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15 Fascinating Facts About The Wicker Man

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Though in many ways it was a cinematic oddity, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie The Wicker Man has captured the imaginations of critics and devoted fans with its representation of life on a remote Scottish island, depictions of pagan rites (with weird animal masks), and a combination of whimsy, musicality, and dread. Christopher Lee’s turn as Lord Summerisle cemented his reputation as one of cinema’s great villains.

The movie has inspired filmmakers and spawned spinoffs, tributes, and an infamous 2006 remake. But The Wicker Man’s road has been rough to say the least. Its makers wanted to offer something new and more substantial in a horror landscape dominated by monsters and busty women, an attempt that was met with incomprehension and outright hostility by the production studios. Fortunately, it has survived in all its strange and fascinating glory. Here are some fun facts about one of cinema’s greatest pagan horror musicals.

1. ITS SCRIPT IS LOOSELY BASED ON DAVID PINNER’S 1967 NOVEL, RITUAL.

Author David Pinner wrote Ritual as a script treatment for another director, but adapted it into a novel after the director declined the project. The Wicker Man screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, and actor Christopher Lee later acquired the rights to the story, which combined elements of mystery and the occult and involved the mysterious death of a teenage girl in a Cornish village. Shaffer, however, decided the novel would not adapt well to the screen and used its basic outline to craft a new story.

2. JAMES GEORGE FRAZER’S THE GOLDEN BOUGH WAS ALSO AN INSPIRATION.

Shaffer and director Robin Hardy—who passed away on July 1, 2016—plumbed Frazer’s seminal work of comparative mythology for ideas, drawing liberally from the different traditions Fraser described then fashioning them into a believable modern pagan religion with ancient roots. Hardy also said he was deeply influenced by The Wicker Image, a 1676 engraving depicting a giant, humanoid, cage-like figure with compartments full of human offerings. 

3. THE STORY IS SET IN THE SPRING, BUT SHOOTING TOOK PLACE MOSTLY IN NOVEMBER.

The pagan romps of The Wicker Man transpire amid spring’s fecundity, but because of studio British Lion’s financial troubles, production was rushed and the film was shot in late fall in Scotland. The art department had to create the illusion of spring by attaching artificial blossoms to bare branches and bringing in fake apple trees, while cast members had to hold ice in their mouths to keep their breath from steaming in the cold air.

4. NONE OF THE MOVIE’S SCENES WERE ACTUALLY SHOT ON AN ISLAND.

The story unfolds on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle, but filming happened in several coastal locations around the production base in Newton Stewart, Scotland. The film’s opening aerial images were filmed en route to the Isle of Skye and in South Africa, where there were more blossoming trees, while director Hardy was on a commercial shoot.

5. STAR CHRISTOPHER LEE CONSIDERED IT TO BE HIS BEST FILM, AND HIS BEST PERFORMANCE.

Lee, who had been typecast for years as a blood-sucker in Hammer horror films, had sworn off playing Dracula and was looking for more challenging roles. An acquaintance of Shaffer, Lee was involved in the development of the film from the beginning and would later champion it as it struggled to find a commercial foothold. Lee declared The Wicker Man to be “the best film I’ve ever been in, the best part I’ve ever had. And—not that I’m a judge at all—the best performance I’ve ever given.”

6. LEE WAS NOT PAID TO APPEAR IN THE MOVIE.

Apparently Lee’s desire to walk away from Dracula was so great that he reportedly agreed to play the starring role of Lord Summerisle for free.

7. ACTRESS BRITT EKLAND HAD A BUTT DOUBLE.

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Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who plays the innkeeper’s seductive daughter Willow MacGregor, was already known as a sex symbol due to previous roles in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and Get Carter (1971). She agreed to appear topless in The Wicker Man, but refused to let her rear end be shown. Two body doubles, an exotic dancer and an 18-year-old extra, were brought in for Willow’s famous dance in a doorway and to stand in for her backside. Her semi-nudity still caused trouble, though, when she later dated Rod Stewart, who reportedly tried to buy up all of the film’s negatives and destroy them so that no one could look at his naked girlfriend.

Ekland’s butt was not the only thing that was faked. Her dialogue and singing were later dubbed over with the voice of Scottish singer Annie Ross, to Ekland’s dismay, because Ekland could not pull off a passable Scottish accent.

8. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF THE FILM.

After production was completed, Hardy assembled a 99-minute version of the film based on the original script. But EMI Films, who had bought out British Lion Films during production and whose executive, Michael Deeley, detested the movie, excised a large portion of it, releasing an 87-minute version to theaters. In 1976, Hardy decided to try and reassemble the original film, but was unable to obtain the original negatives from EMI. Hardy was able to reconstitute what he had lost from the full-length version from a copy he had given to Roger Corman, and put together a 95-minute version known as the “Director’s Cut.” This was followed in 2001 by a DVD version close to the 99-minute original, known as the “Extended version,” and finally, after the discovery of a 35mm print in Harvard’s film archives, by the release of Hardy’s “Final Cut” in 2013.

9. THE FILM’S ORIGINAL NEGATIVE MAY LIE UNDER THE M3 HIGHWAY IN ENGLAND.

Stewart’s threats to destroy the footage were unnecessary. EMI executives, foisting off Hardy’s requests for the original footage in 1976, eventually told him that the 368 canisters of film he sought had been used as filler in construction of Britain’s M3 highway, even leading producer Peter Snell to the landfill and pointing to a trove of cans at the bottom of a hole to underscore the point.

10. IT WAS ORIGINALLY RELEASED AS A DOUBLE FEATURE WITH NICOLAS ROEG’S DON’T LOOK NOW.

The Wicker Man-hating executives at EMI saw a chance to unload the film’s theatrical version by appending it to another movie as a B picture. It finally limped into public view in the shadow of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was having its second run in London in 1973. The release was particularly insulting to The Wicker Man given that the A/B movie system had practically been abolished by that time.

11. MOST SONGS IN THE SOUNDTRACK ARE BASED ON TRADITIONAL FOLK TUNES.

The film’s songs are one of its most unique features and important enough to the narrative that it could almost be considered a musical. American composer Paul Giovanni arranged the soundtrack based on or inspired by traditional songs and recorded them with folk band Magnet. The lyrics of the opening song “Corn Rigs” are taken from a ballad by 18th-century poet Robert Burns, while the song “Sumer Is Icumen In,” sung during the final burning scene, is a traditional 13th-century song.

12. SERGEANT HOWIE’S STUNNED LOOK AT THE END IS GENUINE.

The stricken look on the face of the sacrificial Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, as he is brought to the eponymous Wicker Man was real, as Woodward had seen only drawings of the giant prop before. Not only that, but the scene was shot in an incredible rush, as the production was on the run from studio heads who wanted to shut it down. Woodward had no time to learn his lines and had to read them off of giant letters on bed sheets hung from nearby cliffs.

13. A GOAT INSIDE THE WICKER MAN ALSO FOUND THE PREDICAMENT VERY UPSETTING.

Hardy reported that as the crew set the giant on fire and filmed the final scene from below, a goat in one of the man’s compartments above peed on them. Hardy also stressed that the fire was kept under control and was put out soon afterward, and that no animals were harmed while filming the scene.

14. THE STUDIO WANTED A MORE CHEERFUL ENDING.

EMI executives suggested a more “upbeat” ending in which Howie’s life is saved, even suggesting that a torrential rain put out the fire consuming the wicker man. Hardy flatly refused this proposal.

15. IT INSPIRED A SCOTTISH MUSIC AND ARTS FESTIVAL.

The Wicker Man Festival has been held every summer since 2001 in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, near where the film was shot. Unfortunately, the 2016 festival has been canceled due to the tragic death of its co-founder, Jamie Gilroy; it will return again in 2017.

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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