Everyone knows music is one of the foundations of horror – it’s essentially the cue for tone, jumps and all manner of heebie-jeebies; it’s what enables those quiet moments of suspense to exist, those moments where nothing much is actually happening but the music tells you those buttocks should remain clamped firmly shut; it’s the unseen horror in films. Films like The Shining are classic exercises in horror sound design. They’re almost farcically over the top, at once chaotic and endlessly atmospheric, and they are just drowning in strings. Ever since Psycho, strings have been the go-to instrument for horror, along with Omen inspired demonic chants from a bunch of choirboy castrati, and it seems like the ‘development’ of horror scores has simply been to add more strings pitched at even more ridiculous extremes of high and low.
I’m not looking at that kind of horror score today though. I’m looking at a film that went so off-center it ended up right back at horror genius. A film with an unsettlingly listenable and uncannily ‘ordinary’ soundtrack, one that’s closer to folk than Hermann but yet just as effective.
Today I’m looking at The Wickerman – the Citizen Kane of horror, if you believe Cinefantastique. And no, not the bloody Nicholas Cage one. The 1973 Robin Hardy one. The one with less bee death and more naked dancing Britt Ekland, singing Christopher Lee, vegetables, phallic Mayday’s and brilliantly Scottish policemen. The weird one.
From here on I should point out that there will be minor spoilers, possibly followed by major spoilers.
Nothing in that endlessly strange, endlessly intriguing and endlessly unsettling film is as weird as the soundtrack. Few things are as important either. Take that Mayday business I mentioned earlier, it’s actually kinda crucial to the film. It’s one of the first instances in the film that hints at the weirdly cultish society festering on the island our faithful sergeant has been sent to investigate. How is this vital context to the events that unfold related? Why, by mental, wonderful, ridiculously catchy song of course!
That is one of the funnest songs I’ve ever heard, but in this film it is creepy as hell. It just works in some weird way – maybe it’s the fact that it’s children singing this song that’s all about sex. It creates this wonderfully askew world at the heart of the film, and it’s that askew-ness, that sense of things being somehow off, that is at the heart of the genius of the film. It’s a quiet unease and a lingering dread, handled with feathery-lightness. The Shining, another film that captures that same sense of unease, serves as a neat counterpoint to The Wickerman musically. Both accomplish the same end, but, where The Shining uses one of the most farcically bombastic scores in film history, The Wickerman uses folk music and children’s songs.
It doesn’t even use them in that ridiculously kitsch and cliched way that some films use ‘innocent’ music when they want to be all ironic and clever and stuff. It just uses them to capture a little, seemingly innocuous, farming community on a remote island ruled by a strange and unsettling cult, like any remote Scottish island. Even the songs that aren’t folk, like this procession song, aren’t even particularly menacing. They’re a bit creepy, yes, but seriously, they sound more like Neutral Milk Hotel than horror. The whole album sounds more like Neutral Milk Hotel, or some kind of cheery village fete.
In fact, there are few key scenes that aren’t backed by, or preceded by, some kind of strange folky song. It’s a claustrophobic, self-contained little world where everything is all about the community, and it’s inescapable. Their music and their culture, on the surface quite pleasant and quaint, is in reality one of sex and sacrifice. One dedicated to trying to seduce Sergeant Howie.
It’s a deeply religious film, and much of the unease comes from Howie’s inner turmoil at being tempted by a society that just throws women and sex at him from the get go. It’s all about games for the community, and Howie is the like the toy, mockingly soundtracked as he digs by the playful, drunken pub band. He’s entered their world and now his journey into it is set to their tune as they gleefully monitor him and toy with him. For Howie, a devout christian, it’s a form of religious horror played out in song. For everyone else it’s just unsettling as hell to watch him squirm under the strain of knowing that a naked, dancing Britt Ekland is next door pounding the walls and singing about ‘midnight suns’ and stroking feathers; you can figure out what she’s getting at yourselves. It’s even worse when it’s all to some weird, jaunty fiddle or something.
Warning, if you were happy enough with minor spoilers, here’s the major one. Just stop reading if you haven’t seen the film, or invest in one of those Men In Black memory wiper things. Or just scroll down past that Spotify link and don’t look at the screen.
It also means that the big moments, the bits where the score is more like, well, a score, really hit home. The climax of the film features one of the few moments where the score goes big; in fact it’s probably the only moment. It’s still a song, and it’s still somewhat folky, but it’s just…bigger. It’s immensely unnerving, much like most of the end of the film, which is in itself a small tour de force. The fact that, as the protagonist of the entire damn film burns to death and screams for Christ they simply have a nice village sing-along, is so creepy, and so brilliant, that’s it’s just incredible.
The spoilers are over now, if you decided to just scroll past that bit.
What makes the soundtrack so brilliant is that it’s one of those things you may not even notice the first time round. You’ll probably be too distracted by the guys in animal masks and Christopher Lee’s, erm, Christopher Lee-ness, to realise just how weird and creepy some of the songs are, or how brilliantly they feed into the rest of the film. Really, you just need to watch this film. And that’s only partly so that you know that, once, a long time ago, there was another Wicker Man film and it was brilliant and it had no bees and it had no honey and it had no burnt toast, and no fighty Nicolas Cage either. Mostly you should watch this film because it’s brilliant and unlike almost any other horror film in how it captures dread. Don’t go in expecting Saw violence or slasher film jumpiness, go in expecting to be really creeped out and unnerved, and amazed at how incredible that Scottish policeman’s voice is.