This weeks blog changed last-minute with the sad news that the legendary Christopher Lee had passed away. So as a small tribute I decided dedicate this movie to one of my favourite Christopher Lee movies, which when going back to revisit his work…is pretty hard to pick. So after I spent a few moments persuading myself not to watch The Lord of The Rings for the millionth time, eventually landing back at the iconic film that is The Wicker Man. This decision may not be a surprise to most people, but it really took a lot to pick this movie. It is of course an amazing film, but Christopher Lee had so many amazing films! He is credited to 278 films, doing on average 3 to 4 movies per year in his heyday…and not only is that prolific, but there is also a lot of quality to go with this quantity over his 69 year career within the industry.
So lets delve back to a decade that was a hotbed of experimental, ground-breaking and now classic horror films, the 1970’s. The Exorcist was the first of the genre ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was sweeping America like a psycho-chainsaw-wielding plague. This era also saw Dario Argento creating giallo – gore films like Suspiria, pushing the boundaries of movie gore. FUN FACT : Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which was also conveniently the colour of the pages of the Italian paperback crime thrillers on which the horror film sub-genre were based…I know right?!!…I should get out more….
Moving to England, film-maker Robin Hardy took this flourishing sub-genre and added an English twist, coming up with the idea to insert Pagan rituals into a small island community resulting in the classic film The Wicker Man. The synopsis goes as follows…Police officer Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is called to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Upon arriving he is introduced to various members of the community who explain that they aren’t Christian but rather follow old Pagan rituals. Disturbed, but not perturbed unlike these cowboys of police men we have today, Howie continues his investigation, uncovering facts that lead to a potentially startling discovery regarding Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and ‘the wicker man.’
The slow reveal of the truth behind the Island’s ritualistic religion is one of The Wicker Man’s greatest strengths. Not content with using typically English and recognisable imagery like Old English pubs, Punch and Judy or the Maypole, it subverts and adds levels of tension and fear quite brilliantly throughout. This overwhelming English feel is transferred across to the cast that includes classic British actors like Edward Woodward and Russell Waters, all held together Christopher Lees in possibly his best ever performance. All these elements combine presenting the audience with a view of 1970’s Britain, with their quintessential – British reactions adding a very sinister and eery element to the film. This level of realism, both in terms of religious doctrine and true human expression is one of the contributing factors to The Wicker Man’s success and long-lasting influence. Its sort of the same conversation that people are having today with practical effects Vs CGI…but I digress.
One of my favourite scenes or exchanges of dialogue rather is at Howie’s shock of the lack of Christianity or understanding of Jesus Christ to Lord Summerisle’s retort “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…” As is it’s designed.. to make the audience feel uncomfortable, it left me feeling anxious, which isn’t easy if you have read my other blogs and my perception of horror movies….and still does to this day, about a decade after I saw it first…which is essence of a truly great horror film.
Horror films are now one of the most obviously formulaic film genres, with great horrors subverting these conventions or toying with preconceptions. The Wicker Man not only stands tall as one of the most original and unassuming horrors of the 1970s, but stands the test of time as one of the most chilling and fascinating horror films of all time. This is only solidified by the truly ground-breaking performance of Christopher Lee. And that is one of the great things about film….even though they are gone, and it really is a huge tragedy, his legacy, his truly amazing gift and talent is caught and lives on in his 278 films, and I for one shall continue to watch and admire his work.
RIP Sir Christopher Lee, 1922 – 2015