Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Souring of Samhain?

Homegrown pumpkin carved by yours truly
Hallowe'en has long been a bugbear for Christians, but now it seems that Pagans are starting to feel troubled by it as well. In the latest issue of Pagan Dawn, the journal of the Pagan Federation, the editor has the following to say:
Talking with friends about their plans for Samhain, I hear more an more concerns about the creeping commercialisation of the season. The pernicious march of globalisation brings in its wake a wave of bland Americana. It is not that we expect everyone to celebrate just as we do, or that we object to our children dressing up and making mischief. It is the loss of what makes this season special, even sacred...
Later on in the same publication, a Pagan policeman, peeved by the difficulty he experiences in getting time off to celebrate Samhain on a night in which "the police almost have to double their presence", views the last day of October from a law and order perspective:
Something stirs in the communal psyche, making people think throwing flour, eggs and conkers at houses, cars and passers-by is perfectly acceptable, and making demands with menaces on the doorstep of the vulnerable or elderly is okay.
I'm not talking about the usual trick-or-treaters, hyped up on a year's worth of sugar and herded by exhausted parents; I'm talking about people in their late teens in 99p masks wanting money.
Instead of Hallowe'en being the holy day Catholicism hoped for, it has become a confused conglomeration of indigenous elements, American commercialism and criminality in which neither Pagan roots nor Catholic interpretation play a part.
The rise of Hallowe'en in England has certainly been phenomenal. When I was a child in the 1970's, it was a barely noticeable blip before the big excitement of Guy Fawke's Night. I remember once making a desultory attempt at apple-bobbing before concluding that it was a pointless exercise. I first encountered "trick or treating" in M for Mischief, a disappointing American children's novel that I purchased from the Scholastic Book Club at school. The cultural reference was as lost on me as the title's allusion to Hitchcock.

Although the Americanised version of Hallowe'en originally crossed the Atlantic via horror movies such as John Carpenter's eponymous 1978 slasher, its popularity has been promoted by capitalism's need to sell sugary sweets by the bucketload and to fill Chinese container ships with an endless supply of plastic novelties bound for Britain's pound shops. Many families now decorate their houses with artificial spiders' webs and other spooky paraphenalia, and TV soap operas run extended Hallowe'en specials. "Firework Night" now extends for a minimum of two weeks and the Gunpowder Plot has almost been forgotten about due to competition from vampires and zombies. (A strong exception to this is the town of Lewes in Sussex, where the sectarian tradition is maintained with a vengeance, as crosses symbolising Protestant martyrs are paraded though the streets before effigies of Pope Paul V are ceremoniously incinerated along with modern-day bogeymen such as Vladimir Putin and Alex Salmond.)

Martyrs remembered in Lewes

For myself, I am starting to find Hallowe'en quite irritating, although I am not afflicted by the Columbophobia that many of its critics appear to be stricken with. It's the commercialism that rankles, of course. Added to which, I find it rather odd that parents who spend their rest of the year telling their children not to speak to strangers spend the evening of October 31st encouraging them to knock on other people's doors to scrounge sweets and other goodies. As our friend the Pagan plod notes, Hallowe'en has become a night of fear for many elderly people, who resort to switching off the lights and pretending that no one is in. Similarly, the extended bombardment of fireworks is dreaded by pet-owners; it used to be a simple matter to keep the cat in on the night of November 5th.

Both Halloween and Samhain are modern festivals in their current form. Neo-paganism dates back to the 1950's and its imaginative reconstructions of ancient customs hardly count as traditional to a nominal member of the C of E such as myself - even if I did once dabble with a feminist Samhain ritual from The Spiral Dance in a Bournemouth bedsit many years ago (its creator Starhawk is one American importation that British Pagans do not seem to object to).

As for the demise of Guy Fawke's Night, perhaps it is just as well that ancient communalist grudges have been forgotten, and the Bin Laden of the 17th Century is now acquiring the status of an anti-capitalist icon. One recalls T.S. Eliot's horror of the event, which led to him writing The Hollow Men. The custom of "a penny for the old guy", in which children used to show off their straw-stuffed effigies in an attempt to raise money was a precursor to "trick or treating". (If the practice survives at all nowadays, it is carried out with minimal effort and involves sitting on the ground outside of a supermarket next to an old jumper filled with screwed-up newspaper.)

The root of the matter is that, in a society wholly devoted to neoliberalism, the dominant culture gives its adherents little to celebrate beyond the acquisition of physical objects and narcissistic ego gratification. Still it is important to remember that there is a wider world out there, and what Pagans call "the wheel of the year" is turning. Hallowe'en takes place at an evocative point in the natural cycle and its mystery can still be sensed. Rather than rampaging around city streets with pissed-up sexy witches and tomato ketchup-splattered serial killers, it might be more satisfying to go for a long walk in the country and then settle down in front of the fire with Ray Bradbury's classic Hallowe'en fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

(The photographs in this post were taken by the ever-delightful Eleanor Sopwith, the missing link between Ansel Adams and Morticia Addams.)

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Emanations 2 + 2 = 5

Emanations 2 + 2 = 5 is now available from UK and US Amazon, as well as direct from Createspace. This handsome 594-page anthology from International Authors highlights the work of 60 writers and illustrators from across the globe. It is edited by Carter Kaplan and its striking cover was painted by Ruud Antonius.

Dr Kaplan informs me that the Herculean labours involved in assembling such a giant tome and dealing with hunts for errant punctuation marks and unreasonable demands for last-minute rewrites from a certain author have turned him into a pale and trembling husk of his former self. He has gratefully accepted the Marxist Revolutionary Party's kind offer of a free off-season rest cure at Squalling Sands, its exclusive holiday resort on the unspoilt north-west coast of England. Here he will be able to contemplate the endless grey dunes, dust off his dialectics and rebuild his shattered constitution in calm surroundings untroubled by the cares of the publishing world.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Necronomania Redux!

Having recovered from the cancellation of 'Honey West', Necronomania is about to recommence transmissions...

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Save Honey West!

Billed as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Mike Hammer, female private investigator Honey West appeared in a series of nine novels written by husband and wife team Forest E. (Skip) and Gloria Fickling, under the combined pseudonym G. G. Fickling, between 1957 and 1964. The books are light, entertaining affairs full of tongue-in-cheek humour, inspired by the wisecracking tales of lascivious detective Shell Scott penned by the Ficklings' friend Richard S. Prather (who was not convinced that a feminine counterpart would work)

Skip and Gloria Fickling with Anne Francis

In 1965-1966 the ABC Honey West TV series ran for a single season, starring Anne Francis as the eponymous heroine. Produced by Aaron Spelling the series was a spin-off from the successful Burke's Law, in which Honey had featured as a guest character for a single episode.

After a couple of comeback novels in 1971 and 1972 Honey West drifted off into pop culture limbo until 2007 when there were rumour of a proposed feature film.. Unfortunately this came to nothing, but in 2010 Moonstone Books revived the character in comic book form, launching a series of products that included Volume 1 of The Honey West Files, an omnibus reprint of three original G. G. Fickling novels.

With the publication of A Girl and her Cat, the first Honey West novel for over 40 years, teaming her up with T.H.E. Cat, a popular late 1960's TV hero (whose show was graced with a pre-Mission Impossible Lalo Schifrin score!) and with Honey for Hire, an all-new collection of tales by different authors, in the pipeline, everything appeared to be going well for Honey. That is, until the following announcement recently appeared on Facebook:


Attention all Moonstone readers, fans, collectors, freelancers, relatives, facebook friends, pets, & all!

If you have enjoyed what we do, and especially our HONEY WEST books, we would so appreciate hearing from you (and your ocelot).

You have probably heard about various TV shows being saved from cancellation by fans writing in: Star Trek being the most famous of the bunch.
This is kind of the same thing concerning HONEY WEST...first female private eye of both literature and TV.

If you would like to see more HONEY WEST, please email us and let us know...feel free to say what you like about what we have done.

Just email us at:, tell us what you like, and just give us your name, city, and state.

ALL email addresses will be held by us as confidential.

If we can accumulate enough emails to succeed, we will put all of the emails into a random raffle, and give away cool prizes to the top winners!

Thank you all so much for all of the support over the years! 

So why should Honey West be saved? As the first female Private Eye ever to appear in popular fiction and on the small screen, she is an iconic character.* While she has an annoying tendency in the novels to suffer from wardrobe dysfunctions at inopportune moments (the maximum amount of titillation that allowable in the late 1950s), which detracts somewhat from her value as a feminist role model, this was rectified in the T.V. series. Influenced by The Avengers, the show depicted Honey sensibly-dressed for the purposes of practising martial arts licks against a succession of mainly male villains. Other innovations included her animal companion Bruce the ocelot and male assistant Sam Bolt, who played a distinctly subsidiary role in a relationship that was refreshingly devoid of 'romantic interest'.
MAD magazine parody of Honey West T.V. series (1965)
Despite its innovative qualities, the Honey West T.V. show fell victim to changing fashions and only lasted for one season as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hit the screens and 'private eyes' of either gender suddenly seemed hopelessly dated.** The Ficklings had responded to the spy revolution ushered in by James Bond by enlisting Honey as an espionage agent battling foes such as nuclear submarine-equipped Nazis, but unfortunately Aaron Spelling chose to make this adaptation to Burke's Law instead, the third series of which was rebranded Amos Burke, Secret Agent

Drafted into a secret government agency and bereft of his team of sidekicks, Burke flopped miserably in his new role and the series was prematurely withdrawn after only seventeen episodes. In retrospect, it seems likely that Honey West, Secret Agent would have been a far more successful formula, particularly when one considers the Bond-style gadgetry employed by Honey and Sam and the high-kicking violence they were apt to mete out to their opponents, which could sometimes seem excessive when dealing with non-threatening criminals such as insurance fraudsters. 

For the comic series, Moonstone opted to retain aspects of the Anne Francis image, including Bruce the ocelot, but shifted Honey a few more years into the future in order to exploit a kitsch environment of hippies, drug dealers, freaky cults and B movie starlets. The result is a camp, groovy confection that holds great promise. The best story, Murder on Mars (in which Honey goes undercover during the filming of a low-budget sci-fi movie) was made into an award-winning audio-book dramatisation by the AudioComics Company.

Moonstone has a policy of adopting obscure and not-so-obscure pulp icons from the past and combining them into multi-character plots. This has been done to Honey West a few times, arguably detracting from her main standalone series. Personally I found Phases of the Moon, which found her in the company of Moonstone favourites Kolchak the Night Stalker, Sheena the Jungle Princess, Captain Action, The Spider, and Domino Lady to be quite disappointing with its clichéd sub-Lovecraftian plot. Honey's pairing with reformed burglar T. Hewitt Edward Cat made much better sense.

With such an attractive, iconic protagonist and her 1960s Californian setting, there is clearly plenty of scope for exciting plot developments. There is an aspect of Honey's history that has never been fully explored; the tragic murder of her father, from whom she inherited the detective agency. This opens the possibility of a darker, more noir Honey West that might be more in tune with modern sensibilities than the frivolous airport reads in which she first appeared.

Hopefully, Moonstone's appeal to the fans will be successful and the publisher will persevere with Honey West. At the very least, it would be nice to see the full run of G.G. Fickling novels back in print, as the original paperbacks now tend to be highly priced and are too fragile to enjoy reading. The ideal thing would be to see the comics come out as a monthly series, as interest in them inevitably flags when they only appear sporadically.

*  I have been corrected on this point - please read the comments.
**Since writing this I have read in Jon C. Fredriksen's excellent book on Honey West that at one stage there were plans for a second series filmed in colour, but this was abandoned for the simple reason that it was cheaper for the network to buy The Avengers  instead. Lukewarm viewing figures for the first season were the result of poor scheduling.

UPDATE (25.08.14):
The Moonstone website has removed all references to Honey West, so it would seem that the character has now been scrapped.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Myth of 'The Wicker Man'.

Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a Scottish policeman of high Christian ideals and intolerant attitudes, is lured to the remote, godless island of Summerisle by a mysterious letter reporting the alleged disappearance of a schoolgirl.  Appalled by the loose sexual attitudes and pagan practices of the island’s inhabitants, he becomes the hapless victim of a sinister game orchestrated by the resident autocrat, Lord Summerisle (Sir Christopher Lee).  As events reach a horrifying conclusion, he comes to realise that the hunter is really the hunted...

The legends surrounding The Wicker Man are part of the film's mystique.  A victim of industry politics, it was despised by studio executives and met with blank incomprehension when it was produced in 1973.  With director Robin Hardy barred from the cutting room, it was crudely pruned back to support feature length and eventually released in a double-bill with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back.  Star Christopher Lee became The Wicker Man's greatest champion, claiming that it was the best film he had ever made and complaining to anyone who would listen about the desecration of his masterpiece.  Rumours and conspiracy theories abounded about missing scenes, boardroom machinations and cans of excised celluloid buried deep beneath the M3 motorway.

These mysteries were solved to a limited extent by the appearance of The Director’s Cut in 2006.  Rediscovered sequences (obtained from Roger Corman in the USA) were spliced back in to recreate what Robin Hardy claimed were his original intentions.   Taken from a video source, the restored scenes were of distractingly poor quality, but were nevertheless welcomed by fans, who continued to hope that even more footage was waiting to be found.   There was therefore much excitement when, after a well-publicised search for missing materials, it was announced that The Wicker Man – The Final Cut was to appear in time for the film's fortieth anniversary.  

Surprisingly, The Wicker Man – The Final Cut turned out not to be anything new.  Shorter than The Director’s Cut, it is the previously known 'middle version’, assembled by Hardy in 1979 for American distributors Abraxas.  Given a limited theatrical run in the States, it was later broadcast by BBC 2 as the opening part of its Moviedrome series introduced by Alex Cox in 1988.  The current release has been sourced from a good quality 35mm print found at the Harvard Film Archives and is intended to be definitive. In interviews however, 84 year-old Hardy has not ruled out making further changes, so it would seem that the title The Final Cut is a provisional marketing tag rather than a name that relates meaningfully to the film.

So how do the versions compare?  First of all it must be said that, although not perfect, the visual quality of The Final Cut is vastly superior to that of The Director's Cut.  Some graininess remains in the nighttime sequences, but this is tolerable.  While it is not so long as its predecessor, this 'new' version contains all the key elements and tells a coherent story; something that the Theatrical Cut failed to do.

The biggest difference from The Director’s Cut is the omission of opening scenes on the mainland that show Howie interacting with police colleagues, which it plain that he is an object of their derision on account of his sexually-repressed religious views.   While many miss this sequence, I am inclined to agree with Hardy's opinion that it unnecessarily spells out aspects of Howie's character that viewers will quickly pick up from his behaviour on Summerisle.  He is depicted as a freak, out of step with his peers, reflecting perhaps Hardy and Shaffer's concern about how such an austere protagonist would be received by a 1970s’ audience.  From a personal point of view, I find that having Howie's personality defined in this way at the outset removes the pleasure of learning about him as the film progresses.  Interesting though it is, this section is really just 'special feature' material.

Sadly, The Final Cut is missing the black title card that reads:

With its playful suggestion that we are about to watch a documentary, this announcement is typical of the quirky touches that make The Wicker Man so unique and points to the confusion of genres that make it the ultimate 'cult movie'.  It also indicates the ethnographic care with which Shaffer and Hardy constructed Summerisle's pagan community.  Its loss is mitigated slightly by the inclusion of the 'Nuada' sun god image that is used highly appropriately at the beginning and end as the film's logo.

Before he sets out for Summerisle, we are shown a flashback sequence of Sergeant Howie at Holy Communion.  In interviews, Hardy has explained that he considered it be important that this scene was included at the beginning of the film so that it connects to the climax, emphasising the theme of religious sacrifice. In the butchered Theatrical Cut, the shots of Howie taking the sacrament are added later on to illustrate his spiritual conflict during the attempted seduction scene with 'landlord's daughter' Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland). I must confess a personal preference for the way the Theatrical Cut opens with Howie taking off in his seaplane and flying over the island. It is interesting to note how Hardy prioritises symbolism over pace.

Most importantly, The Final Cut clearly shows both nights of Howie's stay at Summerisle's inn 'The Green Man' and gives us an introductory sight of Lord Summerisle during his nocturnal visit with a young lad to be sexually initiated by the voluptuous Willow.   This includes his bizarre recital of a Walt Whitman poem over scenes of copulating snails.  An entire song that was criminally removed from Theatrical Cut, the beautiful 'Gently Johnny', has been restored.  On the negative side, there are some cuts that disrupt the music’s integrity, affecting the equally important 'Willow's Song'.

As mentioned, The Final Cut is undoubtedly the best-looking version of the film and, whether or not one prefers it to The Director’s Cut (and a perfunctory survey I have conducted among Wicker Man fans shows that the majority do not), it provides an ideal opportunity to reassess the film on its fortieth anniversary.  

In recent years The Wicker Man has been badly served by an ill-advised remake and follow-up; Nicolas Cage's ludicrously misogynistic 2006 version swiftly became an Internet joke and Hardy's own 'spiritual sequel' The Wicker Tree failed artistically in every respect that the original succeeded in. 

So what makes The Wicker Man so special?  Hardy and Shaffer originally conceived of it as an extension of their mutual interest in 'game-playing' and as a break from the Gothic clichés of 'Hammer horror'.  Inspired by the ''Obby 'Oss' festivities at Padstow in Devon, Hardy turned his attention to Sir George Frazer's classic yet controversial work of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough.  Leapfrogging through twelve dense volumes, he and Shaffer lifted religious and folkloric customs from disparate times and places to create an anachronistic amalgam to fit their ingenious plot, changing things and adding their own inventions when necessary.  The result is surprisingly successful; a manufactured Pagan belief system that feels authentic and strangely familiar.  The solar-mythological theme lends the story a deep archetypal resonance that lifts it into another dimension.

In the key scene in which Howie eventually meets up with Lord Summerisle, we learn that the island's Pagan religion is a bogus imposition, introduced by Summerisle's grandfather, a free-thinking Victorian scientist.   Attracted by the island's volcanic soil and its 'profuse source of wiry labour', he decides ‘to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods' so that they can toil happily in his orchards growing the new strains of apple that, like a Victorian version of Monsanto, he has artificially developed to produce fruit in this unpromising environment.

The current Lord Summerisle lays claims to genuinely believe in the island's reconstituted Paganism:

'What my grandfather had started out of expediency, my father continued out of love.  He brought me up the same way; to reverence the music and the drama and rituals of the old gods.  To love nature and to fear it, and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.'

Given that he is no ignorant villager and knows the real, scientific explanation of why apples grow on the island, is he to be trusted on this point?  Clearly the religion (in which he personally plays a key part) plays a huge ideological role in cementing the absolute control he seems to exert over the island's inhabitants.

Modern scholars have rejected The Golden Bough’s central thesis, along with the romantic notion that modern-day folk customs such as the 'Obby 'Oss are remnants of prehistoric religious practices.  The historical veracity of the 'Wicker Man' itself is open to challenge, as the only surviving account of Druidic beliefs and rituals is furnished by Julius Caesar, who may have had his own imperial motives for inventing or distorting things.  At any rate, Caesar's account of the 'Wicker Colossus' merely states that the preferred sacrifices were convicted criminals, whereas Hardy and Shaffer provide their own formulation:

'A man who would come here of his own free will.  A man who has come here with the power of a king by representing the law.  A man who would come here as a virgin.  A man who has come here as a fool.'

Given the context, these things do not matter.  It is easy to imagine that Summerisle's religion may have been concocted by a Victorian patriarch from the folkloric materials available to him.

The casting of The Wicker Man is superb.  The role of Lord Summerisle offered Christopher Lee an ideal opportunity to climb out of his Hammer Count Dracula rut, and he does so effortlessly, combining urbane charm and creepiness in equal proportions.  He is splendidly matched by Edward Woodward, whose total immersion in the role of Neil Howie is so convincing that people are sometimes surprised to learn he was not a Scotsman in real life.  Woodward gives a physical performance, deliberately ordering his police uniform a size too small to give the impression of pent-up muscular stiffness that could be an object lesson in Wilhelm Reich’s theory of character-armour.  He achieves the feat of first alienating the audience, but then turning it around in the final scenes, so that viewers completely empathise with him in extremis.  He is the linchpin of the film.

The supporting actors are also excellent, from the Scottish locals recruited to play Summerisle fishermen to the splendidly odd choice of Lindsay Kemp (Britain's foremost mime artist and one-time mentor/lover of the young David Bowie) to play camp publican Alder MacGregor.  Despite the lack of family resemblance, 'big name' of the moment Britt Ekland is appropriately nubile as his daughter Willow (even if her voice needed dubbing and the bottom on display is not really hers).  Diane Cilento also stands out as Miss Rose, the village school teacher and apparent paramour of Lord Summerisle. 

The one talent to be wasted is that of 'Hammer Glamour' goddess Ingrid Pitt, allegedly brought in against Shaffer and Hardy's wishes as a backfiring ploy to curry favour with the distributors.  Cast in the frumpish role of the Librarian, her sexuality is only exploited in a surreal 'Carry On' style scene in which Sergeant Howie comes across her naked in an old-fashioned tin bathtub.

Alongside Woodward and Lee, The Wicker Man's third star is undoubtedly Paul Giovanni, the composer of the soundtrack.  His contribution is so large that the film has been mischievously described as a 'stealth musical'.  It would not be the same without the songs and tunes that convey plot and atmosphere so effectively.  Eclectic and innovative, the soundtrack is inspired by everything from Scottish 'mouth music' to Victorian parlour songs and is distinguished by some unusual instrumentation and arrangements.  

Mainly diegetic, the music’s organic qualities are enhanced by the fact that its performers actually appear in the film.  Generically, it is a prime example of the type of folk rock explored by Michael Faber in his flawed yet fascinating book Electric Eden. The two songs recorded by Pentangle for Roddy McDowall's psychedelic folk-horror Tam Lin (also filmed in Scotland and released in 1970) are predecessors, but Giovanni's work is original and groundbreaking. Not all the songs are truly traditional, and some contain 'de-Bowdlerised' versions of folk lyrics penned by Anthony Shaffer's more famous playwright brother, Peter.  The tone varies from the coarse ribaldry of 'The Landlord's Daughter' to the haunting nuances of 'Willow's Song' and 'Gently Johnny', both of which exquisitely convey sensual yearning in keeping with a prelapsarian era of sexual freedom. 

Throughout most of the film, Sergeant Howie acts as a distorting lens, his rigid and unsympathetic personality colouring our view of the people and events he witnesses. Amused by his bumbling attempts to solve the mystery of Rowan Morrison, we are drawn into complicity with the islanders, although it is only at the end that we discover the extent of their manipulation.  Everything has been preplanned and scripted at Lord Summerisle’s behest to entrap their victim.

Still, from a modern perspective, are Howie’s responses really so unreasonable?  In many ways Summerisle harks back to the sexist values of the 1970s.  Would we feel comfortable when the male customers of 'The Green Man' crudely regale young Willow MacGregor with 'The Landlord's Daughter' and she smilingly plays along with them?  Would we really be happy to stumble across a graveyard full of what now would be called 'doggers' on an evening stroll?  How would we rate a school where a segregated class of pubescent girls is taught the virtues of phallic worship?  How on earth, in the post-Sir Jimmy Savile era, would we respond when Lord Summerisle leers out of the window at a group of naked teenagers and urges us to 'be open to the regenerative influences'?  

We may smirk at Howie's sexual discomfiture when he hears the landlord's daughter slapping her shapely physique against his bedroom wall, but would it really be sensible for him to succumb to her advances?  Quite apart from his religious beliefs, not only has he recently become engaged, but he is also a police officer on active duty.  If he gave into temptation, he would be opening himself to blackmail on an island where everyone is potentially a suspect in the case of a missing young girl.

An intriguing aspect of The Wicker Man is the way in which it inverted the social attitudes of its time.  The ‘traditional’ community of Summerisle mirrors the so-called ‘permissive society’ that was seen as a threat to public morals by religious conservatives in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In September 1971, the ‘Nationwide Festival of Light’, led by Christian luminaries such as Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard, lit bonfires and torches on hilltops across Britain and culminated in a 400,000 strong rally in Trafalgar Square.  In the words of journalist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge;

The purpose of the festival is that… the relatively few people who are responsible for this moral breakdown of our society will know that they are pitted against, not just a few reactionary people, but all the people in this country who still love this Light – the Light of the world.

By way of contrast, on Summerisle it appears to be Sergeant Howie who is the interloper whose alien values threaten the established order.  That is until the final scene, when we learn that the islanders have carefully selected him for his very peculiar characteristics.

The Golden Bough caused much controversy when it first appeared in 1890 because Frazer dared to include the Christian story in his ‘Study of Comparative Religion’, inviting the reflection that Jesus was merely another example of the dying and reviving god that he believed to have been central to most mythologies. Wedded to the earth goddess, this solar deity symbolised the agricultural cycle, dying at harvest time and being reborn in Spring.  His story was enacted through the sacrifice of a sacred king.  Shaffer and Hardy make this proposed link between Christianity and Paganism the centrepiece of their plot.

Shortly before Howie is bundled off to be burned in the Wicker Man, there is a short exchange between him and Lord Summerisle that shows there is a serpent in the latter’s twisted Eden.  Semi-mockingly, Summerisle offers Howie a religious ‘win-win’ scenario that makes the parallel between Christianity and Paganism explicit:

'For believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days - a martyr's death.  You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect.'

Rejecting this, Howie directly challenges the watching crowd:

 'You can wrap it up any way you like; you are about to commit murder!'

Pointing out that killing him will not restore their crops, he adds:

'Well, don't you understand that if your crops fail this year, next year you're going to have to have another blood sacrifice?  And next year, no one less than the King of Summerisle himself will do.  If the crops fail, Summerisle, next year your people will kill you on May Day!'

The ‘Christian copper’ has done his research well in the island’s library.  We see Lord Summerisle’s features momentarily cloud over with fear and uncertainty as he realises, evidently for the first time, the precariousness of his position.  Summerisle’s feudal system is as riven by contradictions as any class-based society.  The future of a ruler who claims 'to love nature and to fear it' is dependent on the continuing ability of his Victorian grandfather's science to grow fruit in an unnatural environment.

It is only in its closing scenes that The Wicker Man truly becomes a horror film.  The contrast with the preceding comedy creates an abrupt disjunction that emphasises the sheer ghastliness of Howie's fate.  He rises in moral stature as we empathise with his shock at the way he has been betrayed and his emotional pain as he realises he is about to die.  The Wicker Man itself is a hideous and stunning artifact, its blank, featureless head gazing sightlessly out to sea from its cliff top location.  The terror of the ending is total.  Howie's desperate prayers and psalm-singing rage against the rising conflagration, hopelessly competing with the sound of the roaring fire combined with the screeching of terrified animals as the islanders sing their rounds of ‘Sumer Is A-Cumen In’ with determined heartiness.  

It is the totality and the paradoxical innocence of the wickedness that are horrifying.  All of the islanders participate in the sacrifice and not one of them shows any awareness that what they are doing is wrong.  Instead, they are positively enjoying the party atmosphere.  It is reminiscent of a 1930s lynching postcard from the American Deep South; young courting couples holding hands and smiling for the camera as black bodies swing from a tree.  A grand day out for all concerned – apart from the victims.

Right at the end of The Wicker Man, something remarkable happens.  In a serendipitous feat of filming, cinematographer Harry Waxman captures the colossus’s head collapsing into the fire to reveal the evening sun behind, just as it is about to sink down into the sea.  It is an iconic shot, achieved without any special effects.  On the soundtrack, the roaring of the flames subsides and a fanfare of trumpets cuts through. In an awe-inspiring moment, we are drawn away from the human drama and like primitive man, are exposed to the primeval force of nature that creates and destroys all life.   Here is the source of the solar myth that has refracted through different cultures to create the scripts played out by all the characters of the film.

Reviled at its creation, The Wicker Man is now recognized as a seminal piece of cinema.  As Howie himself might choose to put it: ‘The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.’ (Psalm 118:22)  Although it has come to be seen as a defining example of the newly invented genre of ‘folk horror’, it really stands alone in its cross-generic strangeness and magnificence.  With its death at the hands of conniving studio bureaucrats at the nadir of the British film industry, followed by its subsequent cult status as a ‘midnight movie’ and rebirth as an established classic, it has acquired a solar myth of its own.  Even after the release of The Final Cut there is a lingering feeling of incompletion, as though further mysteries are waiting to be solved, greater glories to be uncovered.