(1973, R) Edward Woodward (Sgt,. Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Diane Cilento (Miss Rose), Britt Ekland (Willow), Ingrid Pitt (Librarian), Lindsay Kemp (Alder MacGreagor), Russell Waters (Harbour Master), Aubrey Morris (Old Caretaker/Gravedigger). Music: Paul Giovanni (performed by “Magnet”; “Corn Rigs” sung by Paul Giovanni). Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer. Director: Robin Hardy. 88 minutes.
Tags: Thriller, Suspense, Horror
Notable: Britt Ekland before she became a “Bond girl”; Edward Woodward’s first leading film role
A hard-nosed, devoutly Christian police officer from the mainland, Sgt. Howie (Woodward), is sent to the Island of Summerisle to search for a missing young girl. What he finds is a small, isolated population devoted to the faith and practices of the “Old Gods,” with all the accompanying pagan sensuality, nature worship, rites, and rituals, along with a firmly-established wall of secrecy and misdirection from every person on the island.
The Producer would like to thank The Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous cooperation in the making of this film.
Thus opens the film that the BBC swore “will give you nightmares for years.” It’s a perfect introduction to this story of slowly creeping horror that takes on a life of its own. As Howie (a Scottish locational surname derived from a medieval estate in Scotland’s southwest county of Ayrshire; its ancient name is known as “The lands of How”, although its exact location is lost to time) searches diligently, resisting the temptations and “sinful ways” of the island’s natives, the clock ticks inexorably toward the culmination of a ritual sacrifice that his Christian mind cannot begin to conceive.
Anthony Shaffer is no stranger to brilliant tales and well-plotted mystery; the year prior to this film, Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier starred in Sleuth. (Side note: Ignore the “rethought remake” of Sleuth in 2007, which even Leonard Maltin called a BOMB.) His screenplays for the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, the 1978 Death on the Nile, the 1982 Evil Under the Sun, and the 1988 Appointment With Death (all adaptations of Agatha Christie novels) show wit and style. Here, he delves into the realm of psychological horror with a well-paced sense of dawning revelation. Combined with Robin Hardy’s direction, the erotic and (in the literal sense of the word) fiendish aspects of the story create an atmosphere of desperation and uncertainty almost from the moment of the film’s beginning.
As one used to seeing him in the 1985-1989 television series The Equalizer, I was terribly distracted by Edward Woodward’s appearance. I can safely say, however, that the contrivance of the appearance of youth (Woodward was 43 years old, and in this film could pass for perhaps ten years younger) served double duty. In Shaffer’s story, the character of Howie is clearly intended to be cloaked and preserved in his own self-secure identity as a “good Christian”. Betrothed yet not married, he uses his faith to resist the temptations offered, and in so doing, unintentionally assists the villagers in their attempts to thwart his enquiries and confuse his otherwise ordered mind. Woodward plays it to the hilt, even as the frightening conclusion rears its head.
By modern standards of horror films, this movie will disappoint younger audiences. It is, at its heart, far more a “thriller” than a “horror movie.” It will titillate, naturally (and literally, as there’s a goodly amount of full-frontal nudity of nubile young women, including the later-Bond-girl Britt Ekland), and if you enjoy that sense of dawning comprehension that I mentioned earlier, it will likely give you a chill. However, in terms of the blood, guts, gore, jump-scares, and just-plain-gross that marks so many horror films of modern times, this film will not measure up. Interestingly, it’s for precisely that reason that I recommend it to my Millennial friends and fans. Take a look at what “horror” used to mean — not something that made you want to vomit from overexposure to the merely gross, but instead something that pecked and nibbled at the very basis for your idea of what “reality” is until, at the end, you find that you’re no more solid or stable than a wicker man.
That, my dear friends, is truly the stuff of nightmares.
There is a 2006 remake, starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn. Adapted from Shaffer’s original screenplay, the film fails by being misogynistic, filled with guts and gore, and a ridiculous performance by Cage, whose hammy character seems oblivious to the obvious presence of evil. Avoid it.