Ginger Nuts of Horror
The Wicker Man saves virtually everything for the finale, a finale which left a teenage kid wrung out and totally gobsmacked.
The X-rated film certificates of old always sounded far more thrilling than our modern 18 ratings. Adopting a gruff voice and standing on tiptoe, I managed to bluff my way into a local cinema at fourteen to see Don’t Look Now in 1973. The suspicious cashiers asked your age and I found the trick was to claim nineteen; they were always expecting an answer of eighteen. I looked older than my years, but it wasn’t as if they were selling me alcohol or cigarettes - they were simply warping my mind with supposedly adult films. It was a different age and, back then, Twilight would have been rated X.
I was in a fairly excited state as I loved supernatural dramas and, more to the point, the Sunday newspapers had been ranting about how this movie contained Julie Christie in the most gratuitous sex scene ever filmed. Some claimed she was “doing it” for real. The anticipated sex was short and disappointing, but the film itself was brilliantly haunting and, fortunately, these were the good old days when you always got two films for the price of your admission. Don’t Look Now was followed by a low-budget British film I’d never heard of - The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man is a legend now of course, with so many different versions and director cuts, you might think you were watching Bladerunner. I saw the slashed-up mess that was the original cinema release, where Edward Woodward’s police officer spends only one night on the island. Christopher Lee virtually washed his hands of this “travesty”, but it still made an incredible impact on me. I was pleased to see it starred two of my horror favourites, the aforementioned Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, and I settled down, expecting something along the lines of the Vampire Lovers or Countess Dracula. How wrong could I be? This genuinely unsettling movie was light years away from anything that Hammer films ever produced and had a very “real” feel. It also built up to an ending that I couldn’t believe.
Some people argue that the Wicker Man isn’t really horror, (even the director half-jokingly claimed it was a musical) but I’d disagree. Where many horror movies space out their frightening gory moments – with a zombie decapitation here, a werewolf disembowelling there - the Wicker Man saves virtually everything for the finale, a finale which left a teenage kid wrung out and totally gobsmacked. How could the movie makers possibly do what they did and end the film in that terrifying way? For the eight or nine people who might not have seen it, I wouldn’t dream of revealing the ending, but suffice to say it’s a little grimmer than the Wizard of Oz and, although the film unbelievably finishes on a song, no one left the theatre singing along with it on the evening I was there.
The plot of the Wicker Man is pretty much the stuff of standard thrillers. An anonymous letter is sent to a Scottish police officer, Sergeant Howie, claiming that a young girl has gone missing on Summerisle, a Hebridean island. He travels alone to investigate and very soon discovers that the entire community are pagans, something which appals and disgusts this devout Christian. As we follow the outraged Sergeant on his inquiries and see more of the island, we find this is a seemingly wonderful place, if a little eccentric. In contrast to the dour Christian, everyone seems jolly and full of life, with plenty of foot-tapping music, folk dancing, drinking and uninhibited sex. Without revealing anything, it’s only later that you quickly change your opinion and decide that Summerisle might not be your ideal choice for a home. As a matter of fact it’s difficult to reveal much about this film, in that the whole thing resembles the Sting and similar movies, albeit with pagans instead of confidence tricksters. The viewer is conned just as much as Sergeant Howie and if anyone tells you they saw the ending coming, don’t believe them.
It’s easy to see how much I love the film – my Facebook profile picture has always been me standing in the exact spot where the Wicker Man was constructed and adopting the same pose. For me, it’s always been something more than a film. The very real atmosphere that it conjures up never left me and, talking to others, I know I’m not alone. As I grew up and bought a car, I was able to track down the Scottish filming locations, most of them around Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway. This is something I’d urge any fan to do. You soon realise that every location is far smaller than you imagine. The grassy area where the maypole dance was filmed is no bigger than the patches of lawn in front of semis on modern housing estates. Diane Cilento’s school house is truly tiny, making you wonder how on earth they managed to cram all those desks in there. This is the same with the bar of the Green Man inn (the Ellangowan hotel in Creetown) and the wood-panelled room looks exactly the same, with the same bar stools. I stayed in the bedroom above, somehow resisting the urge to go through Britt Ekland’s naked wall-slapping dance.
I suppose the Wicker Man coloured my fiction writing just as it coloured my teenage imagination. My central character is a young female pagan and occultist, although a very different type of pagan to Lord Summerisle and his followers. I try to give every novel a definite atmosphere, with a real sense of location, and I always hit the reader with twists, especially at the end. Having said that, I doubt I would ever emotionally destroy them with a twist like the ending of this movie. The Wicker Man certainly influenced my second novel, Here Be Dragons, which features a community with a great deal to hide on the wild coast of Northumberland.
If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen it, buy the Blu-ray extended version, turn off the lights and sit back to be amazed.
Just as a footnote – I don’t know if anyone is aware, but since 1997, British health and safety laws ensure that all wicker men now have to be fitted with a rear fire escape. This has more or less ruined the traditional practise of human sacrifice in Scotland. Talk about political correctness gone mad.
Ian was born in the north of England, where he worked for three decades as an operational firefighter with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue. He has spent the past twenty years in the village of Fairburn, near Selby, where he devotes his time to writing horror, urban fantasy and paranormal mysteries featuring the York-based "white witch" Iona Kyle.
His interests include travel, walking the North York Moors and Dales, natural history, real ale, and ridding the world of all known evils.
He also feels decidedly peculiar speaking in the third person and may have to do this in the future using a sinister ventriloquist's doll.
Psychic visions of absolute evil.
The moon is full and the people of Edinburgh are scared. They have good reason—a maniac is killing women and carving pentagram symbols into their bodies.
Fake clairvoyant, Philip Tarot sees one of the victims being dumped and faces a choice. Reporting the incident makes him a mundane eyewitness, anonymous and quickly forgotten, but passing the information as psychic visions will take Phil down a different path to fame. Life changes overnight with the latter option. The killer is caught and the media love their new celebrity, but the limelight brings unwelcome attention from genuine psychic, Iona Kyle.
More disturbingly, Phil is approached by the Sorority, a powerful occult circle presided over by Jessica Crowley, granddaughter of the magician Aleister Crowley. The murders, Iona realizes, were the start of something much bigger—and something unbelievably evil.
Book One of the Iona Kyle Series