Scarring Scores: The Wicker Man

The poet Robbie Burns and horror films may not seem to have a lot in common, but there is one thread tying them together: they are both randy as hell.

Whilst living in Edinburgh, Burns kept a pocketbook of songs entitled ‘The Forbidden Fruit’. Within this little songbook, he collected, reworked, and composed bawdy ballads to perform in the backstreet bars. Often seen outside Scotland as the mouthpiece of their national folk culture, Burns chose to give it a distinctly lustful voice.

Still from The Wicker Man

The creators of the cult classic 1973 film The Wicker Man seem to identify this similarity between Burns and horror better than anyone else. You barely need to look beyond ‘Gentle Johnny’, a song whose lyrics are taken from a poem of the same name. Performed towards the beginning of the film, the lyrics revel in licentiousness:

I put my hand all on her belly

She says to me do you want to fill ‘ee?

The film follows Sergeant Howie to the island of Summerisle, where he launches an investigation into a missing child. He is met by the untamed traditions, jocular resistance, and brazen sexuality of the local villagers, which cause him to suspect that there is something sinister taking place.

Still of the masked villagers in The Wicker Man

Although Shaffer and Hardy dove into Britain’s ancient history to find inspiration for The Wicker Man, Summerisle looks a lot like a modern vision of the British countryside. Richard King’s book The Lark Ascending describes how the 60s and 70s saw a reaction against the industrialisation of countryside that occurred during World War II. The response shows us how pagan rituals and folklore are tied to hippy farmhouses, free-love, and rummaging through fields for psilocybin in West Wales.

This was mirrored in the folk revival of the same period. ‘Acid folk’ acts such as Sandy Denny and Vashti Bunyan married traditional folk instruments and melodies with more psychedelic, modern trends from the same period. For a taste, just listen to ‘Matty Groves’ by Fairport Convention. It swims in psychedelia, but is equally anchored in a strong folk tradition of sex and death.

The composer of The Wicker Man belonged to a similar movement taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Paul Giovanni’s career took him in the direction of theatre, but before all of that he sung in the psych-folk band Side Show. The musical aspect of Giovanni’s life is barely mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times, and yet his contribution to The Wicker Man soundtrack remains one of the defining musical contributions to ‘acid folk’ genre.

This recasting of Britain’s pagan past threatened that other view of the British countryside that is best described by David Mitchell as ‘vicars walking across lawns’. It is the stuffy vision of a pastoral Britain that is enshrined in its mythical guarding of Britain’s best-ironed values: leafy parochialism and insularity.

Still of the maypole in The Wicker Man

Sergeant Howie brings this version of Britain to the island along with all his other baggage. He reacts with violence to the un-Christian ways of the villagers, pushing and shoving his way through Summerisle. The villagers seem perfectly calm in performing their paganistic practises. It is Howie that seems insane and unreasonable, in shock at this alternative aspect of Britain’s ‘pleasant pastures’.

The countryside is not, the film suggests, what it was. Young people populate Summerisle’s pub in a way that must have been mirrored in the flocking of young people to Pembrokeshire in the 1960s and 70s to try to live off the land (ie. grow marijuana cluelessly in sun-deprived locations) and set up folk festivals such as the Meigan Fayre of 1974. In contrast to the animosity this raised between local and newcomer in Wales, there are no generational rifts on the island of Summerisle. There is a unity between young and old, brought together by worship of a sensual ancient order and the music that seems to cast a variety of spells over them.

The soundtrack of the film cleverly mirrors this insidious harmony across the island. There is a term used in film scoring called diegetic music. It refers to music that is heard and experienced by the people in the world of the film. The soundtrack of The Wicker Man feels almost entirely diegetic, with the characters interacting freely with it. When talking about the film, Robin Hardy invokes musicals, saying that The Wicker Man was written so that ‘dialogue lapses into song and vice versa’.

The cleverest part of this technique is that it fails you at the end of the film. I felt utterly seduced by the beauty of The Wicker Man’s music and that janky zoom on the humanoid bonfire knocked the breath out of me. The loud, festive music the villagers swing to cannot drown out Howie’s screams.

Still of The Wicker Man

I would use another word to describe The Wicker Man soundtrack: anthropological. It often feels so spot on, speaking with such clarity to one community’s folk tradition, that it is hard to believe the music was not fished out the same tenebrous archives Robin Hardy pulled the image of the wicker man from.

In some ways, they were. Robin Hardy has spoken about having to reintroduce sex into the music of The Wicker Man. In his fastidious research, he learned how the Victorian collector of folksongs, Cecil Sharp, toned down the bawdier aspects of his folk music to make them appropriate for a royal audience. Giovanni reattached this wickedness to the folk songs innovatively. There is a heat to the folk arrangements. The guitars of ‘Corn Rows’, the soft violins of ‘Willow Song’, there is a strong yearning in how the soundtrack’s instruments are played.

It is apt that Gary Carpenter recalled his experience working on The Wicker Man with the words, ‘whoever forgets their first experience of being screwed?’. The entire production of The Wicker Man was a labour of love, worked on in freezing cold conditions on the hoof for minimal pay, even for Christopher Lee. However, it was first figuratively buried in distribution quarrels between studios, hated by several powerful executives, and then quite literally, as the negatives in the studio vaults were accidentally loaded into a tip and dumped under the M3. Interviews from The Wicker Man Enigma demonstrate how painful the experience was for those involved. You can see Christopher Lee smart at the disrespect he and the film were shown from one executive.

The soundtrack has been through a similarly tortured re-emergence. Johnny Trunk documents in interview how he came to put it out on his own record label. His search for the soundtrack took him four years and the discovery that Paul Giovanni had tragically died in 1996 at the age of 57 after his HIV diagnosis.

Still of the villagers parading in The Wicker Man

The impact of The Wicker Man has been vast in the horror genre, influencing numerous films and prompting the infamous remake. In what may well become a recurring theme in this series of articles, Robin Hardy has said that he dislikes the soundtrack to the new Wicker Man film, calling it ‘elevator music’. I never envy the musicians involved with recasting an iconic score. Imitations sound hollow, and new directions must be pursued with unerring confidence.

The fact that the soundtrack is what directors most commonly choose to criticise about remakes of their films shows how much of the personality of a film like The Wicker Man is carried in its music. The soundtrack to the 2006 Wicker Man has none of the heat, none of the seduction, none of the yearning of the 1973 original. In a word: it is sexless.

By: OD Jones, author

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