a sequel, but rather, apparently, a ‘re-imagining’ of Hardy’s original film that’s also set in Scotland, and may even see a return of Lee as Lord Summerisle. It’s still due for a (probably limited) release during 2011, so watch this space.