Devout Christian police officer Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous letter telling him that a young girl, 12 year old Rowan Morrison, went missing a year ago and hasn’t been seen since. Armed only with the letter, a photo and his unbreakable religious beliefs, Howie sets out to the secluded island of Summerisle, where he is met by hostility from the locals, who do not approve of a mainlander on their soil, and all deny any knowledge of Rowan’s existence. As Howie investigates further, he is met by obstructions at every turn, and discovers the islands inhabitant’s rituals and ideology may have a more sinister cause for Rowan’s disappearance than the policeman could ever have imagined.
First things first, I’ve not seen the 2006 Nicolas Cage remake, so I can’t really discuss that film here, which is fine, because this post isn’t about that film, it’s about the 1973 original. I have seen a few of Cage’s clips online, and I was glad to see that at no point did Edward Woodward (who, by the way, has the greatest name ever, I can’t stop saying it) explode into a torrent of “How’d it get burned?!?”, have a cage of bees strapped to his head, or perform a running punch whilst dressed as a bear. I had, however, seen this version before, but I now realise it was a heavily edited-for-TV cut, as although I watched it some years ago, I cannot remember nearly as much of the frankly disturbing goings-on that occurred in this film.
Even though it is essentially about a cult, and it’s seen through the eyes of an outsider, there is a lot of this film that’s difficult to fully come to terms with, particularly the downright infuriating manner in which the children of the island are taught. For example, with their forthcoming May Day celebrations, the lessons focus on the maypole, and how it symbolises the penis. Strips of flesh are hung by gravestones, one of which reads ‘Protected by the Ejaculation of Serpents’. Oh, and graveyards are apparently appropriate places to breastfeed children. The children are also encouraged to sing, which I’ve got no problem with, unless the lyrics contain such gems as “On that bed, there was a girl. And on that girl, there was a man. And from that man, there was a seed. And from that seed, there was a boy.” Bear in mind these children are all pre-teen, maybe even by a fair few years in some cases.
Oh yes, the singing. I’ve decided that if I ever revisit my Top 5 Films That Should Be Musicals, this film is a prime candidate for the sub-list of ones that already pretty much are ones. There are far more songs here than I had expected, and their diversity was something of a surprise. You’ve got a group of naked women prancing around a stone circle singing about pregnancy, and elsewhere there’s an impressively impromptu pub-wide rendition of The Landlord’s Daughter, which must have taken rather a lot of choreographing, seeing as no-one steps on anyone else’s lines. Britt Ekland, who plays Willow, the aforementioned innkeeper’s spawn, even gets her own solo (though I think she was dubbed by someone). Her song, creatively named Willow’s Song on the soundtrack, plays out like a pornographic music video, as Ekland, naked of course, sings directly to the camera as she gyrates ferociously around her room, slapping herself and beating on the wall in an effort to entice the neighbouring Howie to come and attend to her. Understandably, this is one of the more memorable of the film’s scenes, but the breaking of the fourth wall was distracting, and it felt like it went on for far too long.
I very much approved of how we as the audience are kept as much in the dark as Howie is as he goes about his quest, only realising something’s up when he does, at which point of course it’s too late. Woodward also does a good job with Howie’s character, establishing a hero who is something of a dick, and definitely not a people person. I don’t want to get into a debate about religion (in short, it’s not for me), but I’m glad that I’ve never met someone who is quite so steadfast in their beliefs as Howie, who is utterly appalled when he discovers the island education system doesn’t contain anything to do with the teachings of Jesus, as the only religion he even acknowledges the existence of is Christianity, proving he is possibly just as obsessed or bigotted as the islanders themselves.
Even with so many distubing aspects – the thought of the beetle slowly crawling around the desk until it strangles itself still upsets me a little – I can’t help but appreciate this film as being a thoroughly engaging mystery, with an enrapturing plot that, even though I had an inkling of a memory as to what the ending was, I couldn’t wait to see pan out to find out exactly what was going on. Also, Christopher Lee is generally brilliant in anything, here appearing as the charming Lord Summerisle. I’d have appreciated a little less music and a lot less insanity, but I’m still very pleased to have seen it again. Oh, and I’m fairly sure the Salmon of Knowledge was from a lost Monty Python sketch.
Choose film 7/10