Flesh to touch, flesh to burn.

31 October, 2008

As gut-bustingly funny as the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man is, it’s a pity that most Americans instantly associate that film with the title as opposed to the original, which is nothing short of a horror movie classic, and inasmuch as it is Halloween, I thought I would dedicate today’s blog entry to this majestic little film.

Today, when one thinks of horror, images from Saw leap to mind, as though the point of horror is to be as disgusting as possible. It’s all about the short-term shock factor. But the definition of horror is this: “An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear.” Does the torture porn that passes as horror really invoke those feelings in you? Violence without context or content is boring; Filmmakers like Hitchcock and Kubrick understood this. Horror must penetrate the viewer’s mind and bomb it with thoughts of violence or destruction or terror.

So what makes The Wicker Man such an effective piece of horror? There is no blood or gore whatsoever. There are no monsters to speak of. In fact, not once did I ever have the urge to jump out of my seat and scream. However, The Wicker Man does something to the viewer that all aspiring horror filmmakers need to learn as quickly as possible: It never sacrifices the element of reality. The world of Summerisle is palpable. I believe every moment of it. Therefore, when the surprise twist is sprung on us, my jaw hits the ground and I leave the film with a dazed look on my face.

Part of the reason why this film works is the level of research that went into it. Unlike Mr. LaBute, director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer didn’t just pull some half-assed shit together about bees and lesbians. They actually understood how the Druids lived and what they believed in. In fact, one of their starting points on the project was the idea of the old English religion reemerging in the face of the new one: The Church of England. We watch with horror as Sgt. Neil Howie’s Christianity has its ultimate clash with Lord Summerisle’s Paganism in the picture’s grim finale because we are never left with a safe position to take on the matter. One of them could be right. Both of them could be wrong. Either way, this is no Hollywood ending.

Forget the lack of screams or senseless massacres. This is the essence of horror. And even if parts of the film have aged horribly — Namely the soundtrack, as much as I enjoy most of it. — the substance of the story being told is what makes 1973’s Wicker Man a timeless classic to behold.

P.S. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I implore you to get ahold of the extended version. It includes 11 minutes that were butchered out by the studio when they wanted to make the film more accessible, particularly to those with the attention span of an ant. The scenes haven’t been fully restored because the negatives went missing — Yeah, this movie got fucked over all right. — but it makes the story more complete and therefore more effective.

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