“The Devils” (1971)
In most cases “The Wicker Man” is a hard act to follow. Unless, that is, you follow it up with Ken Russell’s astounding, still jaw-dropping orgy of blasphemous excess “The Devils.” An absolutely incredible film, shocking and provocative and ridiculously beautiful (Derek Jarman’s spectacular yet supremely controlled set design has plenty to do with that), the film is based on a real incident that happened in 17th century France, while the infamous Cardinal Richelieu jockeyed for power at the court of Louis XIII (here portrayed as a dissolute and depraved homosexual popinjay who shoots protestants dressed as birds for sport). In the fortress city of Loudon, the popular charismatic priest Grandier (Oliver Reed, maybe in his best-ever performance) has a somewhat loose interpretation of his Holy Orders, especially those concerning women, and his virility also exerts a pull on the erotic imaginations of a local sisterhood of nuns, particularly the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave, in a totally fearless physical performance). But when Loudon’s walls come under attack by the King’s men, Grandier stands up to them, until his clandestine marriage drives Sister Jeanne, in a frenzy of sexual repression and jealousy, to accuse him of bewitching her. The witchfinder (a totally berserk Michael Gothard) is called in and it all devolves into a series of torture/rape/orgy scenes (it’s not too clear where one ends and the other begins). To think this was made just 3 years after “Witchfinder General” caused a stir? Sheesh, due respect and all but the Vincent Price vehicle features precious few scenes in which naked nuns masturbate themselves on parts of an altar-sized crucifix, or where a tied-down mother superior has a whitish goo pumped into her mouth from a phallic syringe thingie, and later (depending on which cut you’ve seen) jacks off with the charred femur bone of a heretical priest. But for all its X-ratedness (the cert it got both in the U.K. and the U.S.), it’s utterly brilliant as well, with its outrageousness, its flashes of humor (the crocodile, the carrot) and its truckloads of visual flair belying a steely intelligence that runs underneath it all as a chilling indictment of religious hypocrisy and mob mentality, and a great story about, of all things, personal redemption.
Wicker-iest elements: the “seduction” of a “Godly” man/men by a young nude woman (or 20); religious fervor leading to herd behaviour and persecution; martyrdom; death by fire; WTF-ness.
“The City of the Dead” (1960)
Feeling like the least British entry on this list, due to the producers’ insistence that all actors speak with American accents to match the film’s New England setting, “The City of the Dead” (titled “Horror Hotel” in the U.S.) is an unfairly overlooked, pacy little horror gem of the era that in structure bears more than a passing resemblance to that same year’s much more celebrated “Psycho.” Here our resourceful blonde heroine is also abruptly killed off before the halfway mark, and here again an intrepid team, led by a sibling of the girl, goes to investigate. However it’s not Norman Bates who’s behind all this, but a coven of witches who’ve survived since the 17th century due to their pact with the devil that has them sacrifice two young women every year. Fearless (if perhaps not the brightest) co-ed Nan Barlow asks not-at-all-sinister college professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) where she should go to do some more research into witchcraft. He helpfully suggests Whitewood, a decrepit town in which burnings took place some centuries before. After she disappears, her brother teams up with the granddaughter of the blind local priest (whose best witch-fighting days are behind him) to find out what happened to her. It’s a fun, well-acted and surprisingly well-made picture for a cheapie B-movie, and if it’s a lot tamer and more generic than “The Wicker Man,” it’s also over a decade earlier. And in fact the reliance on atmosphere over effects and story over spectacle means it’s weathered the intervening decades a lot better than many big-budget films from the same period.
Wicker-iest elements: Christopher Lee; human sacrifice; occult rituals; dead wildlife; significant dates; an outsider arriving into a closed community; death by fire.
A couple of other possibilities that cropped up were: B-horror maestro Jacques Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon,” a 1957 picture starring Peggy “Gun Crazy” Cummins and Dana Andrews as an American psychologist who comes to England to assist in the debunking of a certain mystic’s claims, only to fall victim to a curse—it’s pretty good but suffers from rather slack pacing and an inappropriately cuddly looking demon/monster. And 1960’s “Village of the Damned” strays rather too far from the occult theme we were going for here, but also demonstrates that skewed British sensibility in its tale of a country village in which all the women become pregnant following a mysterious few hours of lost consciousness. The creepy children they then bear, all blond and hyperintelligent and possessed of a hive mind, grow up at a prodigious rate and soon develop murderous tendencies—the film is a little ragged around the edges now, but only perhaps because it’s been so endlessly referenced, with a parody version, “The Bloodening,” even forming a central plot point in a ‘Simpsons’ episode. Meanwhile Hammer, while specialising more in creature features and monster movies in the '60s and '70s, did venture into occult territory twice, both times with Hardest Working Man In Horror Christopher Lee: the rather good “The Devil Rides Out,” in which Lee stars opposite fellow Bond villain Charles Gray, and the not-so-good-but-starry-and-excellently-titled “To the Devil a Daughter” (Richard Widmark, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott, Nastassja Kinski co-starring with Lee).
Any of these titles would be excellent warm-up or cool-down fodder after a fresh viewing of “The Wicker Man” in all its digitally restored glory, but if there’s an obvious one we’ve missed, feel free to burn us in effigy in the comments below.