Much has been made recently about the re-examination and sudden birth of “British folk horror” thanks in part to Mark Gatiss’ 2010 BBC documentary on the history of horror, aptly titled A History of Horror, in addition to a number of recent British films that mine the sub-categorization for reference, as in the work of Ben Wheatley who has offered two superb examples in Kill List and, most recently, A Field in England. What these films typically have in common is a setting in the English countryside, a fascination or outright association with paganism and folklore, and disjointed or odd narratives that climaxed in unexpected, and by extension terrifying, ways. While the concept has caught a more recent grounding in the works of directors like Wheatley, who draw on the ideas in an intentional way, the first-wave was not a direct line in concept or execution; few of the films had much in common beyond the very general descriptors alluded to, and the execution in many of the films was very different. Films like Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General (originally released in the U.S. in a horribly mangled form as The Conqueror Worm) were period pieces, but where the former was a supernatural tale that played up its pagan conceit the latter was a film that intentionally rebuked all forms of organized religion as means to deal directly in the horror of what man can mete out upon himself; this was in even starker contrast to a film like Psychomania that presented itself in then hyper-modern terms with its referencing of late ’60s British youth culture as a backdrop for its exploration of British folk horror’s themes. This becomes even clearer when looking at the re-release of the sub-category’s ultimate achievement, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man is intentionally confrontational in its presentation of anachronistic elements — there’s a constant struggle between how one places tradition and history into a relevant experience of modernity. The central figure of the film, British constable Sergeant Neil Howie, is already a stranger in the world he lives in due to his conservative Christian beliefs being at odds with the changing nature of society thanks to the ’60s, but his relative sense of authority, derived from his position as a figure enforcing laws and precepts based in a Judeo-Christian grounding, becomes further upended when he arrives on the island of Summerisle. The village not only questions Howie’s authority but also the verify basis on which its exists because of their pagan beliefs. The film then extends this anachronistic antagonism beyond the simple thematic context into its presentation by offering Summerisle as a place out of time, existing as of-the-moment (for 1973) because it refuses to acknowledge a specific moment. The dress and design were wholly modern for the time, but the village customs and ceremonial garb could have come from any of British folk horror’s period pieces. This has the effect of positioning Howie as not only a man existing outside of his own world, a place he was strange in to begin with, but as almost completely alien to the timeless nature of Summerisle. And while that’s a place where most movies would rest their case and call it a day, this is where The Wicker Man begins.
To say that The Wicker Man is a dense film would be an understatement. The film wrestles with a number of large concepts, and the new cut of the film does little to help make understanding it any easier; but that is not a criticism, as the film challenges the viewer instead of simply throwing large ideas at them without any purpose. Whereas in most horror movies Howie would be a clearly defined victim and/or eventual hero, he is not given that luxury here. He is as much aggressor as he is aggrieved. We never doubt the inhabitants of Summerisle are up to something, but Howie’s escalating hostility negates any sympathy he might normally have drawn by the time we reach the film’s stunning finale — and what a finale it is, probably one of the few genuinely chilling examples of the true banality of evil captured on film.
As alluded to, this newest cut of the film, deemed the “final cut,” does not change anything if you are already familiar with Lord Summerisle and his followers, especially since most of this “new” footage has been available for years in various edits of the film that have floated around tape-trading communities and the Internet. The one big disappointment with the new cut of the film is that it still is not Hardy’s longer, definitive edit, which is sadly something we will probably never see. That said, do not let this discourage you from going out and seeing The Wicker Man if you are a fan of horror, or film more generally. It offers a uniquely cold worldview in its handling of its character, but an ultimately rich viewing experience when placed into the context of the larger movement of British films it has become attached to. British folk horror may be seeing a resurgence in popularity but only time will tell if anyone is able to match its original achievement.
The Wicker Man will open on Friday, November 8, 2013, at Ritz on the Bourse.