And Now The Screaming Starts #3 – Christopher Lee: Six of The Best

And Now The Screaming Starts! #3  – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

cleeoldSix of the Best: Christopher Lee

There are a great many actors who graced the silver and small screen over the latter half of the twentieth century who cut their teeth on, and often made their name known thanks to, fleeting or regular roles in the films of Hammer Productions – the unforgettable Ingrid Pitt, the irreplaceable Peter Cushing and the legendary Oliver Reed to name a few – but there is one actor whose name was and still is utterly synonymous with ‘Hammer’, despite him having starred a massive number of films over his career produced by countless other studios and companies. That actor is, of course, Sir Christopher Lee. A year on from his death last June at the grand old age of 93, I felt it fitting this time around to cast an eye over a selection of his Hammer roles and explore how some of the varied films his work for Hammer propelled him to fame and went on to mould him as an actor – not to mention his contribution to the development of the company itself as his talent thrived over the decades.

I’m not necessarily suggesting in my selection of the six films that follow that they are his six best ever roles, for Hammer or otherwise, or indeed the six best Hammers he starred in, but I pick them more as a showcase of the range of parts he developed over time and variety of horror sub-genres he was able to explore through the company. I believe he starred in a total of 19 Hammer films (could be wrong!) spanning four separate decades so it’s hard at any rate to whittle down which part he played best or which film was the most enjoyable! Personal preferences aside, I invite both the discerning Hammer nut and novice to simply kick back and chew over these six outings, each made by one great British institution and starring another…

CLEE-The-Curse-Of-Frankenstein-christopher-lee-2511526-376-304The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘The Creature’

Though best known for playing the first fanged fiend of literature, Lee’s first ever film under the Hammer banner (and one of the company’s first releases) saw him play a different yet no-less well-known ‘monster’ – Frankenstein’s, no less. The Hammer interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale also featured Peter Cushing as the titular Baron, pairing the two actors in a picture together for the very first time and heralding the beginning of probably the most well-known and enduring lifelong friendships in cinema. Christopher Lee was cast because of his towering height (which ironically had seen him strike out with many acting roles before this in favour of shorter actors), and also because he had some experience in the field of mime.

He certainly brings this skill to the fore in his first Hammer flick, all at once convincing the viewer of the Creature’s melancholy, confusion and silent rage, even under the thick layers of make-up artist Phil Leakey’s corpse-like mask. Six further films starring the Baron were to follow from Hammer, yet this would be the only one to star Christopher Lee. What makes ‘Curse’ so special is, aside from simply being Lee’s first Hammer role, it can be argued that it ‘kicked off’ proper the company’s brand success as it was both commercially and critically successful, proving Hammer to be a film production force to be reckoned with and firmly kick-starting the long and highly prestigious career of one of Britain’s best-loved actors.

CLEE-drac58The Horror of Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Count Dracula’

Of course, this one has to be included in this particular line-up – Sir Christopher’s first time playing the Count for Hammer! Appearing the year after ‘Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ (or ‘Horror of Dracula’) introduced us to Lee’s definitive Lord of the Undead amidst huge box office takings for the time and some derision on grounds of good taste from the then critics. Lee is simply perfect for the role and it is no wonder he was picked for it – the character of Dracula calls for charm, reticence, anguish and pure aggression in equal measure and he displays all these qualities in spades. The film itself, loosely re-telling the Stoker narrative, is still an essential horror watch today – an enjoyable thrill-fest and visually sumptuous, and it features a fabulous ending with decent special effects (fantastic for the 50’s!), understated acting from Lee even during a sequence that could easily be heavy on the ham, and of course the first of many quality Lee/Cushing death grapples!

cleebaskThe Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’

Another Hammer spin on a classic novel (and like so many early Hammer classics, directed by Terence Fisher), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous case of all brought us Christopher Lee as the distinguished heir to the Baskerville fortune. ‘Baskervilles’ is not only one of the stronger early Hammer films, establishing Peter Cushing as one of the more memorable Sherlocks and with Andre Morell’s Watson providing stalwart support alongside one of literature’s best-loved mysteries – it also gave Lee the chance to spread his wings a little and show audiences that he could play the good guy just as well as the villain or monster, even almost your average Joe (landowning and Beagle fancying aside). Lee takes command of every frame he’s in as he did in any role, but as Sir Henry he was able to try his hand at a somewhat more vulnerable character, falling in ill-advised love with a Spanish servant’s daughter and although no wimp, still under threat of murder from an unknown and possibly supernatural force.

cleedracDracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968, Dir. Freddie Francis) – ‘Count Dracula’

Leaping ahead to the late sixties, Sir Christopher reprised his role as the vampire (and went on to do so another six times, five of which were for Hammer), now thawed out from his frozen demise a year previous and bent on a rampage of mayhem and revenge. With Ewan Hooper’s tormented priest under his hypnotised thrall, the Count plans to take revenge on the Monseigneur who exorcised his castle whilst he lay frozen by preying on his sweet daughter Marie (Veronica Carlson). Lee’s vampire has more interaction here with the living and seems more willing to get his hands dirty with a spot of coffin-robbing and public house basement squatting (even the undead have to move with the times). While the film did not impress on the same scale as its predecessor, ‘Grave’ is still a strong Dracula film, featuring a fantastically ghoulish opening, and Sir Christopher is once more effortlessly imposing, continuing to terrify and enthral audiences with his chilling performance as the Count.

cleedevilTo the Devil a Daughter (1976, Dir. Peter Sykes) – ‘Father Michael Rayner’

“Excommunicate – it is not heresy, and I will not recant!”

The vitriolic opening words, spoken by Lee as disgraced priest Father Michael Rayner, of what was to be Hammer’s final horror film before the company ceased producing films in 1979. The innocent young nun Catherine Beddows (Natasha Kinski) has been raised within Fr Rayner’s religious order in Bavaria, all seemingly above board, but the unsuspecting girl does not realise that Rayner is in fact leader of a highly dangerous religious sect which worships the ancient God Astaroth, and they plan to use her as the Devil’s representative on Earth once she turns eighteen. I choose this one plain and simple for Lee’s performance – the film itself was not a particular commercial or critical success, and thoroughly displeased Dennis Wheatley, the author of the book the film was (ultimately loosely) based on 1968’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (Hammer’s previous film based on a novel by Wheatley) was much more successful, and Christopher Lee turns in an equally respectable performance as the Duc de Richleau in it, however the sheer unsettling, total creepiness Lee brings forth as Fr Rayner still makes this Satanic horror film worth a look.

Lee is simply fantastic, oozing malice as he performs Satanic magic on his lackeys and doing a fine job of making the evil priest seem just pleasant enough on the surface – proving that even after working with Hammer by this point for nearly twenty years, he could still bring a character to life with utter conviction and curdle the blood of a whole new generation of filmgoers.

cleeThe Resident (2011, Dir. Antti Jokinen) – ‘August’

“I will always be grateful to Hammer for launching my international career as an actor. Like millions of others, I would welcome the day when the company resumes production.” *

And resume it fittingly did, in what would be the last few years of the actor’s long life, and what a pleasure it was for fans of this movie legend to see him collaborate with the resurrected company once more. In this first film from its new incarnation, we see Hammer take on a form of ‘stalker/home invasion’ horror, with Hilary Swank’s Juliet Devereaux falling foul of the affections of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s obsessed landlord Max. In what would be his final Hammer performance, Sir Christopher plays a small part (he was 89 by this point to be fair, and only a few years prior was heavy involved with various factions of both the Orc and Sith type!) as Max’s frail yet clearly emotionally abusive grandfather, August. Despite the short screen time, Lee keeps us guessing about August’s character, turning up in jump scares to unsettle, unintentionally or not, both Juliet and the audience, and leads us to suspect he may pose more of a threat to her safety than his grandson ever could…

So there you have it – a look back at a few of Lee’s Hammer roles and a reminder of one of the great cinematic partnerships of blossoming film production company and favoured ‘go-to’ actor, symbiotically launching and at times upholding each other’s success. And what an unbelievable talent the man was, both as a Hammer actor and in his near uncountable other acting credits – he is quoted as once saying “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr Lee, I’ve seen all your films!’ and I think, ‘No you haven’t.’”

He kicked ass for real in his 20’s in the RAF and Special Forces and kicked cinematic butt of various kinds as an nonogenarian. I’ve often thought that if (when?) a film-maker ever wanted to film a biography of his life, who would play the man himself – not to deride today’s current actors, but which actor today has the equal stature, presence and level of film and life experience?

There’ll never be another quite like him.

* = from the Foreword to ‘The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer’ by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes

31 Days of Horror: #24 – The Devil Rides Out

31 Days of Horror: #24 – The Devil Rides Out

Your daily bitesized guide to the films you should be watching this Halloween season…

Devil.Rides.OutThe Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from the novel by Dennis Wheatley

Starring Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Patrick Mower, Niké Arrighi

Based upon occult expert Dennis Wheatley’s novel, The Devil Rides out is Hammer at their grandiose best. Directed with Terence Fishers simple but skillful style, it spins a devilish tale about the nefarious goings on inside a cult who quite literally summon the devil and are generally up to no good. The Devil Rides Out isn’t as achingly Gothic as some of the Hammer catalogue, but with a script respectful to Wheatley’s occult knowledge and its hints at the esoteric goings on of high society it is a perfect fit for Hammer.

Dripping with atmosphere, and in possession of a genuinely surprising twist, it is both creepy and gleefully camp making it a fantastic pick for anyone in the mood for some old school Halloween thrills. Christopher Lee is wonderfully theatrical as The Duc De Richelieu – a rare good-guy role – and with The Devil himself making an appearance, and some Giant spiders just for good measure, this is a perfect Samhain treat.

What are you watching?
Share your own scare picks with us on twitter and Instagram!

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Curse of The Crimson Altar (1968) Blu-Ray Review

CRIMSON 001CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968) Blu-ray

Directed By: Vernon Sewell

Written By: Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln, Jerry Sohl (story)

Starring: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Mark Eden, Barbara Steele, Michael Gough

UK Certification: 15

RRP: £17.99

Running Time: 84 minutes

Distributor: Odeon Entertainment

UK Release Date: 13th October 2014

THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR – late sixties British horror that ultimately frustrates more than it satisfies. Made in 1968, it was part of the first wave of features that came from Tony Tenser’s short-lived yet vital Tigon label. Already in the bag was the superb WITCHFINDER GENERAL which fell under the directorial supervision of wunderkind Michael Reeves, and also the less successful THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR which found Vernon Sewell in the director’s chair. Disappointingly for some it was Sewell that was to take the reins of THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, but with a cast that includes venerable horror icons such as Lee, Karloff, Steele and Gough, you expect a worthier feature.

Antique dealer Robert (Mark Eden) discovers that his brother Peter has gone missing while on a business trip, so decides to go looking for him. His search takes him to an old manor run by an aristocrat by the name of Morley (Christopher Lee), but initial investigations by Robert lead to precious little information as to the whereabouts of his brother. Shortly after his arrival he becomes aware of the Morley family’s obsession with the Black Witch of Greymarsh – the legend of an ancestral witch called Lavinia (Barbara Steele) who was burned at the stake, but whose influence is certainly very much alive.

CRIMSON 002Despite not being credited, H.P Lovecraft’s DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE formed a notable influence on Jerry Sohl’s story – a screenwriter fresh from such TV series as THE OUTER LIMITS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. With this origin you’d be justified in expecting elements of Lovecraftian macabre, but instead the film meanders along with no real spark or intensity. That said, some redemption can be found in Johnny Coquillon’s cinematography. Fresh from WITCHFINDER GENERAL his talents are a worthy highlight to the feature, and exhibit a technician who would go on to be DP on STRAW DOGS, CROSS OF IRON and THE CHANGELING. Let’s not forget Karloff too, wracked with arthritis, in the last year of his life, yet dominating every scene he’s in with a dignified authority that nudges you to acknowledge just how much of a pro this beloved icon was.

After 35 years spent in the British film industry shooting a legion of solid b-movies, I’m not convinced that Sewell was the best candidate for this film. His other genre pictures – GHOST SHIP from 1952 and HOUSE OF MYSTERY from 1961 – were passable at best, but with Peter Cushing labelling BLOOD BEAST TERROR the worst movie he’s been in, it’s not unfair to allege that Sewell simply wasn’t up to the task of creating something memorable from the considerable resources that were available – both in personnel and materials. The same goes for Mark Eden, a fine television actor, but he’s not a leading man and his scenes alongside Lee and Karloff expose his frailties.
Deficiencies of the feature aside, this release from Odeon elevate a passable picture to must-have status.

CRIMSON 003The print quality is staggering – a clean, crisp and lush image is almost bereft of imperfections, and with a bombastic score of aural perfection it’s an edition that demands you seek it out. Added to this there’s a brand new commentary with Barbara Steele, moderated by the excellent David Del Valle who’s so good at gleaning snippets of on-set intrigue from Ms. Steele. There’s a making of that features new interviews with Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell who primarily wax lyrical about working with such horror icons, while we’re also treated to a 45 minute conversation with Christopher Lee that was originally part of the British Legends of Stage and Screen series.

Film: 5 out of 10
Extras: 8 out of 10

Extras:
Documentary: Creating the Curse of the Crimson Altar (24 minutes)
Commentary with Barbara Steele and David Del Valle
In conversation with Christopher Lee (45 minutes)
Original Trailer
Image Gallery

Night of The Big Heat (1967) DVD Review

BIG HEAT 001NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT aka ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (1967) DVD

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Written By: Ronald Liles, Jane Baker, Pip Baker, John Lymington (novel)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Patrick Allen, Peter Cushing, Jane Merrow

UK Certification: 15

RRP: £14.99

Running Time: 90 minutes

Distributor: Odeon Entertainment

UK Release Date: 28th July 2014

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were credited together in 24 films, from Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) where Lee played the uncredited role of a spear carrier right through to Pete Walker’s House of the Long Shadows (1983). While both Lee and Cushing are forever destined to be mentioned in the same breath when describing something like Hammer Studios output, they regularly cropped up together outside this framework in interesting, if not always successful productions.

Peter Sasdy’s Nothing but the Night (1973) is one that falls into this bracket, so too is this curio – Night of the Big Heat. Based on John Lymington’s 1959 novel of the same name, it was shot in Pinewood in February / March 1967. The director’s chair was taken by the inimitable Terence Fisher who of course had directed both Cushing and Lee together in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) as well as a couple of others. More interesting though was the fact that Night of the Big Heat was about to become the third of what’s regarded as Fisher’s Planet Films trilogy.

With mid-60s relations between Fisher and Hammer being somewhat fractured, Terence had found himself at Planet Pictures involved in the production of a couple of science-fiction pictures. The first he directed was The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) using the template of a small group of survivors under the threat of invasion. He followed it with the far superior Island of Terror (1966) in which he cast Peter Cushing to fend off some tentacled silicates, before finishing off this themed threesome of British sci-fi with Night of the Big Heat.

BIG HEAT 002In the movie we find that Britain is experiencing quite a harsh winter, but conversely the sparsely populated island of Fara appears to be enduring a heatwave. Jeff (Allen) and Frankie Callum (Sarah Lawson) run The Swan, the sole pub on the island. Jeff, who is also a published novelist has just hired Angela (Merrow) as his secretary who unbeknownst to his wife happens to be his former lover. Angela is intent on resuming her affair with Jeff who is less than keen to comply – all of which makes for quite the sexual undercurrent in the film. Meanwhile though Dr. Godfrey Hanson (Lee), a scientist from the mainland, is occupying a room in the pub which he uses as his base to attain as much scientific evidence as he can in an attempt to determine the reasons for this heat. With peculiar and sinister events happening to the islands habitants, it’s left to Jeff, Frankie and Angela to put their personal issues aside and assist Dr. Hanson in saving the island from a threat that could well prove to be extra-terrestrial.

Christopher Lee wasn’t exactly glowing in his biography about this entry into his filmography with the special effects taking the brunt of his disdain. That said, I think the general shrugging shoulder level of mediocrity that is aimed at this film is a little undeserved. There’s plenty to scoff at, be it the aforementioned SFX lead by some eggs over easy style monsters, or the overbearing melodrama that envelopes the world of Jeff Callum and the objects of his affection. However I think the general claustrophobic isolation of this small community easily transcends the occasional budgetary restriction or the odd moment of hammy love triangle dialogue.

It’s an unsettling film, and as you cast your eye over the actors dripping in sweat with clothes glued to their body through relentless perspiration, the distressing nature of the situation easily transmits to the viewer. Both Lee and Cushing having received top billing in most of the promotional material but are largely relegated to supporting performances, which gives the opportunity for the participants in our menage a trois – Allen, Lawson and Merrow to take centre stage. You do find yourself pining for a greater input from Mssrs Lee and Cushing, but having said that Patrick Allen delivers a solid performance for which it would be churlish to overshadow it simply by wishing for more from the previously mentioned cast members.

It took until 1971 for the film to be released in America, to which it found itself under the alternate title of Island of the Burning Damned and paired on a nationwide double bill with Godzilla’s Revenge (1969). Although as title changes go, my favourite would be its Italian guise as Demoni Di Fuoco with a demonic Christopher Lee accompanied by a deathly stare adorning the artwork.

BIG HEAT 003For Odeon’s release of this film (also available on Blu-ray) we have a commentary moderated by Marcus Hearn (author; The Authorised History of Hammer Films) that features Christopher Lee as well as husband and wife scripters Jane and Pip Baker. It’s a great commentary – but for those upgrading from their DD Video edition from ten years ago it is the very same one. Topics discussed include Lee’s lack of desire to ever watch Coronation Street, the Nuremberg Trials and the occasional emotionally charged story about Peter Cushing. There’s also a 19 minute Christopher Lee interview – but sadly this is out of synch by about two seconds. Odeon have said they’ll replace these discs with their new pressing, but I have to admit it was a disappointing part of a highly anticipated release.

Night of the Big Heat does come recommended, but the lack of quality control on the extras as well as little transparency on the box – commentary is just listed as ‘audio commentary’ -means that this release is undoubtedly disappointing. Frustratingly, oversights such as these can often overshadow the feature that has been brought to the fore here, and that’s a shame, as for all its faults Night of the Big Heat deserves a contemporary audience reappraisal which will certainly win it a new following.

Film: 7 out of 10

Extras: 4 out of 10

Extras:

  • Audio commentary moderated by Marcus Hearn, featuring Christopher Lee and Jane & Pip Baker
  • Christopher Lee interview (19 mins)

 

The Gentlemen of Horror at The Phoenix Artist Club – A Review !

gentlemanofhorrorThe Gentlemen of Horror at The Phoenix Artist Club , London.

Part of the Camden Fringe 2014

Before you read any further, it should be made abundantly clear to you that it is the aim of this review to try to persuade as many people as possible (for their own benefit) to go and see The Gentlemen of Horror. Which might be a bit difficult, as its current run at the Phoenix Artist Club (just off Charing Cross Road in London) comes to an end on 07th August.

The Camden Fringe production chronicles, via a series of five conversations, the friendship between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, from its inception, through to its latter stages, around the time Cushing was diagnosed with the prostate cancer which would eventually kill him.
Cleverly, each of the conversations takes place on the set of a different film, giving a nice extra dimension to the chronology of the piece. Scene one takes place during filming of The Curse of Frankenstein (Cushing and Lee’s first real collaboration), with Cushing one of the most famous people in Britain and Lee a complete unknown. Cushing is accommodating and magnanimous, despite his fame, whilst Lee is an awkward and stiff ex-spy, who shows glimpses of a sharp sense of humour as he becomes more at ease with Cushing’s company.

As the play moves on, the characters and their friendship develop with age, Cushing eventually becoming a nervous old man, mourning the death of his beloved wife, Helene (“I’m no longer a romantic lead”), whilst Lee grows ever more disillusioned with the limitations of a horror genre which he finds distasteful and never really wanted to be a part of.

James Goss’ thoughtful script brings to life the nuances of the evolving friendship and has plenty of humorous touches along the way, including a topical Jimmy Saville joke, which takes the edge off a particularly sad exchange. Together with Kate Webster’s light handed and empathetic direction, this gives the actors something to really work with and, as a cast of two in a series of five dialogues, work they do. And herein lies the strength of the current production.

pccl

The *real* Mr Cushing & Lee !!

Although the two leads, Matthew Woodcock (Cushing) and William McGeough (Lee) bear little physical resemblance to their characters, they bring them to life in a fun and engaging manner. Woodcock stumbles over his words on a couple of occasions during this performance, but such is the strength of his (and McGeough’s) performance, that there is no detrimental effect to the whole.

At around an hour-long, The Gentlemen of Horror doesn’t outstay its welcome and, rather than spending the final minutes wishing for some respite for their backsides, the audience are left yearning for more. The use of audio from lurid Hammer trailers in between scenes serves not only as a playful addition to the atmosphere, but also provides an interesting juxtaposition against the polite and mild personalities of the two men who possibly did the most to make those movies so popular. As the world of horror changes in the 70s and 80s, those personalities start to be alienated even further from their genre; to paraphrase one of Lee’s lines, “Have you seen what they’re doing in America? Horror’s no place for gentlemen anymore.”

If you can get down this week, please do; the Phoenix Artists’ Club is an amazing space, intimate and cosy, in the depths of the basement under the Phoenix Theatre. The gents’ is under one of those thick glass squares in the pavement and, as the world passes overhead, it gives you a real sense of being hidden away.

But it doesn’t matter where you see it, because I suspect The Gentlemen of Horror will be brilliant in any venue.

9/10

Show taking place at The Phoenix Artist Club
1 Phoenix Street
off Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 8BU
Sat 2 August 2014 1:00pm
Sun 3 August 2014 3:00pm
Mon 4 August 2014 9:00pm
Tue 5 August 2014 9:00pm
Wed 6 August 2014 9:00pm
Thu 7 August 2014 9:00pm
Book tickets via www.camdenfringe.com

An Interview with Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) by Andy Deen

WICKERMAN_QUADAn Interview with Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) by Andy Deen.

Conducted at The Stockport Hat Museum – 2nd October 2013 (Robin’s 84th Birthday – despite what Wiki says ) . 

 

UKHS) What has been your experience during the restoration and release of The Wicker Man – Final Cut?

 

RH) Well from my point of view which is obviously authorial , it has been a very good experience and has been helped by the fact that the film has had this cult over the years otherwise I would never have been given the opportunity, as it all costs a great deal of money. This is also added to the fact that Canal Plus who own the rights to the film have decided to re-launch the film , not only in the UK but also in the USA so it was a case of preparing the final cut for the cinema , not just for DVD and BluRay. This was very interesting as I had not thought before that we would ever release The Wicker Man in cinemas again. It is extraordinarily unusual for films to be re-launched in the cinema in fact it is almost unheard of, so that pleased me very much obviously as it gives the film a whole new re-birth . It has a huge distribution coming up in The States and since it was originally rescued in the States I am very pleased with that.

 

 

UKHS) I suppose technology has now helped in the restoration , and how different was it from the last restoration in 2001?

 

RH) The last time we had a print to make the missing 5 minutes but we had to restore it from that print through a series of internegatives by something called the liquid gate process so we literally did every single frame . There was a curious piece of machinery that was used which looked like a piece of ancient Roman artillery , which was a camera projector so you could shoot each frame and it took forever (laughs) . And even after all that it still looked very grainy indeed , but I never really minded about the grain as they are all night scenes anyway. But now with all the digital possibilities it has been much quicker and very more successful.

 

 

thewickerman_lordsummerisleUKHS) Many people call The Wicker Man a horror film , however I think it transcends that into maybe a murder mystery, a thriller or almost times a musical. It does though make me laugh as much as say a comedy. What would be your definition of The Wicker Man?

 

RH) Well I think we have a right to think that our Pagan ancestors were very much like us, they liked to dance and sing and get drunk , tell jokes and also have a laugh . So recreating (as we tried to do) that sort of society all those aspects of normal life should be there. They were not inhibited by things like sex which really only came in with Christianity , so one needs to show it and we do I think but not to excess. Using the songs as dialogue was something that I particularly liked , but I suppose that is my personal preference. I wouldn’t say it is a musical , but that we used the songs as actual dialogue. I would actually call The Wicker Man a black comedy.

 

 

UKHS) Edward Woodward plays a deeply religious man who cannot be shaken from his beliefs . Do you think The Wicker Man was ever perceived as an anti-Christian or anti-religious film? And indeed was that your intention?

 

RH) No never , not at all. When we were distributing it through the States we took it through the “bible belt” and the distributors that were with us were all amateurs who had come from university and were doing this as a project really. To mine and to Christopher Lee’s (who was with us) surprise we attended what in the States are called “bible breakfasts” . A bible breakfast consists of going to some convention hotel and all sitting around with ministers and priests , then someone will say grace and all that and then they would watch the film. The thing about it was that they had very rarely seen a film that actually spoke of the resurrection. And the Christian scenes at the end before Howie gets burned , where it is spoken that Howie will get something quite rare – a martyrs death – is something that they all recognised as from their own religion and for that reason they were almost selling it from the pulpit (laughs). And also with Willow’s dance people often ask well why were they not offended by that and her nakedness, well they were not that stupid . I mean it is just a dance and she has nothing on , big deal you know and it is quite tastefully done (at this moment Robin leans back and gives me what can only be described as the cheekiest smirk you could imagine). I think that obviously it is not a Christian film , but is a film in which Christianity Is explored along with Paganism and I believe fairly thoroughly.

 

 

wickermansigned

(my Wicker Man wooden boxset now signed by Robin – lovely stuff)

 

Now I did ask Robin about his final film in the Wicker trilogy . After The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree . BUT my portable recording device was hit with some interference and I was unable to hear clearly the final (only 1 minute) of the interview.

 

I will say that Robin is pushing ahead with the third film named The Wrath of The Gods . It is where finally the gods will get their comeuppance . It is loosely based on the final act of Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera and has been written and Robin does have a cast in mind . He laughed when he said all he needs now is the funding !!

It is a shame the final minute cut out but I hope you get the drift.

 

It was a dream come true to interview Robin Hardy and can I just say what an absolute gentleman he is and I could have sat in his company the entire evening . Also well done to the Grimmfest team for the whole evening which saw The Wicker Man screened in all it’s glory at the wonderful Stockport Plaza.  

The Wicker Man (1973) Review

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

Dir. Robin Hardy

Optimum Releasing

Heres a little confession, before reviewing this classic I hadn’t actually seen it. Yes, I know! 28 years old and I had never seen The Wicker Man before, oh the shame. Now, to the movie itself…

The plot centres around Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he does the rounds on a small, isloated island named Summerisle looking for a missing girl. He questions all the locals (who fit the stereotype of “We don’t like strangers around these parts” brilliantly) but frustratingly gets no where, even the girls mother doesn’t seem overly concerned.

What Howie discovers is that the residents all take part in odd rituals and seem to worship some form of Pagan god, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). As Howie gets closer to the truth, he gets closer to a disturbing encounter with the ritual-happy folk of the island.

The Wicker Man is a film that does not rely on silly over the top scenes to drive home the message that the cult on Summerisle is dangerous. The only real ‘extreme’ bit of worship is the infamous end scene that lends the movie its title. The tension builds as Howie becomes more and more dismayed by the island dwellers lack of a Christian faith to the point he babbles endless prayers as the film ends.

There is something to this, Howie constantly expressing his anger that they do not follow the mainlands beliefs, that suggests director Robin Hardy has used it as a subliminal message for a purpose that isnt quite clear. Is it his attack at the ‘flower power’ hippies of the previous decade? Or is it his genuine views alone that he is putting into his film?

One thing that stands out is the soundtrack. There are some unique hymns and folk music throughout the movie (usually sung by the cult members) that are very catchy and stick in the mind. During the notorious end scene the cult join hands and sing joyfully and it is this display of sheer happiness at the madness they have caused which creates a feeling of real unease. The singing gives the impression that what these people are doing is seen in their eyes as totally acceptable. Some of the songs were written especially for The Wicker Man.

When it comes to acting the stars of the movie are Woodward and Lee. They seem the embodiment of each others beliefs. Howie as the Christian crusader and Lord Summerisle as the pagan cult leader. It seems that both actors know what their character believes in and are genuinely the one in the right.The dialogue exchanged by the two in the end scene is a great example of this. After Lee has explained what is happening and why (mainly to do with the god of the fields) Howie shouts at Lee that he is wrong, telling him his God doesn’t mean anything.

This is a key scene to the religious theme of the movie as Howie is outnumbered by the cult members, whereas in the past they would have been outnumbered if they went to the mainland. In the past they may have been laughed at or ignored for their faith but in Summerisle they are the norm and it is a key moment of empowerment. Woodward’s whole performance is outstanding as he fights a losing battle.

The theme can be applied to the UK of today: a Christian church threatened by other, smaller, beliefs that undermine the long established norm. This could easily be said of the 21st century culture of change, female bishops and same sex marriage, that show faith is not at the centre of society and its once fixed meanings being in disarray.

The Wicker Man is still talked about 40 years on and it is a movie that stays in the viewers memory for more than the obvious reasons.

8 out of 10.