Odds and Dead Ends: Rustic Terror

Why The Wicker Man Still Scares Us by Kieran Judge

Released in 1973, Robin Hardy’s British pagan horror movie takes a policeman (played by Edward Woodward) onto the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a girl’s disappearance. Despite a bad remake with Nicholas Cage, and a spiritual sequel that failed to impress, the original film still has the ability to deeply disturb on a strange, fundamental level. I’m going to outline why I think The Wicker Man, despite its age and lack of blood and monsters, still manages to thrill and scare today.

When Howie arrives on the island, you’re initially greeted by great aerial shots of the little plane flying past the rugged terrain of the island, merely a white speck against the blue ocean. For the rest of the film, Howie is completely removed from the traffic in the pre-credit scenes, away from the churches and the police stations (these scenes re-added in the director’s cut). As Martin-Jones writes of the film, ‘The wilds of Scotland are thus considered a potentially treacherous location where a more ‘primitive’ attitude to life and death persists and duplicity and double-cross are deadly commonplaces against which the unwitting outsider must guard.’ (Martin-Jones, 2009). We’re on our own now in a cut-throat world.

And you get this impression right from the start. Upon landing, Howie asks the townsfolk to send a dinghy out so that he might come ashore, and their reply is they can’t do so without permission. Even announcing himself as a policeman seems to have little to no effect. Not only is this an island from which one cannot easily escape except by plane, but it is an environment where the people are dismissive, if not yet overtly hostile. It’s going to be hard going at the very least to find our missing girl.

The more we explore the culture, trying to get to the very heart of the matter of the missing Rowan Morrison, the more we feel we are intruding too far into a completely different world. Their pagan rituals are everywhere, from the maypole dancing and education at the school, to the chocolates being sold in the local shops. The Christianity that Howie holds so dear to him, (the virtues that Edward Woodward says are the most important values to him of all, in the DVD’s video commentary (The Wicker Man, 1973)) are up against a brick wall that we slowly, horrifyingly, realise is actually a trap, ensnaring us. Kbatz has a great review of the film from a few years ago in which she discusses some of the conflicts between the different religions, and I highly recommend you go and read it if you haven’t already: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/kbatz-the-wicker-man/

Many people have commented on the music in the film, with the cast and crew on the DVD commentary saying that it fits the movie like a glove. I’ve known people to find the songs funny at times, which I think is telling in itself. It isn’t the usual score to a thriller film. Around 13 songs, based on traditional Scottish tunes and poems, form a surreal background to a completely alien world. It’s unnerving, and people trying to laugh it off may be a form of emotional relief

This also highlights that all of the people are genuinely enjoying the festivities. All of the townsfolk are smiling and treat Howie with the greatest of respect because, again referring to the audio commentary, they believe they are doing him the greatest service by plotting to make him a martyr. They believe they’re doing the right thing. And that’s one of the most terrifying things upon reflection, they believe in their hearts that they are rewarding him.

And then of course, for Howie, things go sour in the final act. Like the rotting apples and the crumbling churches, everything falls apart for the modern values of the western world embodied by our policeman. When he tries to leave he finds the plane broken and sabotaged, technology failing. Worshippers with animal masks watch on, and when Howie turns around they hide again. There’s a definite air of malice now, a concrete threat to Howie, and what was unease throughout the film suddenly becomes fear.

As we reach the climax of the film, we, like Howie, are clutching at straws. From feeling like the imposter in a strange land, Howie puts on the outfit of the fool and becomes the imposter. Now we’re in the very midst of the danger, aware that they intend a human sacrifice, and the very Christian policeman has to imitate the very thing that goes against his core values in order to carry out his job. The snapping hobby horse are the jaws of death. It’s a personal conflict of monumental importance, a moment where the personal micro tensions and the theological macro tensions come to fruition, and we have to hope that the man we follow will win out.

The entire parade is dragged out as long as possible for maximum tension. The scene with the sword dance in the stone circle is particularly tense, because for a moment we suddenly realise that there’s the possibility the worshippers know Howie is in the outfit. Thrust into the line, he has no but to go into the ring of swords and trust and hope his disguise holds out. With the chop! chop! chop! we have again a perverse soundtrack, substituting the war drums of conventional movie scores for a pagan call for death.

And then we arrive at the final scene. Howie is thrust into the Wicker Man, crying for his Lord, and we suddenly have to hope for the traditional horror movie to return. Horror films always save the protagonist, give us some kind of catharsis, but there’s nothing to be found here. The helicopter doesn’t arrive, rain doesn’t pour as an act of God and douse the flames licking at the wood, Howie doesn’t manage to escape and run to freedom. The cries for Jesus and the singing of traditional hymns are drowned out by the chanting ring of happy pagan faces as the head finally crumbles, burned to a crisp.

The Wicker Man takes our traditional western values and puts them into a world that has reverted to the past. The crusade Howie goes on fails to convert the islanders to the ‘modern’ ways of thinking. We leave the film having watched the protagonist having journeyed to a strange, unnervingly backward land and burned alive to appease ancient gods. We as an audience, his modern kin, have failed him. In a world of cut-and-paste zombie flicks, ghost girl movies, and lacklustre monster films, there’s just something about rustic terror of The Wicker Man that manages to unnerve. Everything comes together and culminates in a film that defies all the conventions, brings together the best cast and crew possible, and leaves the viewer having watched one of the most terrifying final scenes ever put to film.

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Follow Kieran on Twitter: KJudgeMental

 

Bibliography

Martin-Jones, D., 2009. Scotland global cinema: genres, modes and identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Wicker Man. 1973. [Film] Directed by Robin Hardy. UK: British Lion.

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

 

An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

by Kristin Battestella

Fans of old school thrillers young or old can earn their suspense credentials with these early Alfred Hitchcock nail biters.

The Lady Vanishes Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid’s quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone’s interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who’s really on who’s side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician’s rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it’s amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?

 

 

Lifeboat – Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There’s no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah’s in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who’s American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he’s included in all the decisions. It’s unfortunately expected that Canada Lee’s (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he’s also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today’s movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who’s skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we’re all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are…” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there’s time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They’re surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.

 

SabotageBuzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock’s previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor’s claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn’t want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what’s in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don’t think today we’d have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.

 

The 39 Steps – Like Maugham’s Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don’t need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who’s picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.

Inbred

A fantastic experience of violence and pitch black humour, Inbred is distinctly British and distinctly Alex Chandon. It has been ten years since Chandon directed Cradle Of Fear, and the nightmarish quality of that 2001 cult favourite has been retained in Inbred and fortified with a more consistent cast and superior production values.

The director’s latest offering to the horror genre pitches a group of troubled teens and their youth workers against a freak show ensemble of murderous villagers in rural Yorkshire. A trip to the local pub on their first night introduces the locals and sounds the warning that all might not be well – and are those really pork scratchings? From here fortune swiftly plummets for the unfortunate gang as they are exposed to bizarre and sadistic local customs which would make the inhabitants of “Summer Isle” seem welcoming.

The acting in Inbred is solid throughout, and the cast had clearly been selected to give the correct feel for a film which is designed to function as an effective horror movie (which it does) whilst not asking its audience to take it too seriously. Jo Hartley and James Doherty as the group leaders perform particularly well together: he the overly liberal youth worker trying to relate to the kids but failing miserably, and she the harder-nosed realist who coaxes tentative friendships from them. Their dynamic aided the younger actor’s interactions and provided humour and characters which were easy to identify with.

It was interesting to see a quintessentially American horror subgenre (out-of-towners entering the isolated domain of murderous hillbillies; see Wrong Turn et al) transposed into the English countryside. It was done well and took the correct tone to avoid the potential pitfalls: principally the scale of the landscape and likely proximity to civilisation, which could have been problematic. The humour allowed the viewer to suspend disbelief further than in a straight piece, but it was never allowed to become a slapstick farce – the balance was well struck.

As with Cradle Of Fear the physical effects were extremely well executed. True horror aficionados love practical effects, and with a plethora of gore including slit throats and blown-up heads, genre fans will find themselves roaring with approval once the action gets started. If CGI was used, it was done so sparingly and effectively.

Inbred does not simply provide the set-up and then unleash horrors upon its victims; instead a surreal community and its unique brand of underground entertainment is fleshed out before the carnage begins. If you’ve ever been to a tiny, isolated, village and wondered “what do they do for fun here?” – Inbred takes that thought and then brutally murders it in front of a cheering crowd by way of an answer.

Gratifyingly, directorial courage was not lost at the conclusion of Inbred. The violent attrition between the opposite sides of the rural divide was bloody and fun. The ending satisfyingly concluded the film in the tone it deserved – you wouldn’t expect all the protagonists walking off into the sunset together, but neither are we ambushed with an Eden Lake style buzz kill. Again the tone and balance were well crafted.

Sometimes the success and failure of a movie is not entirely down to the filmmakers, but the audience too. Watching Inbred for an in-depth exposition on rural life in modern Yorkshire would be a bit like watching Carry On Doctor for an insight into the workings of the NHS in the 1960’s. With grass roots horror at its black heart and a sick sense of humour, Inbred entertains from start to finish and will put an evil smile on your face. Hopefully Alex Chandon won’t leave horror fans waiting another decade before returning to the director’s chair.

Mum & Dad

Mum & Dad is an independent British horror film set amongst the austere backdrop of London’s Heathrow Airport and the constant drone of jet engines. The area is bleak and characterized by fences topped with razor wire and depressing homogenized rows of terraced houses which have depleted as the airport grew up around them. Each abode is the same as the next – but one of them hides a pair of serial killers: Mum and Dad.

Lena is a polish girl who works as a cleaner at the airport. She shares a shift with Birdie, who despite being light-fingered and a gossip, seems likable enough. Birdie introduces Lena to Elbie, her “adopted brother” who is a mute and also works at the airport. At the end of one shift Birdie orchestrates a situation whereby Lena misses the last bus, and insists that Lena comes with her so that her Dad can give her a ride home. Of course this never comes to pass, and after arriving at Birdies house, Lena is bludgeoned and drugged – awakening some time later to the start of a hellish surreal nightmare that she may never survive.

At this early stage in the film’s progression, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the plot is setting up a scenario seen regularly in copy-cat films since the success of movies such as Saw and Hostel. Whilst Mum & Dad does not shy away from extremely sadistic and nasty violence, it is not a gore film and instead relies upon creating a horrifically bizarre environment which is ruled over by the most deranged of minds. The fear comes from our empathy with Lena, and our vicarious terror is ratcheted up with every scene in this terrible scenario.

This empathy comes from Lena being a brilliantly written and acted character. For all the budget constraints involved with British independent film-making, it usually excels at the fundamentals – such as writing, acting and characterization. Lena is smart but still bound by realistic human character traits. She does what the viewer would do in many situations, or at least she does not do anything distractingly unbelievable – it’s a nice change from the idiots some mainstream horror would usually have us cheer for, or indeed the heroines who suddenly become almost superhuman when under threat.

Lena is awoken from her drug-induced stupor by terrified howls of pain coming from the adjacent room – several loud thuds later and the screaming stops. The door bursts open and an over-weight man with glasses and mole-like features enters, he is wearing underpants and a vest, clutching a hammer and is covered in blood. A moment later and a tall, thin, well-presented woman with angular features enters through a second door. All three stare at each other intently, until the woman strides over to Lena and states “I’m Mum. He’s Dad. You live with us now!”

It is made abundantly clear that Mum and Dad are serial killers – but very different to each other in their psychopathic tendencies. Dad is a violent sexual predator who likes to murder in fits of rage, whereas Mum is a true sadist who likes to torture with finesse for the physical delight it brings her. Dad enjoys to hack and bludgeon, Mum favors the use of spikes and knives – they are both homicidal lunatics.

Lunatics they are beyond doubt, but within the fortress of their own home they have created a world where their manner of living is completely normal. They acquire “children” and this is why Lena finds herself captive. Her “adopted” brother and sister (Birdie and Elbie) have become totally immersed in this culture and accept it as a standard existence. In one scene the rest of his family patiently wait for Dad to finish pleasuring himself into a hacked off chunk of human flesh before they introduce him to Lena; once he is done, Dad tells her that “family is everything”.

Family breakfast’s see dismembered body-parts brought out for disposal whilst people eat toast. Pornographic movies play on the TV and Dad inappropriately kisses and gropes Birdie (who reciprocates) before settling down with the morning paper. Every aspect of this film superimposes the normal with the deranged, and this unhinged atmosphere is the signature of the movie. This is aided by the stand-out aspect of the production – Perry Benson’s performance as Dad. Benson is a stalwart British actor and carries the film with both his appearance and the portrayal of his character. His hateful, twisted and completely unbalanced delivery is terrifying to behold.

The writer and director of Mum & Dad (Steven Sheil) describes it as “a fucked-up-family film”. Succinct as this summary is, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the horror of this movie. Lena is completely at the mercy of a matriarch and patriarch whose lunacy now controls her entire existence, if she fits in and does not cause a problem she is told that she will be fine – if not there will be Dad to answer to. “Fine”, of course, in this instance is relative!

The unsettling torment of Lena’s predicament is sharply focused in the knife-edge balance of her captor’s insanity. Using the language of a normal parental unit, the actions of Mum and Dad are starkly juxtaposed. Calling Lena “her angel, sent from heaven” mum inserts spikes through her skin and lacerates her with a scalpel – all the while telling her to keep Mum happy so as not to upset Dad.

Playing it smart and trying to stay on the good side of Mum and Dad until a suitable chance of escape or rescue presents itself, Lena incurs the increasingly bitter resentment of Birdie who dreads the inevitable result of not being Mum and Dad’s favorite anymore. Lena now has to fear her new parents as well as some particularly twisted sibling rivalry as the tension reaches stratospheric levels towards the film’s conclusion.

Mum & Dad was made under Film London’s “Microwave” project, where the budget is capped at a maximum of £100,000. This is a miniscule amount of money on which to shoot a feature and it is to the credit of all involved that what was produced looks and feels like it was shot on ten-times that budget. Moreover, the result was a gripping and terrifying film that exemplifies all that is good about British independent horror cinema. If you want a well crafted horror film that is brilliantly acted, full of threat and tension, claustrophobic, violent and completely deranged – Mum & Dad comes highly recommended.

This article is written exclusively for Horror Addicts, but will appear subsequently on the authors website:

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