Tag Archives: Christopher Lee

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

The Wicker Man Final Cut
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 September 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal UK

Director: Robin Hardy

Writer: Anthony Schaffer

Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland

UK 1975

84 mins

So here it is again, resurfacing once more, this time in a handsome restoration, apparently the most complete version there is ever likely to be*, after a 40-odd year journey from cult oddity to classic status. In 1972, Robin Hardy’s film was very much the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now (there’s a night at the movies!). Heavily edited and under-ballyhooed, The Wicker Man seemed destined to sink without trace. Later, after decades of late night viewings, Hardy’s film began to be seen, together with the messy, oddly beguiling Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), as being in the vanguard of a British sub-genre that never blossomed, a road not taken – call it the folk horror film, or horror pastoral. Today, that sub-genre seems to be on the up again, at least for as long as Ben Wheatley’s got anything to do with it, and so it’s a good time for The Wicker Man to be back on our screens.

If you haven’t encountered the film before, it goes like this: Edward Woodward plays Police Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian officer, tasked with flying to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Upon arriving at Summerisle, however, he finds his efforts frustrated by the locals, who variously deny that the girl is missing, or that she existed at all. As he tries to find out what lies behind these contradictions, he is appalled to discover that he is surrounded by practising pagans, whose belief system has held sway over the island since the 19th century, and is currently overseen by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The fields are filled with copulating couples, the schoolchildren are being taught about phallic symbols, and the whole island seems transfixed by a cult of fertility, except, as he discovers, the previous year the crops disastrously failed. Could the islanders be planning to sacrifice Rowan to appease their gods? As the May Day festivities approach, and with no help coming from any quarter, Sergeant Howie desperately resolves to find, and rescue, the girl.

The restored ‘Final Cut’ version of The Wicker Man is released on Blu-ray/DVD in the UK by Studiocanal Home Entertainment on 14 October.

If the presence of Christopher Lee and Ingid Pitt, who pops up as a librarian, suggest links with the Hammer tradition, The Wicker Man largely plays against them. Lee, here, gives a much more nuanced and playful performance than he was generally required to deliver in a cape. The film is contemporary rather than period, location shot rather than studio bound, and benefits hugely from found imagery and the use of non-pro actors. It builds a sense of nightmare from an accumulation of creepy details, mostly seen in broad daylight, and a ripe vein of folk weirdness that seems miles away from Hammer’s dusty castles. And moreover, it is, oddly enough, a musical of sorts: besides the incidental score by Magnet, we have the locals in the Green Man bursting into Paul Giovanni’s largely saucy numbers at the drop of a hat, and maypole dancers and fire leapers accompanied by catchy little ditties (the song ‘Gently Johnny’ has been restored for this version, sung, distractingly enough, by a Neil Gaiman lookalike). This is before the landlord’s daughter and island’s Aphrodite, Willow (Britt Ekland, and body double) has her finest screen moment, tunefully testing Woodward’s faith by writhing naked against his door. This kind of thing didn’t happen in your average Amicus production (more’s the pity…) While its influence has grown over the years, The Wicker Man still has the feel of a film apart, an island detached from the mainstream.

‘Only as a comparative religion’ is schoolteacher Miss Rose’s (Diane Cilentro) blithe reply when asked if she teaches Christianity in her classes. And that’s very much the name of the game here, as Howie’s dutiful, establishment religion is repeatedly contrasted with the shag-happy islander’s unorthodox beliefs. However, Anthony Schaffer’s** script plays sly games with our sympathies. A young audience in post-hippy 1972 would be expected to find much to like about Summerisle’s horny paganism, and a lot of fun is had at Howie’s expense as he boggles at the rampant sexuality and freaky-folky business on display. In this cut, we see him in church at the outset, singing hymns and taking communion, and these images recur later on, the church rituals looking cold and empty against the pagan rites, with their animal eroticism. For much of the film he looks a bit of a fool, especially when resisting the advances of Willow, trembling in his brown pyjamas. But… slowly our sympathies turn; the locals may be colourful, but they’re also evasive, mocking and increasingly sinister. Howie may be a humourless, self-righteous stiff but, largely thanks to Woodward’s performance, he’s also human, and admirably driven, on the side of the angels. At the climax of the film, the islanders swaying rendition of ‘Summer Is Icumen In’ seems brainwashed and deranged, while Howie’s ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, by contrast, has some kind of powerful dignity. Take your pick, you heathens!

*If you’re curious, the ‘Final Cut’ is the version Hardy assembled for distributors Abraxas in 1979, now cleaned up and looking decidedly spiffy. For those only familiar with the short version, this means a little restructuring, plus a brief bit of Howie on the mainland, the song ‘Gently Johnny’ as mentioned above, and a sequence introducing a kilt-wearing Lord Summerisle on Howie’s first night on the island. For my money this scene telegraphs the rest of the movie a little too much, but hey, it’s nice to see it.

** Incidentally, the title credit actually reads ‘Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man’. Offhand, I can’t think of any other film that credits the screenwriter this way. Odd. And well deserved.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

Horror Express

Horror Express

Format: Blu-ray (US)

Release date: 29 Nov 2011

Distributor: Severin

Director: Eugenio Martín

Writers: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza

UK/Spain 1972

90 mins

There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.

Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.

As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’

Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.

As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.

Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.

Jim Harper

The Wicker Tree

The Wicker Tree

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Screening date: 30 April 2012

Distributor: Anchor Bay Films

Director: Robin Hardy

Writer: Robin Hardy

Cast: Christopher Lee, Graham McTavish, Britannia Nicol, Henry Garrett, Honeysuckle Weeks

UK 2010

96 mins

Some belated sequels, which no one particularly expected or wanted to see, are actually well worth a look. These include films that see actors returning from the original, for example Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986), or ones that revisit the title and the source material, for example Return to Oz (1985). Others, while they retain one of the original creators, for example Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 (1984), seem ill-conceived from the start, as few directors, if any, could top Kubrick at his best.

Unfortunately, and somewhat inevitably, The Wicker Tree (2011) is an example of the latter. The original film, The Wicker Man (1973), was in many respects an example of lightning caught in a bottle - a dependable British cast at the top of their game, an unusual story and a witty script that flirts with different genres but is hard to pin down. As the original film depended on many disparate elements fitting together in a production that was beset by problems, a sequel would have to be brilliant to match its reputation. A script of ‘The Wicker Man II’ by original writer Anthony Shaffer did the rounds for decades, but this was stymied both by his death in 2001 and Edward Woodward’s in 2009. The actor, almost unbelievably, was prepared to return to the role of Sergeant Howie, following in the footsteps of Donald Pleasance in Halloween 4 (1988) as another apparently fireproof hero. With Shaffer and Woodward gone, director Robin Hardy has come up with his own thematic sequel, which takes the audience to another Scottish pagan community who enjoy orgiastic celebrations and sacrificing Christians.

Christopher Lee returns in a brief cameo as a former patriarch of the community (possibly Lord Summerisle, depending on the vagaries of copyright law), but the cast of TV actors he’s surrounded with rarely lift the material above the standard of an episode of Midsomer Murders, which in tone, atmosphere and set dressing the film seems particular keen to recreate. As in the original, there are some great uses of music, some well-judged moments of tension and some good depictions of decadent Brits taking their desires to their logical conclusion. However, the comedy moments are often forced and occasionally embarrassing to watch while the horror is never extreme enough to be particularly shocking, with more disturbing and memorable cannibalistic orgies served up in recent years by Perfume (2006) and episodes of True Blood in 2009.

The Wicker Tree isn’t unwatchable, unlike parts of the misguided American remake of The Wicker Man (2006), but adds nothing to the original. A worthy sequel to the 1973 cult movie is perhaps one best left to our imaginations.

This review was first published in our coverage of FrightFest 2011.

Alex Fitch