The Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man
Part three in the Hermanos of Horror Unholy Trinity is, I admit, a bit of a cop out- but it is a film that is so synonymous with Folk Horror that to omit it from our list would be criminal…or at least deserving of a place inside a giant wicker statue alongside (wonderfully named) Edward Woodward. Yes, the third film in our Unholy Trinity of Folk Horror is The Wicker Man one of the three that made up the original Unholy Trinity.
Described by Cinefantastique as the Citizen Kane of horror- an epithet I feel might be overstretching it- it is a film which encapsulates the very heart of what makes a Folk Horror a Folk Horror.
There is so much that I could talk about when it comes to The Wicker Man from the way it was almost destroyed in post-production, to the scenes that were filmed but never used, the music and the imagery, but what I want to focus on today is Edward Woodward.
If you hold The Wicker Man up to scrutiny alongside a film like The Witch you could be forgiven for dismissing the bastion of the original Unholy Trinity- not as scary, less polished, that dance sequence*- but such a comparison is an unfair one. Modern Folk Horror was built on the foundations laid by The Wicker Man and, as horror fans, we should stand before Robin Hardy's chaotic classic, hold hands and sway.
The Witch is a very good film- a great film- but for every film that might highlight aspects of The Wicker Man that haven’t aged very well there is another film that emphasizes its brilliance (the unspeakably bad Nicholas Cage/Neil LaBute 2006 remake). When I watched the abomination that is the remake I felt compelled to re-watch the original to cleanse my soul and soothe my eyes and the first thing that jumped out at me is just how good a central performance Edward Woodward delivers.
For all the seventies psychedelic leanings and the moments of “what have I just watched?” the film’s heart is this solid, stoic character that you can truly believe in and because you can believe in him you can believe in Summerisle and it’s bizarre inhabitants. His grounded portrayal of the puritan police officer is very Folk Horror- earthy, rooted- and allows us to enjoy Christopher Lee’s more melodrama-tinged Lord Summerisle.
Performances like Edward Woodward’s are often overlooked in horror films whether it’s by audiences focusing on the more sensational elements (positively or negatively) or because they are horror films, but without such performances many horror films wouldn’t work (or wouldn’t work as well as they do). Take last year’s Get Out- Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is so strong that you can truly buy into the more fantastical elements of the story. Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Macon Blair and Patrick Stewart (even with the accent issues) in Green Room.
It is all too easy to focus on the set pieces in horror and The Wicker Man has some wonderful images- the ending alone is a harrowing sequence that has lost none of its ability to inflict an overwhelming sense of dread upon me no matter how many times I watch it, Willow’s Song is as creepy as it is bizarre, the beetle in the classroom, and Christopher Lee really is excellent- but without Edward Woodward I believe this would be a much lesser film.
In many ways a horror film asks more from its actors than other genres (the same is true of sci-fi or fantasy) because it is a genre that often attempts to get audiences to believe in situations which are out of the ordinary. If you want to scare people you have to get them to accept the world you have created, suspend disbelief, believe in it and that lives and dies with the actors.
Something that hangs over The Wicker Man is the tricky issue of Britt Ekland’s (Get Carter, The Man with the Golden Gun) use/misuse in the film while (partially) performing as Willow, the landlord’s daughter.
One of the iconic moments in the film is Willow’s Song, the bizarre, sensual dance performed by Willow which drives Sergeant Howie to breaking point. Britt Eklend talked in interviews about how she and her agent were very clear that she would appear topless, but would show nothing from the waist down. Anyone who has seen the film will know that Willow is seen completely naked, from behind, in the dance sequence- the body double? A stripper from Glasgow (according to Robin Hardy and Ekland (although it has been claimed variously as Lorraine Peters and Jane Jackson)). A decision which Ekland said she wasn’t aware of until the film came out.
The replacing didn’t stop there...
Jazz singer Annie Ross was brought in as a voice double…not just for the singing, but to dub over all of Willow’s dialogue. Again, something Ekland was not aware of.
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