I’ll only really ever associate Christopher Lee with one specific film. One which I've watched at least once a year for the past fifteen years.
My friend Jenn and I have an annual tradition of spending our New Year’s Eves watching The Wicker Man. As the midnight bells chime we can usually hear normal people drunkenly revelling in the distance, but we’re holed up in one of our living rooms, drinking cans of cheap lager, eating a takeaway and watching Christopher Lee recite Walt Whitman to a pair of copulating snails.
For those few miserable uninitiated: the late Sir Christopher plays Lord Summerisle, ruler of a Scottish island that a frigid police officer, Sergeant Howie played by Edward Woodward, is called on to investigate, only to find folkloric ritual and pagan superstition have taken hold of the locals.
Our own ritual is something which began when we were teenagers. I first bought the film on VHS, part of a 3 for 2 offer in HMV, and showed up at the dingy flat where Jenn lived with her inappropriate boyfriend. We were hoping for some camp 1970’s Hammer-style entertainment, all cheap schlock, primped Victoriana and gratuitous nudity. But, while The Wicker Man comes replete with many of the hallmarks of its era – the hairdos, the arch innuendo, that wondeful nudity – at its heart is something I found frightening and profound: an inquisition into what it means to have faith; how belief can be a balm, a guide, but how it can also be lethal and lunatic.
And it’s a very beautiful film, beautiful in its strangeness. The Wicker Man transported us – much like Sergeant Howie’s flight at the beginning of the film – from the grim Northern streets we knew to a changed Britain, one made up of rolling, dreamlike and just-about-familiar imagery, with its own lawless logic, carried by punctuations of otherworldly music, like this song. Why not listen to it while you read the rest of this blogpost?
We watched the film almost constantly throughout our college years, me and Jenn, and, unless one of us somehow finds ourselves making a film, I'd say it’s pretty unlikely either of us will ever watch another with the same frequency. The dialogue itself quickly snaked into our lexicon. Adolescent friendships are buoyed by these shared, cryptic references, be that music fandom or quoted lines from TV shows. Instead we had this weird 70’s folk-horror film: phrases such as ‘The poor wee lassie’s naval string’ and ‘Shocks are always best absorbed with the knees bent’ were noisily segued into our English classes, to the confusion of our teacher and the irritation of our classmates. This tradition was honoured when Jenn, now ostensibly a grown-up, published her first novel, a fairly serious literary thriller, and smuggled a handful of lines from the film into her characters’ dialogue.
The Wicker Man has been such a constant of this friendship that I can track its progress through the concurrent technological developments: at some point I moved from a shaky VHS tape to a DVD; then to Jenn’s special edition director’s cut DVD; thence to a download; now it can be streamed. In between have been various fads and anomalies: a director’s Q&A screening, a sing-along screening, a scratch and sniff screening. There was even one New Year’s Eve when, presumably, a scheduler had caught wind of our tradition: the film was screened on ITV accompanied - in act I can't help but think of as something of a personal slight - by a rolling ticker tape at the bottom of the screen displaying a suicide hotline.
And then there's Christopher Lee. He is undoubtedly the star, providing both the film's comic relief and its dark heft: whether rattling through his lines, booming out bawdy ballads, cutting capers in drag or, his speciality, simply glaring malevolently, he brings nothing less than what I can only properly call gusto. Whenever I think of The Wicker Man the first image that comes to me is of Summerisle’s face, grimly acceding to the film’s horrific denouement. The performance, a combination of good-natured bonhomie and domineering malignance, seems a textbook example of how to create an archetypal villain: demented yet clever, believable yet complex. It’s this character of Lee-Summerisle which has loomed large in the landscape of my own life and, although 93, Christopher Lee seemed so much a part of cinema’s furniture that I, like a lot of people, unthinkingly presumed he still had a lot to give and would probably be around to do so forever (I was hopeful that a Game of Thrones cameo was in the pipeline).
And so it’s a shame he’s passed away, of course. But it’s also heartening to know that there are people who are capable of good lives – full and long – and who are able to figure so heavily in the lives of people they’ve never met, their art – even if it’s a silly horror film – forming that important, serious glue which gives friendships their shape and their bind.