With the Final Cut of classic British horror film The Wicker Man set to be released, now seems like a great time to revisit one of the most genuinely sinister films to come out of the horror genre.
Edward Woodward plays Sargeant Howie, a West Highland police officer who has to travel to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Upon arrival, he quickly realises that the local residents are not only less than cooperative, but are seemingly deliberately obstructive to his investigation.
The film has all the classic ingredients of a staple horror film- religion, sex, and a charismatic villain in the form of Christopher Lee, playing a character far, far more disturbed than Dracula. There’s a distinct atmosphere, a sort of tension that runs throughout the film, that feeling of being frightened without really understanding why you do.
The people if Summerisle base their entire way of life around fertilisation and rebirth; they perform rituals, dance naked and are sexually open; all things that Sergeant Howie is not. A deeply religious man, he dismisses their way of life as nonsense, finding their liberation unbearable. He a boiling pot of sexual frustration, and finds it increasingly difficult to contain his carnal instincts as the film progresses. He uses his religion as a shield to hide behind, as a way of disengaging with what is going on around him. The film breaks down the barriers set by conventional horror films- the lone girl whose virginity is her saving grace is replaced by a man whose chastity ultimately becomes his downfall. In what is now perhaps one of the most well-known scenes of the film, Britt Ekland plays the part of the temptress, attempting to entice Howie into ridding himself of his inhibitions, but a sweating, panting Howie will not give in, much to his own detriment.
But although Howie’s internal struggle against his own sexuality serves to bring an interesting analysis of the form of the horror genre (and indeed a possible criticism of it), it doesn’t exactly a good horror film make, and so the film uses some other classic horror film components but in a none conventional way. Firstly, we have the monsters of the mayday parade; masked creatures, oversized rabbits, and as in any awful nightmare, rather than there being an obviously sinister event, there is perhaps and ordinary scenario, in this case a carnival procession, but with something a little different, something not quite right (see the dream sequences in Twin Peaks, Don’t Look Now, Eyes Wide Shut.) It taps in to something that the brain can’t process as normal, and so we feel afraid. The dull thud of the procession drum beats as a warning that something awful is about to happen, and it fills the viewer with dread. Many will argue that Christopher Lee dressed as a long-haired woman in a million times more frightening than Dracula. The film also taps in to the terrifying notion of not only being chased- but as in other exceptional horrors such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, being surrounded by people who are all in on it. You can run for help, but there’s nowhere to run. And the smiling idiots of the Summerisle are all the more terrifying for the fact that they don’t really think they’re doing anything wrong. They are unquestioning of their master, they believe whatever he says, although it goes against the very nature of being human- which ironically was Sergeant Howie’s problem, wasn’t it?