Becoming an Icon

A kid among the Monster Boomers can’t let the death of Christopher Lee go by without comment. How many hours of my childhood were spent watching movies on Saturday afternoon TV with his many personae arresting my attention? And, of course, his prolific output just kept on coming. The Wicker Man, for instance, would never have been among my childhood fare, but his performance as Lord Summerisle is still captivating and sends shivers down my spine. Of course, he wasn’t always a horror movie star. His voice nevertheless conditioned us to be on our guard, for we knew something untoward was about to happen.

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

I often ponder the lure of monster movies. As a young boy, I couldn’t get enough of them. I tried to grow out of this stage, and managed pretty well through my doctoral work, but then when I found myself in a Gothic seminary where my life would be shredded and discarded, I suddenly found myself sitting up late to watch movies my family would not care to see. There was a catharsis happening here. Some would claim that it is puerile and immature—they would be the same people who’ve not been forced from careers and faced with unemployment and been dealt a failing hand by an institution that received full commitment during the formative years of an aborted career. No, those who’ve faced monsters cannot easily leave them alone.

Of course, Christopher Lee was only playing monsters. Now many people around the world can instantly recognize his name, face, or voice. We all face monsters. Our society teaches us to deny that they exist, much to our own peril. Little children, bewildered by this insanely complex world that adults have constructed, may be the ones to see most clearly. We watch the monsters on the screen so that we might figure out how to deal with them on the playground or in the boardroom. Christopher Lee was more than an actor. He was a teacher. And his best students learned something of human nature from him.

Wicker or Wicked?

While I continued officially unemployed I keep to a strict regimen of not watching television except on the weekends. Since we don’t have cable or even a digital conversion box, my viewing is limited to grainy VHS tapes or DVDs. Many of them I’ve watched over and over. Last night I picked out one of perennial favorites, The Wicker Man (1973, of course!) for late-night viewing. Although classified as a horror film, the only terror comes at the very end in a scene that I always find difficult to watch. What keeps me coming back to this film is its unrelenting criticism of religious hypocrisy. (That and the longing evoked by the footage of a Scotland I left many years ago.)

Briefly told, a Highland police sergeant, Neil Howie, is lured to a fictional Summerisle in a mouse-and-cat game where he ends up the victim of a neo-pagan cult. The stunned Christian constable cannot believe the superstition evident on the island could still exist in modern Britannia, leading to one of the highlights of the film. Questioning Lord Summerisle, played by a striking Christopher Lee, Howie accuses him of paganism. “A heathen, conceivably,” Summerisle concedes in a tight shot, “but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.” Howie is shown growing increasingly rude and unsympathetic, forging a makeshift cross to lay over a Druidic burial. He threatens Lord Summerisle with being investigated by the authorities of the Christian nation under whose aegis he falls. The tensions between religions grow until the final scene.

The constant interplay between control and conviction raises again and again what the true nature of religion is. Summerisle reveals that the neo-paganism began as an expedient way to encourage the locals in growing new strains of crops. The images of palm trees in the Hebrides may seem unwarranted, but having strolled among them on the Isle of Arran nature itself belies the orthodoxies of convention. Does religion rule by force of law, depth of conviction, or pure expediency? The makers of the film were wise enough to leave that to the viewer to decide. No wonder that on many a bleary-eyed weekend night, ousted from my once stable career by the overtly religious, I choose to watch, yet again, The Wicker Man.