The Wicker Man (1973) **** – Seen at the Cinema

I first saw The Wicker Man in 1973, dismissed by critics on release, on the lower half of a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s ecstatically-reviewed Don’t Look Now (1973), the films connected less by the horror elements than that they both made by British Lion. t’s now rubbing shoulders with the most superior kind of cult picture, the ones that the public will actually fork out hard-earned cash to see on the big screen, as was my experience this week. Some clever marketing person had the bright idea, given the picture concerns May Day activities of a dark nature, of running a special revival on May Day. What surprised me more was that the cinema was full (on a Monday night, no less), the audience was 20- and 30-year-olds and younger, and judging from overheard chatter afterwards they clearly enjoyed the experience.

What struck me most when watching this was the clarity of the pagan worship, compared to, for example, The Northman where I had no idea what they were worshipping beyond a rough notion. The procreation element was very well thought-out, the idea that such paganism should be taught in schools the way in the era when the film was made religion was on the curriculum. Most horror films do not take religion seriously, But here, even if it’s not your idea of true religion, the entire community invested in the symbolism of animals and trees and fertility rites such as jumping over a fire naked (otherwise your clothes would catch fire) in order to become pregnant. A naked woman weeps over a headstone in a graveyard. You can cure a cough by letting a toad sit in your mouth. And the entire soundtrack, often performed by folk singers in the pub, is filled with songs where the emphasis is on sex. But the detail is really quite extraordinary. Beyond The Wicker Man itself which I understand comes from the Druids, I’ve no idea if this is patchwork of other religions imbued with fictional elements, but it doesn’t matter because, no matter how fantastical it appears, it all rings true.

Policeman Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) pilots a small seaplane to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. At first the villagers deny knowing about the girl’s existence, and then provide conflicting reports, even going so far as to claim she is dead, or has transmogrified into the hare that lies in her supposed coffin. The villagers appear to either discreetly or openly mock him and certainly find much humor in his steadfast Christian beliefs. The schoolteacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) denies that the empty desk in her classroom belongs to Rowan. Island chieftain Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) debates Christianity. Landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) and the librarian (Ingrid Pitt) are on seduction duty.

Frustrated, and threatening to return with more officers, Howie intends to leave but his airplane engine has broken down and soon he is convinced Rowan has been kept alive for ritual sacrifice on May Day as a way of providing rebirth for the island’s failing crops and fruit. In disguise as Punch, he joins the villagers in their parade only to discover that is the hunter who is hunted and that he has been tricked into coming onto the island.  The climax is horrifying, in part because the lack of CGI or a bigger budget, in part down to the delight of the observers, has meant that most of what occurs is left to the imagination.

What at one point appeared an idyllic spot populated by relatively harmless if somewhat wayward people with a highly-developed sense of community and none of the infighting that might common in such a remote location. In another reversal to audience expectation there was none of the bloodlust surrounding the burning of a witch or monster. The smile on the face of a killer indeed!

The audience is brilliantly enmeshed. The investigation appears to drive the narrative, the various obstacles in the way of  the policeman just par for the course in this kind of mystery. Just as we are beginning to become more enchanted by this community’s open attitude to sex especially when compared to Howie’s repressed Christianity, the story takes a sudden switch as the deeper level of meaning is revealed, that fertility actually means rebirth and that the ancient ways of achieving that are not for the faint-hearted.

Edward Woodward (File of the Golden Goose, 1969), making a debut as the star after hitting the television ratings heights as Callan (1967-1972), is excellent as the stern God-fearing policeman who gradually loses his power in a community where there is no tolerance for his kind of law. Christopher Lee (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) breaks out of his typecasting, especially with the wigs, with a very affable performance as a benevolent landlord. It’s hard to view him as an outright villain his actions are for perceived betterment.  Britt Ekland (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) is convincing as the free-as-a-bird aphrodisiac-on-legs damsel with vulnerability to the fore. Diane Cilento (Negatives, 1968) and Ingrid Pitt (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) have little to do but keep the plot ticking.

Robin Hardy, on his debut, does a remarkable job of setting the seductive atmosphere although the film’s box office failure meant he only made two further films. Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, 1972) adapted the novel Ritual by David Pinner.

The movie celebrates its 50th anniversary next year so look out for more showings especially if it becomes inextricably linked to the May Day festival the way Casablanca had been adopted by St Valentine’s Day marketeers.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Book Into Film – “The Devil Rides Out”/ “The Devil’s Bride” (1968)

Dennis Wheatley was a prolific bestseller producing three or four titles a year, famous for a historical series set around Napoleonic times, another at the start of the Second World War and a third featuring the “four modern musketeers” that spanned a couple of decades. In addition, he had gained notoriety for books about black magic, which often involved series characters, as well as sundry tales like The Lost Continent.  Although largely out of fashion these days, Wheatley set the tone for brisk thrillers, stories that took place over a short period of time and in which the heroes tumbled from one peril to another. In other words, he created the template for thriller writers like Alistair MacLean and Lee Child.

The Devil Rides Out, his fourth novel, published in 1934, featured the “musketeers” involved in his phenomenally successful debut The Forbidden Territory (1933), and introduced readers to his interest in the occult. Although of differing temperaments and backgrounds his quartet – the Russian-born Duke De Richleau (Christopher Lee in the film), American aviator Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) and wealthy Englishmen Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington) and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) – are intrepid. And while screenwriter Richard Matheson stuck pretty much to the core of the Wheatley story, the film was hampered by the actors. The laid-back Paul Eddington hardly connects with the Wheatley characterization and Patrick Mower is too young for Aron.

Original British hardback cover.

As with the book, the story moves swiftly. Worried that   Aron is dabbling in the black arts, De Richleau and Van Ryn go haring down to his country house where they meet black magic high priest Mocata (Charles Gray) and discover tools for satanic worship.  And soon they are embroiled in a duel of wits against Mocata, climaxing in creating a pentagram as a means of warding off evil.

In order not to lose the audience by blinding them with mumbo-jumbo the script takes only the bare bones of the tale, bringing in the occult only when pivotal to the story, and that’s something of a shame. A modern audience, which has grown up on enormously  complicated worlds such as those created for Game of Thrones and the MCU, would probably have welcomed a deeper insight into the occult. While out-and-out thrillers, Wheatley’s novels often contained copious historical information that he was able to dole out even when his heroes were in harm’s way. The Devil Rides Out is not a massive tome so it’s a measure of the author’s skill that he manages to include not just a condensed history of the occult but its inner workings. Every time in the film De Richleau goes off to the British Library for some vital information, his departure generally leaves a hole, since what he returns with does not always seem important enough to justify his absence.

Author Dennis Wheatley.

But then the screenwriter was under far more pressure than a novelist. In some respects, this book like few others demonstrates the difference between writing for the screen and writing for a reader. With just 95 minutes at his disposal, Matheson had no time to spare while Wheatley had all the time in the world. Wheatley could happily leave the reader dangling with a hero in peril while dispatching De Richleau on a fact-finding mission, the action held up until his return. It’s interesting that Matheson chose to follow Wheatley’s characterization of De Richleau, who didn’t know everything but knew where to look. Matheson could easily have chosen to make De Richleau all-knowing and thus able to spout a ton of information without ever going off-screen.

But here’s where the book scores over the film. The reader would happily grant Wheatley his apparent self-indulgence because in the book what he imparted on his return, given the leeway to do so, was so fascinating. There are lengthy sections in the book which are history lessons where De Richleau supplies readers with the inside track on the satanic. In the opening section, once De Richleau and Van Ryn have rescued Aron, the author devotes a full seven pages to a brief introduction to the occult that leaves the reader more likely to want more of that than to find out how the story will evolve.   He has hit on a magic formula that few authors ever approach. To have your background every bit as interesting as the main story is incredibly rare and it allowed Wheatley the opportunity to break off from the narrative to tell the reader more about the occult, which in turn, raised the stakes for the characters involved.

Effectively, there was too much material for a screenwriter to inflict upon an audience ignorant of the occult. Some decisions were clearly made to limit the need for lengthy exposition. But these often work against the film. For example, Mocata wants the Talisman of Set because it bestows unlimited power with which he can start a world war, but in order to accomplish that he needs to find people with the correct astrological births, namely Simon and Tanith. But this element is eliminated from the story, making Mocata’s motivation merely revenge.  Matheson also removed much of the historical and political background, replaced the swastika as a religious symbol with the more acceptable Christian cross, and deleted references to Marie’s Russian background. Her daughter Fleur becomes Peggy. Matheson also treats some of the esoteric light-heartedly on the assumption that seriousness might be too off-putting.

Overall, the adaptation works, you can hardly argue with the movie’s stature as a Hammer classic, but the more you delve into the book the more you wish there had been a way for much of the material to find its way onscreen and to inform the picture in much the same way as the depth of history and character backstory adds to Game of Thrones.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Devil-Rides-Out/dp/B00B1U3FPK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=devil+rides+out&qid=1637411453&qsid=257-2054786-9327728&s=books&sr=1-1&sres=1448213002%2CB00I628KRY%2CB002SQ7XSG%2C0553824635%2CB00I60ZHNG%2CB09KH2QQVL%2CB00CJB9CVQ%2CB0018H7LPG%2CB07VQ8RZBJ%2CB003Z0IJKA%2C912409160X%2CB07N94V4ZM%2C0241476178%2C1734704144%2C0571311458%2CB092RHPZ93&srpt=DOWNLOADABLE_MOVIE

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