In 1973, I went to see a very unusual British film. Though always described as a ‘Horror’ film, it is really nothing of the sort. Though it does have a ‘demonic’ theme, it is really more about Pagan beliefs, and the activities of a cult. The pedigree of this film is excellent. Written by Anthony Shaffer, and starring Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward, Brit Ekland, and Ingrid Pitt, it was made by British Lion, but in the spirit of the familiar Hammer productions of the period.
In the search for a missing girl, a police sergeant (Woodward) travels to the remote Scottish island of ‘Summerisle’. Once there, he is appalled to discover strange practices, including public sex, nude dancing, and the following of Pagan beliefs and rituals. We are aware that the sergeant is a devout Christian, and also a virgin, facts that have a relevance later. He visits Lord Summerisle, (Lee) the man who owns the island and is the head of the weird community there, and he avoids a seduction attempt from the glamorous Willow. (Ekland) As his enquiries continue, the theme becomes darker, and there is information that the missing girl may be in danger of being sacrificed to the Pagan gods, to ensure a good harvest. The sergeant does his best to rescue the girl, leading to a now famous climax on the clifftops of the island.
This is a very unusual film that now rightly has ‘Cult’ status. At the time, it was considered to be a little outrageous, but was very popular with the critics, and audiences too. The various cast members are all on great form, ensuring that the film never feels silly or contrived, and it builds the tension very nicely. Filmed on location in Scotland, the sets and scenery add to the authenticity, and this is regarded to be one of the most important British films made during that period.
In 2006, Nicolas Cage starred in an ill-advised remake, made in America. Using much the same plot, with some alterations to the characters, it follows a policeman searching for the missing daughter of his ex-fiance. He travels to an island to conduct his search, and discovers a strange community of people led by a woman, Sister Summerisle, (Ellen Burstyn) who produce honey. The rest is much the same as the original, and the ending more or less identical. But this isn’t just the usual pointless remake. It is also a terrible film. The sometimes-reliable Cage goes completely overboard, with a performance so farcical that audiences believed it to be a comedy. Burstyn (a great actress) was completely wasted, and the film lost millions, as well as being reviled by the critics. It really is just rubbish.