Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10


Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 4


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 12 October 2014, ITV.

Thomas Barrow takes drastic measures, Robert weighs up whether to allow development of his land, Lord Merton asks Isobel to marry him, and Simon Bricker comes to visit again.

When is it set? Spring 1924.

Where is it set? The house and the estate. York. The village, including the school and the churchyard. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. Lots of places in London: Rosamund’s house, the venue of a dress show, Lord Gillingham’s flat in Albany, Piccadilly Circus, and Kensington Gardens.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Having been mentioned a couple of times, Mable Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) makes an appearance. She used to be engaged to Tony Gillingham… before he chucked her in order to pursue Mary. Obviously there’s some tension when the two women meet.
* Rose’s father, Lord ‘Shrimpy’ Flintshire, returns to England to tell her that he and her mother are to divorce. He knows this will cause a scandal but he’s too unhappy to continue.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes keep giving Mr Molesley extra chores because he’s made such a big deal about being considered the first footman.
* We learn that, 50 years earlier, Russian Prince Kuragin asked Violet to run away with him – but then her husband gave her a Fabergé frame with pictures of their children in it. It made her realise she loved him so stayed.
* Lord Merton’s proposal is sweet. He tells Isobel that he’s not asking her out of loneliness or selfishness; he’s genuinely fallen in love. He asks her to think about it rather than give an answer straightaway.
* Thomas Barrow’s been looking sallow and acting oddly, then Miss Baxter overhears him crying out in pain in a bathroom. She forces her way in and sees medical equipment. Later, she discovers that he sent away for a barbaric package designed to ‘cure’ men of being gay.
* While in London, Mary attends a fashion show – and Downton goes full-blown 1920s. It’s an Art Deco lover’s dream.
* Anna’s also in London (because Mary is) and takes the opportunity to visit Piccadilly Circus – ie, where Mr Green was killed. Is she returning to scene of the crime?! The sequence involves an impressive green-screen recreation of 1924 London.

Worst bits:
* Robert’s dogmatic resistance to selling part of the Downton estate contradicts his position when Matthew died – so we get a line of dialogue to explain why he’s changed his tune.
* Bolshy schoolteacher Sarah Bunting is invited to dinner yet again. Before the meal, Tom Branson specifically asks her not to antagonise Robert, but she can’t resist in repeatedly trying to embarrass him (while, you know, eating his food and sitting at his table). So he loses his rag and demands she leave. The worst thing about the storyline is that her progressive politics are spot-on and Robert’s reactionary lifestyle is grossly unfair – and yet he’s the one you side with.

Real history:
* The Russian Revolution of 1917 is why the Tsarist refugees cannot return home. The current Soviet regime has no desire to help them.
* Violet refers to the House of Fabergé, a prestigious jewellery firm formed in Russia in 1842.
* As part of her schooling, Daisy is studying the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) overthrown in favour of William III, Prince of Orange.
* Edith has news from Munich. A trial of some thugs is going on – the thugs who got into a fight with Michael Gregson. “I’ve read about this,” says her father. “They wear brown shirts and go around bullying people. Their leader tried to start a revolution last year.” The brownshirted Sturmabteilung were the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party; their leader was, of course, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Robert reckons they haven’t heard the last of them: “We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war,” he says as if he were a GCSE textbook.
* Mable Lane Fox makes an excuse to leave a conversation with Mary: she’s off to meet her friend Ralph Kerr, who she says gets tetchy if he’s left waiting. Kerr (1891-1941) was an officer in the Royal Navy. He saw action in both world wars.
* Cora mentions the Reign of Terror, a period of unrest in France in the 1790s. The then Lord Grantham was in France when it began but escaped with his art collection.
* Mrs Hughes finds a copy of The London Magazine (founded 1732) lying around.
* Robert and Miss Bunting’s row is referred to as the Battle of Little Big Horn by Mrs Hughes. Fought on 24-26 June 1876, the Battle of Little Big Horn was a major clash between Native American tribes and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army during the Great Sioux War.
* Anna mentions Kier Hardie (1856-1915), the founder – and first leader – of the Labour Party.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us accepting reality.” (“Oh, you only say that to sound clever,” says Isobel. “I know,” replies Violet. “You should try it.”)

Mary’s men: She heads for London – ostensibly to attend a fashion show – and bumps into Charles Blake. He asks Mary to dinner, where she reveals that she’s decided against a life with Tony. The next day she meets Tony by the Robin Hood statue in Kensington Gardens to tell him. He’s furious that she slept with him and is now dropping him, and refuses to accept that things are over.

Doggie! When Robert, Mary and Tom Branson inspect some Downton land, Isis comes too and has a fun sniff around the fields. She also gets a walk around the village.

Review: An entertaining balance of subplots: there’s plenty happening, as usual. 

Next episode…

Interview: a chat with Scoundrels authors Duncan Crowe and James Peak


Scoundrels is an incredibly funny comic novel that tells the story of two disreputable spies, Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan. Their daring, outrageous and surreal escapades begin at public school in the 1930s and stretch through the Second World War and beyond. Along the way, Nazis are defeated, pandas are hunted, and Cornwall and Trevelyan suffer some extraordinary indignities.

Having recently read and thoroughly loved the book, I spoke to authors Duncan Crowe and James Peak…

Hi there. Can you tell us how this book came about? Where did the idea come from?
DUNCAN CROWE: The idea evolved from a series of extremely rude, insulting emails James and I sent each other. Both of us replied as though we were outraged and the Majors developed from there.
JAMES PEAK: Yeah, the structure came about pretty organically. I wrote to Duncan, as an old Major, explaining that on my travels in Africa I’d persuaded the Ga People of Ghana to design his coffin in the shape of a giant phallus. He immediately wrote back, as another Major, accusing me of embezzling money from a children’s charity. The tone was set from there.

While still feeling fresh and original…
JP: Cheers! 
…Scoundrels reminded me of a few things – the Flashman novels, the Ripping Yarns TV show, the books of PG Wodehouse. Were any of those specific influences? Or did anything else inspire you?
JP: Yes, you’re bang on with all those. Also some adult, racy Roald Dahl books like My Uncle Oswald. And the brilliant Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mordecai Trilogy. He’s like a dirty Wodehouse. We were both very influenced by spy fiction like Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, but also the daft brilliance of Viz comic.
DC: A mention should probably go to Blackadder too, and to the sorts of films, TV shows and books where British people are comically portrayed with ridiculous stiff upper lips – Bullshot, Bridge on the River Kwai – or capable of the sort of skulduggery familiar to Terry-Thomas or Peter Sellers.

I was initially picturing the lead characters, Victor Cornwall and St John Trevelyan, being played by Michael Palin and Terry Jones – perhaps because of the Ripping Yarns-ness of the settings. But the more I read, the more I started to imagine Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. Do either of those fantasy castings ring true for you?
JP: That’s because of the horrific violence that they bear with fortitude, right? The Majors are, at root, a pair of grotesques who deserve everything they get. The other thing that’s great about Mayall and Edmondson is that the joke was always on them, which is (almost) always the case with the Majors.
DC: Michael Palin and Terry Jones: bang on. I also think Jason Isaacs would make a good Cornwall and Matt Berry, Trevelyan.
JP: Actually, I think Trevelyan would have been well served by a young Oliver Reed. Cornwall should be played by someone with the sheer physicality of Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films….
DC: Oh, is that right?
JP: Yes.

The characters’ adventures cover a large sweep of 20th-century history, from a public school in the 1930s, through the Second World War, and into China, Japan, Africa, Mount Everest… What kind of historical research did you do?
DC: A little more than the casual reader might think. I suppose we wanted the Majors to support a version of history that was broadly historically accurate right up until the moment it moves into complete nonsense, and that line is not always signposted at the moment you cross it.

The two lead characters write alternating chapters of Scoundrels, which gives the reader two differing points of view on the events. Did you write everything together, or did you divvy up Cornwall and Trevelyan’s accounts?
DC: We start off writing in character – I write as Cornwall and James as Trevelyan, but by the end of the editing process it’s difficult to unpick who wrote what.
JP: We would always write chapters alone, originally, with the express aim of really antagonising the other, putting him in a situation he’d have a real job to write his way out of. We wrote for about six months without ever mentioning the project out loud, when we met socially in the pub or what-have-you… Of course, that worked for a while, but then the chapters needed fashioning into a narrative that would actually form a single, coherent story, so we had to start communicating about it. Then the editing process started and we tore each other’s sentences to pieces, adding jokes, details, reworking anything and everything that wasn’t solid. The ownership of each chapter became very muddled and, like the record collection of a long-married couple, impossible to pull apart without a long and protracted legal battle which would render both parties bankrupt.

It must have been fun knowing that each story could have a bias depending on which character is telling it…
JP: Yes, that’s the heart of it. We wanted readers to be faced with chapters spun entirely from self-interest and an eagerness to write something inarguable (as history is written by the winners) and that this is utterly rejected by the other Major. I love, writing as Trevelyan, putting Cornwall in really brutal situations, as once they are on the page, that’s it. They happened.
DC: Exactly – both Majors have massive egos and are determined that history shows them in the best possible light – but it was great fun putting Trevelyan through the wringer. No more so than the events at the end of chapter one. I didn’t set out to write something as horrendous as that, but as soon as the idea developed I couldn’t get it on the page quick enough. I couldn’t wait for James to read that. And weep…
JP: It came as a complete surprise – we’d not talked about at all. I actually wandered around the room shaking my head at what Duncan had done to him. It took me a long while to come back with a decent response.
DC: And what was great, though, was how Trevelyan dealt with it and then came back with a story of his own. I have to give him respect for his response.
JP: So I suppose its equal parts combative and collegiate. We’re setting each other up, but always confident that the other can deal with it.

The chapters are interspersed with letters from Cornwall and Trevelyan commenting on the writing process. Where did that idea come from?
JP: Well, we searched for a ‘wraparound’ to place their stories in, and settled on the idea that the Majors had sent the two of us, as editors of boutique publishing house Black Door Press, a manuscript which we HATED. We attempted to return it, but then found that by signing for it with the courier, we’d actually entered into an unbreakable contract to publish. It sounds convoluted, but makes the sort of sense we needed to give them the chance to communicate outside the chapters that make up their life stories, and the letter format worked well for that.

Was it fun to work out the structure of the book?
DC: Initially the structure was less linear as we were having fun plucking out random stories from the Majors’ history, but we soon realised that we need to follow a more coherent timeline so the narrative broadly follows their lives.

One of the best things about the stories is how brilliantly surreal and violent they can be – there’s a real sense of ‘anything can happen’. Was that an important part of the storytelling for you?
JP: Yeah, it was challenging to put each other in really grim situations from which the other had to escape. That said, it was really key that the violence, although horrific, has to be survivable and medically possible.
DC: Or at least just about medically possible…. One of the reasons the Paris-Dakar chapter comes first is that we wanted to set the boundaries early on for the reader, and establish how far we were prepared to push it. Once you’ve read that you know what you’re in for.

Do you have a favourite segment of the book?
JP: I’m fond of the whole Second World War section, where you start to realise that as well as a brooding enmity that has lasted a lifetime, the Majors have a grudging, brotherly respect for each other that explains why so much of their lives have been shared. I think Duncan did a bloody good job on the Fuffy Morningdew chapter, where we learn why Cornwall’s heart has calcified and that he can never love another woman.
DP: When I read James’s first draft of Around the World it literally made me cry with laughter. I tried to read some of it out to my wife and couldn’t finish the sentence. I also like it any time the Majors spend time in the club. I love the detail, the obscure rules and the other members.

What can you tell us about Black Door Press? The company was founded specifically for this book – is that right?
JP: Yes, although it’s owned by the Majors now, unfortunately. And they are terrible bosses.

What about the book cover? It’s superb. Who designed it? Did you have specific ideas what it should be?
JP: Michael Gambriel, the man’s a genius. He’s a Bristolian artist who is ridiculously accomplished. Everyone thinks Banksy is the best thing to come out of Bristol. Well, that’s bollocks: it’s Mike.
DC: Mike was very patient with us. The Flashman books was one of the references we gave him, and we mocked up some dodgy covers that we’d drawn… Thankfully he was good at interpreting our ideas and making them, you know, good.

And can we expect a sequel? This book is labelled Volume One: 1931-1951, and contains references to other escapades for Cornwall and Trevelyan…
JP: You can expect two! Their autobiography spans three volumes, each more eye-opening and wince-inducing than the last.
DC: Yep – we’ve planned the whole trilogy. By the end you’ll be crying hot tears of joy with an afternote of melancholy that two bona fide British heroes have been forgotten by the nation.

You can find out more and buy a copy of the book here.

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 3


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 5 October 2014, ITV.

Violet finds out about Mary and Tony’s illicit week together in a hotel, Mrs Patmore gets an upsetting letter, and the investigation into Mr Green’s murder continues. Meanwhile, Edith continues to visit her secret daughter.

When is it set? We begin a week after the preceding episode ended, so in the opening scenes it’s circa Wednesday 30 April 1924.

Where is it set? The Grand Hotel in Liverpool. Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. The local churchyard. London, including Rosamund’s house and the National Gallery.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Rose invites some aristocratic Russian refugees to Downton. One of them is Prince Kuragin (Rade Sherbedgia), a man who flirted with Violet in St Petersburg in 1874. She’s rather shocked to see him again after so long.

Best bits:
* The name of Mrs Patmore’s late nephew is not going to be included on his local war memorial – because he was shot for cowardice – so she wants to get him mentioned on Downton’s. Carson, though not wholly unsympathetic, objects to commemorating a ‘coward’, which obviously upsets Mrs P.
* Spratt’s not-very-subtle hints to Violet that he has some gossip. “You’re testing me, Spratt,” she warns her butler. “Either impart this piece of information, if you can empower yourself to do so, or go.” He then tells her that he saw Mary and Lord Gillingham coming out of a hotel in Liverpool. (They’d been having a dirty weekend.)
* Cora’s gone to London for a few days, so Robert decides on a whim to join her. However, not knowing her husband’s on his way, Cora has dinner with her friend Simon Bricker. A jealous Robert is fuming when Cora finally comes home, but she points out that she’s not done anything wrong. Robert then cruelly says that he can’t believe Simon is only interested in Cora’s conversation.
* Because her butler knows Mary was in Liverpool, Violet has to come up with a cover story to avoid any whiff of scandal. She says that Mary was at a conference of landowners. Spratt turns to Mary and says, “I hope you found it interesting, m’lady.” Mary: “I learned a great deal that I never knew before.” (The gag would work better still if she were a virgin, of course.)
* A nice chunk of backstory is revealed about Cora. She came to London at a young age to find a husband, pushed into it by her mother. The family “weren’t really in the first rank” in Cincinnati or New York, where she lived as a child: Cora’s father was Jewish and their fortune new. “But I was pretty,” she jokes. “At least I can say that, now I’m an old lady.” She was overwhelmed by London society, but got a lot of names on her dance cards.
* Poor Edith is told to stay away from Marigold because Mrs Drewe is sick of her visiting the farm constantly.

Worst bits:
* Leaving the Grand Hotel in Liverpool – which, remember, is about 100 miles from Downton village – Tony and Mary are spotted by her grandmother’s butler, who just happens to be waiting for a bus outside. The very next scene, back in Yorkshire, is Isobel asking Violet where Spratt is. She says he’s in Liverpool for his niece’s wedding.
* Mr Green died 20-odd months ago, and only now has a woman come forward to claim she heard him say, “Why have you come?” to someone just before he fell under a bus.
* Also, Sgt Willis shows up to say the police now know that Green once told a friend that Mr Bates hated him – so again, an unseen, off-screen character has waited nearly two years before telling the police something important about a murder.
* Via some clunky plotting, Sarah Bunting attends the same party as a group of Tsarist Russians… and offends them. Of course she does.

Real history:
* Thomas has a copy of The London Magazine, a publication founded in 1732.
* The woman who’s come forward about Mr Green’s death says she was on her way to meet a friend by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly. Officially known as the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, it was erected in 1892-93.
* Rose takes some Russian refuges to Haworth to see how the Brontes lived – ie, sisters Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849), all writers and poets.
* In the same discussion, Russian writers Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Anton Chekov (1860-1904) are all mentioned. Robert also says his parents attended the 1874 wedding of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (1853-1920) and Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred (1844-1900).
* Simon Bricker takes Cora to the National Gallery (opened 1824) on Trafalgar Square in London and shows her the 1470-75 painting The Nativity by Piero della Francesca (1415-1492). The scenes were shot in the real museum. The Nativity hangs there still, though the gallery staff had to move it to a room that could pass for 1924.
* Robert books a table at Claridges, a high-class hotel in Mayfair that opened in 1812.
* Tom Branson mentions novelist Elinor Glyn (1864-1943). Her biggest contribution to culture was popularising the term ‘it’ to describe a person’s charisma or sex appeal.

Upstairs, Downton: The National Gallery also featured in an early episode of Upstairs, Downstairs called The Mistress and the Maids (1971).

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Isobel points out that servants are human beings too, the Dowager says, “Yes, but preferably only on their days off.”

Mary’s men: She’s just spent a week secretly staying in a hotel with Tony Gillingham. He’s all for getting engaged and announcing it, but she’s not so sure. Mary thinks he’s a nice guy, and her grandmother urges her to set a date for the wedding, but he just doesn’t enflame her passions in the way she’d hoped.

Doggie! Isis wags her tail as she walks along with Robert and Mary outside the house.

Review: There’s a lovely gag in this episode. Violet has been teasing Isobel about her admirer Lord Merton, and also castigating Mary for sleeping with someone before she’s married…. Then we meet an Violet’s ex-boyfriend, a rugged Russian prince. It seems she’s not quite so holier than thou…

Next episode…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017, James Gunn)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

As the Guardians of the Galaxy finish a job for a bizarre queen, Peter Quill encounters his long-lost father who turns out to be a god – but not all is as it seems…

The influence of The Empire Strikes Back on sci-fi, sequels and sci-fi sequels has been enormous, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that – whether intentionally or not – this second Guardians of the Galaxy movie contains a number of echoes of it. We get a daring dash through an asteroid field and our heroes are split up into two groups. There’s a snowy planet and a character with a robotic hand. And most significantly, the plot is built around some major fatherly revelations…

We join the team mid-mission: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are fighting an enormous, octopus-like space alien, while Baby Groot (a young offshoot of the first film’s Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) dances around to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. In other words, it’s more of the same – just like the first Guardians flick, we’re being entertained with a charming mix of action, jokes, pop music and bright colours. It’s infectious, broad-grin-generating fun. But then, slowly, something happens. The film never loses its sense of humour (a good gag is always around the corner); the cast continue to be likeable and vibrant. However, the longer the story goes on the more vaguely disappointing everything becomes.

Peter’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), shows up and takes the Guardians to a CG-heavy planet of wonders. He reveals that he’s a god and he wants Peter to join him in being godly and doing godly things. But then, after some sitting around, the Guardians discover that Ego is not that nice after all so they set out to destroy him. That’s it. Despite a terrific turn from Kurt Russell, the story never really takes flight. Peter’s father was a talked-about, off-screen presence in the first film. There was mystery over who he was and why he abandoned Peter as a child. But the answer – that he’s an eternal being who has planted his seed on planets throughout the galaxy for his own selfish ends – sadly doesn’t make for gripping storytelling. It’s a good idea to focus on Peter and give him some emotional trauma, but there’s a frustrating paucity of twists and turns. (Ego’s nice! No, he isn’t!)

More fun are the subplots. Gamora’s evil sister, Nebula, gets much more screentime than in the first film and actress Karen Gillan does a lot with it. The literal-minded Drax has a fun friendship with Ego’s nervy assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff). There’s a race of uptight, golden-skinned aliens who act as a deus ex machina. The first film’s villain, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, is brought back and retconned as a more-decent-than-you’d-thought anti-villain. (His death is surprisingly touching and the film ekes out as much emotion from it as possible.) Oh, and Sylvester Stallone (no, honestly) shows up as a pointless character who’s presumably being set up for a future sequel.

So while the spine of the film – Ego’s designs on universal power and Peter’s reunion with his dad – doesn’t especially linger in the memory, there are still plenty of pleasures. The Guardians themselves continue to be tremendous company, the new selection of 1970s pop songs on the soundtrack throws up some real gems, and the script is full of funny one-liners. It’s just a shame that the Empire Strikes Back-y-ness doesn’t extend to caring about our heroes’ emotions a bit more.

Seven galactic informants out of 10

Screenshot 2017-09-06 09.46.24 

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 2


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 28 September 2014, ITV.

The damage from the fire that ripped through Edith’s bedroom is dealt with. An art historian comes to Downton, Isobel visits Lord Merton, while Robert and Carson clash over the planned war memorial.

When is it set? We start the day after the preceding episode. A line of dialogue from Rose tells us that the events take place shortly before, and then on, Wednesday 23 April 1924.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. The local cricket ground. The Drewes’ farm. The Dowager’s house. Lord Merton’s home. The village. The Grand Hotel in Liverpool.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Footman Jimmy’s been given the sack after being caught in bed with a guest in the previous episode. He and Thomas Barrow share a touching moment as he leaves: despite their differences – remember the time Thomas tried it on? – they’ve become good pals.
* A local chemist (Roberta Kerr) sells Anna some contraception. She doesn’t seem to be overly keen on profits, though: she pointedly suggests that abstinence works just as well!
* Simon Bricker (Richard E Grant) is an art-expert friend of Charles Blake’s who wangles an invitation to Downton so he can view a painting. He’s recently been in Alexandria, hence his suntan, and swaps some flirty banter with Cora. (After Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant becomes the second actor from Gosford Park to appear in Downton Abbey. Gosford Park was a 2001 movie written by Julian Fellowes that can be considered Downton Abbey’s direct antecedent. Indeed, the initial plan was that the series would be a TV spin-off from the film.)
* Mrs Elcot (Naomi Radcliffe) is a local woman who’s conveniently on the spot to give Carson some food for thought when he objects to the war memorial being in the centre of the village.
* Local copper Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) shows up to ask about Mr Green’s time at Downton. Apparently, a witness to his death has come forward…

Best bits:
* The tension between Robert and Mr Carson over where the village’s war memorial should go.
* Edith is still visiting her daughter, who’s living in secret with local farmers. Mr Drewe has come up with a plan: they’re going to pretend that Edith is the child’s unofficial godmother, so Edith tells her parents that she’ll help the girl financially. But there’s trouble in store: Mrs Drewe is clearly not a fan of Edith being at the farm so often.
* Mary’s subplot is good fun. She and suitor Tony Gillingham have decided to stay in a hotel incognito so they can get to know each other better. Only Anna knows the truth, and says Mary should take clothes she can put on and take off without help. “Well, I’ll have his help,” jokes Mary. “Honestly, m’lady,” replies Anna, “you’d better hope I never write my memoirs.” Mary then asks her maid for a big favour – can Anna source some contraception? “Oh, my God,” says Anna. “I mean, I beg your pardon, m’lady.” Anna is nervous – what if she’s recognised in the shop? – but manages to buy a cervical cap.
* When Charles Blake and his friend Simon Bricker are due to arrive, Robert says, “Do people think we’re some sort of hotel that never presents a bill?” Cora replies: “You’ve already made that joke.”
* Rose keeps dropping hints that she wants a wireless installed at Downton Abbey, but Robert plays a straight bat: “No.” Cora says she wouldn’t mind having one. Robert: “That’s because you’re American.” When it’s finally installed, the entire household listen to the King make a speech. “I suppose *he* can’t hear *us*?” asks a nervous Mrs Patmore.

Worst bits:
* Robert says the wireless is a fad and won’t last. Hashtag period drama.
* Cora and Rose want to invite Sarah Bunting to dinner. Robert is against the idea, obviously, given how rude Sarah was last time.
* A witness to Mr Green’s death has come forward. Two years after the fact.

Real history:
* Rose mentions the Russian refugees living in York. Robert says they’re scattered all over Europe. They’d fled after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
* Dr Clarkson tells Isobel about the new drug insulin, which is going to make a big difference. “A diagnosis will no longer be a death sentence,” enthuses Isobel. Insulin had first been used as a medicine in Canada in 1922.
* Mary has a copy of Marie Stopes’s Married Love, an 1918 book on family planning.
* Simon Bricker is interested in a painting in the Downton collection by Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (c1415-1492).
* Charles knows Simon because they’re both members of Boodle’s, a London gentlemen’s club founded in 1762.
* Robert refers to Sarah Bunting as a “tinpot Rosa Luxemburg”. Rose asks, “Who’s that?” and Cora explains that Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a German communist who was shot and thrown in a canal. “We wouldn’t wish that on Miss Bunting,” she adds, looking at her husband. He just says, “Hmm.”
* When Robert criticises the Bolsheviks currently ruling Russia, saying that their savagery means they get no sympathy from him, Tom Branson rather lamely compares them to the English killing Charles I (1600-1649).
* In her attempts to convince Robert to buy a radio, Rose points out that King George V (1865-1936) is due to speak on the wireless to mark the opening of British Empire Exhibition, an event that ran at Wembley Park in London from 23 April 1924 until 31 October 1925.
* Cora mentions the fall of the Bastille, a key moment of the French Revolution that happened on 14 July 1789.
* Mary says she’s not “some overheated housemaid drooling over a photograph of Douglas Fairbanks”. Fairbanks (1883-1939) was an influential American movie star, director and producer.
* Robert bows to pressure and a wireless is installed in Downton’s lobby. The first thing it plays is a song by band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965).

Upstairs, Downton: The servants of Eaton Place got themselves a new-fangled wireless in the Upstairs, Downstairs episode An Old Flame (1975), which is set in spring 1923 – ie, about a year before this episode of Downton. In both shows, the household’s cook is naïve about how the device works.

Mary’s men: She affects disinterest when Charles Blake visits Downton. He’s resigned to having lost Mary to Tony Gillingham, but implores her to be sure about it. “You’re cleverer than he is. That might have worked in the last century when ladies had to hide their brains behind good manners and good breeding. But not now.” Although Charles doesn’t know it, Mary has to plan to see if she is sure. Despite telling her family that she’s going on a minibreak with a female friend, she actually meets Tony in Liverpool so they can stay in a hotel together.

Doggie! Isis can be glimpsed sitting serenely as Cora shows a painting to Simon Bricker. Later, in a bad mood, Robert tells his wife not to let Simon flirt with Isis: “There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog!” The next day, Isis joins Robert as he walks through the village.

Review: The subplot of Simon Bricker flirting with Cora is fun, especially the detail that Robert is blind to it – he just spots that Simon likes his dog.

Next episode…

The Wicker Tree (2011, Robin Hardy)


SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

Two young Americans travel to Scotland intent on spreading the word of Jesus. However, they soon fall in with the residents of a strange town…

How to classify this? Is it a sequel to the 1973 film The Wicker Man? Well, a case could be made for that. Christopher Lee has a tiny cameo, possibly as Lord Summerisle, so perhaps this is The Wicker Man: The Next Generation. Or is it a remake? It’s certainly a very similar storyline – the same kind of things happen to the same kind of people. Perhaps we should consider it a companion piece: another take on the same ideas. It’s also an adaptation of director Robin Hardy’s novel Cowboys for Christ (which itself was based on an earlier version of the film script after an attempt at making it fell through). But however we define it, The Wicker Tree is a truly mediocre movie.

It tells the story of American couple Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). She’s a successful country-and-western singer; he’s her boyfriend. They’re both young, clean-cut, devout Christians who are waiting until they marry before having sex. Beth is also turning her back on her singing career to spend two years “bringing God’s message to the lost people of Scotland.” That’s right: two aw-shucks Americans are coming to do missionary work on the council estates of Glasgow. Not too surprisingly, they just get doors slammed in their faces.

At their lowest ebb, Beth and Steve then meet local landowners Sir Lachlan (Graham McTavish) and Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard). The Morrisons clearly have nefarious plans, and also tease the couple about their faith, pointing out contradictions and belittling Jesus. But despite this, Beth and Steve accept their hospitality. Meanwhile, we viewers learn that Sir Lachlan runs the local nuclear power plant. (Of course he does.) There was an accident there a decade earlier and now the whole village is infertile.

A huge problem with this story is that – unlike Beth and Steve’s equivalent in The Wicker Man, Sgt Howie – the two lead characters are just so dim. The script does them no favours, presenting them as dippy, childlike, naïve characters who you never feel any sympathy for, but the performances are nothing to write home to Texas about either. The Scottish characters are also burdened with bizarre, antiquated attitudes towards Americans, as if they’re a newly discovered race of people and not the globe’s most dominant culture.

Another issue is the old-fashioned-ness of the plot. Is it really plausible that a town on the Scottish Borders in 2011 could be entirely infertile and yet no one else has noticed? This isn’t an isolated island community like in The Wicker Man. There’s probably a Little Chef just round the corner. At least someone has spotted the town’s paganism: a copper called Orlando has been sent to the area to do some rooting around. But he gets distracted by a local woman called Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks, using a Scottish accent that needs subtitling at one point) who has sex with him multiple times to wear him out.

Anyway, various weird things happen to Beth and Steve. He’s spooked when a middle-aged woman sings a suggestive song in the pub; she’s nearly drugged by the Morrisons’ butler. We also get Christopher Lee green-screened into a 72-second flashback that tries to explain why Sir Lachlan is practising paganism. (Lee was originally going to play Lachlan, with Joan Collins as his wife, but then injured himself on the set of another film and had to drop out.)

When Beth learns that Steve’s been unfaithful – he couldn’t resist himself after seeing Lolly naked in a river – she ain’t happy. But worse is to come once we hit May Day. Steve is lured to a remote castle and then… torn to pieces and eaten by the townsfolk, who are now apparently cannibals. Meanwhile, Beth has been tricked into being the May Queen for the festivities and is lured towards a giant wicker tree. Lachlan plans to sacrifice her to the gods, hoping it will cure the community of its infertility. But when she figures out what’s going on, Beth pushes him into the tree and sets it on fire – perhaps the film’s one genuinely smart surprise. (Her victory doesn’t last long. She’s soon caught and killed by the locals, who are all dressed like post-apocalyptic zombies for some reason.)

This movie beggars belief. The dialogue is mostly either just laughable or ear-scrappingly off-key. The tone shifts all over the place, from po-faced philosophy to high comedy. The acting is extremely variable, ranging from doing-their-best (McTavish, Leonard, Clive Russell) to actually-not-good-enough. Some crummy visual effects and that’ll-do cinematography only add to the feeling that the film was made with precisely zero passion behind it. It’s an awful piece of work.

One stuffed cat out of 10

The Wicker Man (2006, Neil LaBute)


SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists! Also, this review is based on the director’s cut of the film, which differs slightly from the theatrical release.

Californian motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) travels to the remote island of Summersisle after his ex-girlfriend writes to say that her daughter, Rowan, has gone missing. But when he arrives he uncovers many shocking secrets…

Seen on its own merits, this remake of 1973’s The Wicker Man is a watchable bit of hokum – it passes the time well enough without ever impressing you. However, when compared to the original, it’s a near-disaster. The changes to the story make little sense, the director opts for the obvious all too often, and Nicolas Cage’s performance includes at least two scenes where his OTT tendencies become laughable.

While broadly the same plotline as the 1973 original, there are a number of differences. The story has been shifted to the autumnal north-west of America, for example, while the lead character now has a prior personal connection to the island. Edward Malus is also a very different man from Sgt Neil Howie. Malus is not a devout Christian so he’s just dismissive of the island’s bizarre religion, rather than offended by it. This is a big change that has a huge, negative impact. Stripped of its religious satire – these villagers practise some vague, made-up beliefs based around bees rather than the historically resonant paganism of the original film – the plot becomes much more conventional. This is simply a straight-ahead horror film about a ‘normal’ man trapped with weird people doing weird things.

Not that Edward Malus is totally normal – how could he be while played by Nicolas Cage? But the character is lighter than Sgt Howie and Cage handles the gags and general bemusement well. He also gets a new bit of backstory: before heading to the island to help a missing girl and her mother, he fails to save a different girl and her mother from a burning car. (The burning, of course, also foreshadows the film’s ending.) This creates huge guilt on his part, driving his obsession to travel to the island on his own dime when his police colleagues seem less than interested. It’s such a shame that writer/director Neil LaBute feels the need to ‘spookify’ this plot point up, though. After the accident, Malus is told that no bodies were found in the car and the cops can’t find out who the woman and child were. This is representative of the movie’s biggest problem. It wants to replace the original’s subtly with on-the-nose horror clichés.

The islanders, for example, are much less interesting than the Hebrideans in 1973. Those people were terrifying because, well, they were so nice. But here we get openly hostile and provocative women – including twins talking in unison – who dress in old-fashioned, Amish-type clothes. The characters have no depth or ambiguity to them: they’re just creepy, end of story. Incidentally, there *are* men on the island but none of them speaks or has any power. It’s a big bee metaphor, you see. The island industry is honey, so there are plenty of illusions to bees in the dialogue and production design; the community’s leader, Sister Summersilse (Ellen Burstyn from The Exorcist), is the queen and everyone else constitutes her workers. But the more the bees feature in the story, the sillier everything becomes.

In fact, the weirdest shit happens after the allergic-to-bees Malus has been stung, making you momentarily question whether he’s hallucinating everything. Then, while the islanders prepare for some sort of fertility ritual, he disguises himself in a bear costume and starts punching women in the face. As in 1973, we then get the big reveal: the girl’s disappearance was staged in order to lure Malus to the island so he could be sacrificed to the gods. Rowan herself (who, by the way, turned out to be Malus’s daughter) and her mother were in on it, though in a nice bit of shading the mother (a vacant Kate Beahan) seems guilty about her involvement.

Cage goes off the deep end now, especially once the villagers cover his head with a wicker basket and fill it with bees. It’s an acting style with one foot in reality and the other on the fucking moon. The villagers also break his legs, then haul him up into an enormous wicker-man edifice and set fire to it.

But it’s very difficult to take any of this seriously; there’s no dread, no terror involved. In a cruel twist it’s young Rowan who lights the flame. But rather than feeling for Malus, you’re just grateful that it’s all over. (In the version of the film released in cinemas, it wasn’t. Viewers got an unnecessary coda scene set months later. Two of the island’s women are in a city bar, picking up two innocent blokes – one of whom is played by James Franco. The cycle continues, you see.)

Five cameos from Aaron Eckhart out of 10

The Wicker Man: The Different Cuts

Screenshot 2017-08-24 20.23.13

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The version of The Wicker Man that came out in 1973 was not what the director intended. Around 12 minutes of footage had been removed from Robin Hardy’s movie on the orders of his superiors at production company British Lion. They feared that it was too difficult a film for a general audience and also wanted a shorter cut that could be released as a B-movie. Running at 87 minutes, The Wicker Man was first released as the support for Don’t Look Now in December.

Then, in 1976, Hardy decided to release his original version in America. But there was controversy when it became apparent that his 99-minute cut had been junked, as had all 368 cans of the raw footage from the late-1972 shoot. Some people, including the movie’s star Christopher Lee, saw this as a deliberate, petulant ploy on the part of British Lion. Less paranoid people concluded that the footage has simply been misplaced. (Archiving the rushes and assembly edits from an unsuccessful horror film was not standard practice in the 1970s.)

It was then recalled that a print of the longer version had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman in LA when he’d been asked for advice on how to market the movie. Being a film geek, Corman had kept his copy – so it was now used for the basis of a rerelease in 1977. (Ironically, Hardy took the opportunity to take out a few scenes.)

I’ve already reviewed the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, so this is a look at the extra footage that’s contained in the original director’s cut. It’s not an extensive list of every difference; just a discussion of the interesting ones. Some of these moments were trimmed out for the 1977 release, but all three versions are now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

* Because any scenes that were cut out in 1973 are taken from Corman’s viewing print, the picture quality is not as strong.
* As originally released in 1973, The Wicker Man begins with policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on the island of Summerisle. In the earlier director’s cut, however, that arrival is preceded by six minutes of storytelling… On the mainland, Howie chats to a colleague called McTaggart (John Hallam) and walks past some graffiti on a wall that reads ‘Jesus saves’. Howie agrees with the sentiment but still wants it removed. McTaggart then gently ridicules his superior after Howie asks how things are in the town: “Just the usual,” he replies. “Rape, sodomy, sacrilege.”
* Next, we see Howie attending and speaking at a church service (some footage of which was used in the theatrical cut as brief flashbacks). We get a closer look at his fiancée, Mary (Alison Hughes), while the minister is played by director Robin Hardy in a Hitchcock-style cameo.
* In the next scene, a postman (Tony Roper) delivers a letter to the police station and shares a joke with McTaggart about the uptight, prudish Howie. “Ah, poor old Mary,” says the postman. “When those two are married, she’ll spend more time on her knees in church than on her back in bed!” Howie then walks in on them laughing. The letter, of course, is the one telling Howie about the missing Rowan Morrison. He says he’ll visit the island of Summerisle and will be away overnight.
* We then cut to him flying to the island in his seaplane – ie, the opening scene of the theatrical version.
* The film’s first in-story song, The Landlord’s Daughter, has an extra verse in the longer cut. During it, the landlord (Lindsay Kemp) bangs the optics with a pair of spoons and we get a look at the musicians.
* Later in the same scene, after the landlord says that last year’s harvest-festival photo is missing because the frame broke, there’s an extra shot of him looking meaningfully at the space on the wall.
* A major bit of restructuring occurs now. In the longer cut of the film, Willow (Britt Ekland) doesn’t sing her sexy song at this point in the story. Instead, we see the musicians in the pub (including the film’s composer) singing a gentle, sensual folk song. Outside, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears under Willow’s bedroom window and introduces her to a boy called Ash Buchanan (Richard Wren). This is clearly a regular arrangement: Summerisle brings Willow young men for her to bed. Howie watches on bemused. Then Summerisle has a long speech about how he likes animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to ‘God.’” Later, Howie is trying to sleep but has to ignore the sound of Willow and Ash having sex.
* The next morning, Howie and Willow share a quick scene and he asks where the school is. In the theatrical version it was replaced by a scene (absent from the long cut) where Willow wakes Howie with a cup of tea and says, “I thought you were going to come and see me last night.” (Because, of course, in that version of the film she’s already tried tempting Howie into bed.)
* A scene that was cut out in 1973 shows Howie questioning the island’s unhelpful doctor (John Sharp). Howie has been told that the missing Rowan Morrison has died and asks the GP how. “She was burnt to death,” he says. “As my lunch will be if I continue here talking to you.”
* Willow’s siren song happens now – during Howie’s *second* night on the island. As well as being moved, a verse was trimmed out when the film was edited down in 1973.
* In the longer edit Howie’s frantic search of the island has a couple of moments that were missing in the theatrical cut: he looks in the hairdressers, then falls down someone’s stairs.

REVIEW: It may be sacrilege to say it, but the shorter, butchered version of The Wicker Man is a better film than the original director’s cut. The theatrical print is leaner, tauter, pacier and jumps straight into the story, whereas the longer version has scenes that you just don’t need. The opening, for example, is six minutes of hammering home Howie’s puritanical, uptight Christianity. But cutting it in 1973 didn’t damage the film because later scenes (and Edward Woodward’s excellent performance) sell the notion perfectly well and more economically. The other major difference between the cuts is the shifting of Willow’s song from the story’s second night to its first. Again, the enforced change helps the movie. Not only does it pull Britt Ekland’s nudity forward – this is, after all, an exploitation film – but it means we lose Summerisle’s original introduction. His first scene in the director’s cut is a rather naff and redundant scene where we spy him standing him outside Willow’s window. In the 1973 release print, he gets a much stronger first moment: Howie thinks he’s in an empty room in Summerisle’s mansion, then Christopher Lee appears from behind a high-backed chair.

Nine slugs out of 10

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This website was incredibly helpful in providing information and context.

Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)


SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10