Welcome back, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World. Today, I have a tasty treat for you from the land of biscuits, tea, and calling french fries “chips.” Yes, we’re off to Jolly Olde England, that Green and Pleasant Land, as well as the surrounding United Kingdom for a little taste of horror. Tonight, I will present to you three films, by three different directors, three different writers, yet all organized around the same theme — that of unpleasant survivals from ancient times — and thus perfectly suited for your next thematically-organized video marathon (What? You mean you don’t have those? Start, then, post-haste).
THE WICKER MAN (1973) — Alright, alright, let’s get it out of the way. All together now: “KILLING ME WON’T BRING BACK YOUR GODDAMNED HONEY!” There, now there’s a load off. While the 2006 remake starring Nicholas “Batshit Insanity” Cage is widely lauded as one of the worst movies ever made, the 1973 original is a masterpiece of suspense and understated, elegant horror.
Directed by Robin Hardy from a script by Anthony Shaffer, THE WICKER MAN stars Edward Woodward as Police Sergeant Howie, who has come to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate a missing persons case — a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has allegedly gone missing. Strangely, however, the natives of Summerisle are reticent to help the Sergant, even asserting that Rowan Morrison never existed.
Howie soon meets with the cheerful, charismatic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, sporting incredible sideburns and a kilt) who rules the island community. Lord Summerisle makes things perfectly clear for Howie — Summerisle is a pagan community, having rejected Christianity in favor of a purer, older faith, a sort of druidic nature worship as practiced in the British Isles before the coming of the Romans.
Piecing things together, Howie comes to the conclusion that Rowan isn’t missing — she’s scheduled to be sacrificed, burned alive in the Wicker Man, on May Day to ensure a bountiful harvest; and May Day is tomorrow! But can the stuffy, uptight Howie save her…and himself?
To put it bluntly, Brothers and Sisters, this is one of my very few “Perfect Films.” Everything about this film works for me. The casting is spot on — Edward Woodward as the stuffy, prudish Christian Howie, Lee as the carefree and jovial Lord Summerisle, Britt Ekland as the sensual, naked, dancing innkeeper’s daughter. Everyone fits perfectly in their roles. Costume design is magnificent, set design is glorious, and the music! The music! The music makes this film all the better, readers, with its lilting folk melodies echoing with pagan sentiment.
Before I move on to the next film, I want to leave you with one consideration: Who’s the villain in THE WICKER MAN? The way the story is told leaves the viewer very unsure who to root for. Sergeant Howie is nominally the hero, the British police officer trying to find a young girl who has gone missing. But at the same time, he breaks into buildings, steals film negatives, is generally dislikable and insults and berates the townsfolk for their way of life at every opportunity, a way of life that has, by all accounts, resulted in a fairly idyllic agrarian society under the gentle guidance of the cheerful Lord Summerisle. But at the same time, this idyllic agrarian society conceived and executed a massively complex conspiracy to lure in the appropriate sacrifice. Taking the “Summerisle as Villain” approach results in a fairly straightforward story, but turning it on its head and taking the “Howie as Villain” perspective reminds me of Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I Am Legend. Like Robert Neville, Sergeant Howie is trapped in a world where he is unwelcome, a freakish atavism that no longer has its place.
RAWHEAD REX (1986) — We jump now from a pagan island off the coast of Scotland to the Emerald Isle for this film, written by Clive Barker from a story by Clive Barker, and directed by George Pavlou. This is actually the film that convinced Clive Barker to get really actively involved in filmmaking, leading to the production of HELLRAISER.
Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes) is an American in Ireland, photographing churches for a book he’s writing. In one particular church in a forgotten corner of Eire, he discovers a strange stained glass window, depicting the imprisonment of a hulking demon. He also encounters a particularly snide verger, Declan O’Brien. Shortly thereafter, a nearby farmer has a giant, phallic stone monolith removed from his field, resulting in a demon identical to that in the stained glass window erupting from the ground.
This demon, Rawhead Rex, begins his bloody rampage across Ireland — strangely, killing only men. Women, especially pregnant women, seem to frighten the muscle-bound ogre. He even eviscerates Hallenbeck’s young son, just moments before Hallenbeck can try to intervene.
It is eventually revealed, through the agency of Verger Declan (who has become a thrall of Rawhead’s, in a truly impressive “baptism by urine” sequence) that this supposed “demon” is something of a forgotten god, having dwelt in Ireland since long before the time of Christ, and his time has come again. Christian symbolism does nothing to deter Rawhead — because he is the physical embodiment of the Male Principle, of which the Abrahamic God, and by extension Jesus Christ, is a later refinement. Trying to stop Rawhead with a strongly-brandished crucifix would be like trying to banish Count Orlock by beaning him in the head with a thrown TWILIGHT DVD.
Being pure rampaging testosterone, Rawhead’s one weakness is the Female Principle — he can’t attack pregnant women because he’s terrified of the Almighty Uterus. But how is Howard Hallenbeck supposed to use that to stop Rawhead’s rampage?
For me, a big part of this film is carried by Ronan Wilmot’s performance as the fanatic, bitter Verger Declan O’Brien. He gets the best lines of dialogue in the whole film (I’m partial to “Up the stairs, Fuckface. I don’t want to keep God waiting,” as well as when he screams “FOR YOOOOUUUUUUU! FOR YOOOOUUUUUU!” while setting police cars on fire), he gets half-drowned in Rawhead’s urine, and outside of Rawhead himself, he’s the most memorable character in the film.
Cliver Barker was reportedly largely disappointed at the way his script (and original novella) was toned down for the film, especially in terms of mellowing the sexual, psychological, and religious themes he explored. In the original story, Rawhead Rex is a giant, enraged penis rampaging through Ireland — an oversized head atop a narrow stem of a body, with a wide slit of a mouth. That’s how undiluted an embodiment of Male Principle he is. For the movie, he was transmuted into a Dungeons and Dragons Ogre on steroids. He even has skull-shaped epaulets. I want skull-shaped epaulets. On the other hand, he’s wearing pants, and I just can’t imagine an embodiment of pure masculinity ever being constrained by trousers. Maybe a kilt, and only for formal occasions, and always free-balling beneath it. A man’s boys have to breathe, y’know?
THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988) — Written and directed by the recently-deceased Ken Russell, adapted from a novel by Bram “Dracula is my only legacy” Stoker, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM is a delirious blend of gothic sensibility, modern sexuality, and trippy, hallucinogenic visuals — in short, an amazingly good time, captured on film.
Angus Flint is a Scottish archaeology student, digging up a plot of land under a bed-and-breakfast in rural England. He discovers the remains of a pre-Christian temple, and a mysterious, reptilian skull. That night, at a party thrown by the local Lord, James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant, before he went all RomCom on us), Angus learns the story of the D’Ampton Worm, a serpentine monster reputed to have once terrorized the area, until being slain by Lord John D’Ampton, James’ ancestor.
Meanwhile, not far away, the incredibly sensual Lady Sylvia is stirring. Learning of the skull, she wants it for herself. You see, she is the last surviving priestess/coven-member of Dionin, a pre-Christian snake-god that once ruled the area, until its priesthood was slain and temples destroyed by the Roman invaders. She’s unbelievable, really — every other sentence out of her mouth is innuendo, and she’s something of an ophidian version of a vampire — she has a disturbing tendency to sprout two-inch fangs during sexy-times, even delivering an envenomed bite to a young man’s tallywhacker. I didn’t cringe as much as I did watching the cock-biting scene in TOKYO GORE POLICE, but it’s close enough.
The skull Angus found is something of a holy relic to the Dionin cult, which Lady Sylvia is restarting. And most importantly, the reborn serpent god Dionin needs a tasty, tasty virgin sacrifice to regain his old power…and Eve Trent, one of the co-owners of the bed-and-breakfast Angus dug up, is absolutely suitable. Can Angus (in a kilt, natch) and Lord James crush the power of the White Worm once and for all?
All the uncomfortable sexuality left unspoken in RAWHEAD REX is brought right out in the open in LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. From the paralytic blowjob to the S&M fetish gear Lady Sylvia lounges around in to the fact that she puts on a spear-headed strap-on to sacrifice Eve to Dionin…Seriously, the strap-on is one of the most terrifying pieces of fetish gear I’ve ever seen, and I’ve made the rounds on the Internet.
Additionally, every sort of serpent reference possible is crammed into this film — Lady Sylvia and a hitchhiker play “Snakes and Ladders” (the traditional name of Chutes and Ladders), she sucks the venom out of a policeman’s leg after he’s bitten (though she makes a thrall of him in the process), and of course the very fact that a virgin named Eve is being sacrificed to a very phallic serpentine god. It’s really incredibly thorough in terms of snake references.
Actually, I think what I enjoyed most was the very clear reference to one of my favorite old English legends — that of the Lambton Worm. According to legend (and recounted via incredible rock/techno/morris dancing at Lord James’ party), John Lambton was a dissolute, impious youth, who went fishing on Sunday when he should have been in church. He hooked an ugly little eel-like creature and, not liking the look of it, he threw it down a well. He grew up, went off to fight in the Crusades…meanwhile, the worm grew too, and eventually slithered out of the well and began eating livestock and children. Any attempt to kill it failed as its flesh knitted back together as quickly as it was cut. Returning home from the Crusades, John Lambton realized this was his fault, and sets out to destroy the beast, using specially-designed bladed armor. He fights the Worm in the same river he originally caught it in, and the snaky thing, coiling around him, cuts itself to ribbons and the pieces are carried away by the river before they can reconnect. Unfortunately, the slaying of the worm brings a curse — John must kill the first living being he sees, or his family will be cursed for nine generations to never die at home in their beds. Well, upon returning home, the first living being John sees is his father, whom he will not cut down. And the Lambton family was so cursed for nine generations…or so the story goes, at any rate.
There you have it. Three disparate films, linked by the common theme of pagan survivals lingering to the modern day in the British Isles. All three of which, I should add, are well worth a watch — THE WICKER MAN perhaps most of all, but all of them are treats in their own special ways.
Tags: Anthony Shaffer, Blood, bram stoker, Christopher Lee, Clive Barker, cults, Dionin, Edward Woodward, Female Principle, fertility, George Pavlou, Gore, Horror, Horror Movie, Hugh Grant, Ken Russell, Male Principle, Movie Reviews, pagan, paganism, Rawhead Rex, Reviews, Robin Hardy, Snakes, The Lair of the White Worm, the wicker man, vampires