Sunday, December 19, 2010

Unman, Wittering and Zigo (John Mackenzie, 1971)

In 1971 British director John Mackenzie adapted Giles Cooper's BBC radio play Unman, Wittering and Zigo into a feature film of the same name starring David Hemmings in the lead role of Mr. Ebony, an aspiring teacher who aims to get his career off to a promising start by accepting a temporary job at an upper crust boarding school, replacing a teacher who has mysteriously fallen to his death off a cliff. Ebony arrives at the small town along with his wife, and as he is given a tour of the premises by a fellow teacher, Mackenzie wastes no time subtly establishing tension through ominous shots of the students' vacant desks, shots that hint of some sinister presence soon to fill the very space the camera lingers on. And indeed, Ebony is barely able to get a foot in the door on his first day before being subjected to psychological taunts from his pupils as they calmly inform him that they were collectively responsible for the death of the previous teacher, whose penchant for cracking the whip a little too hard they did not take a liking to. Ebony calls their bluff at first, thinking himself to be the subject of some sick prank or initiation, but soon the students begin presenting items of evidence such as the dead man's blood covered wallet and his missing shoe, and being crippled by both his professional ambition and the outrageousness of the situation, Ebony is forced to comply with their demands: give the students high marks for very little work so they may be accepted into a prestigious university, and place bets for them with the local bookie (they have a system figured out for the horse races), otherwise he is likely, the kids make very clear, to suffer the same fate as the teacher before him.

With conspiratorial whiffs in the air of its coastal atmosphere, Unman, Wittering and Zigo very much anticipates the mood of a British horror classic that would come a mere two years later, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. While the latter is aided by eerie Scottish folk music that lends an air of mystery and vague menace to the proceedings, Mackenzie's film works mostly with the raw ambiance of the boarding school to the same effect: the almost overwhelming constant shuffling and pacing of students in the hallways, secretive whispers in the corner of the classroom, and in particular the presence of the island's violent waves, every crash taunting Ebony with the the mystery of his predecessor's death, as though the answer lay just out of earshot. The suspense is ratcheted up as Ebony attempts to get at the truth of the matter through separating among his students the sycophants from the ones calling the shots, but these efforts only succeed in fanning the flames, and soon both Ebony and his wife are shown precisely to what extreme the students are willing to go to protect their circle of secrecy.

The film's one misstep comes at its climax, where after an almost unbearable amount of tension has been developed between the pupils and Mr. Ebony, the screenplay sees fit to dissipate all of the mounting suspense in favor of shoehorning Hemmings' character into a situation that basically relegates him to a universal pair of eyes that bares witness to the volatile nature of peer pressure and groupthink. Though this is presented within an atypical dynamic which does raise some compelling questions and makes some interesting observations, it all still feels like a bit of a letdown, as though the filmmakers were too afraid to take this story to its logical conclusion, and thus the finale ultimately pales in comparison to the razor sharp first 90 minutes. Those 90 minutes aren't negated however, and aside from the rousing psychological gamesmanship, one of the things that I appreciated most about the film was how it didn't treat the students simply as hollow ciphers of evil, but rather makes a consistent effort to inject them with nuance and a complexity of presence and motivation that recent evil child horror efforts such as Eden Lake (just to name one) could only dream of creating. Ending aside, Unman, Wittering and Zigo still carries a lot of impact, and stands as a stellar early offering from a director who would go on to make some highly notable contributions to the world of cinema.


Ric Cooper said...

Hi Drew. Just came across your piece about Unman, Wittering and Zigo. My father Giles Cooper wrote the original 45 minute radio play (broadcast 1958) which he then adapted for TV (broadcast 1965, BBC Italia Prize entry). He then, sadly, died in 1966. His literary agent Gareth Wigan, later a major Hollywood producer, put his first film together with David Hemmings. The screenplay was an unsubtle adaptation by Simon Raven, which we found over-sensational and a bit crude in execution. Nonetheless, the film isn't bad and I wish I could get hold of a copy.

Two little things: I'm not sure where you got the "island" idea from: it's just somewhere on the coast (the cliffs in the film are in North Wales)

...and I think you mean "upper crust" not crest.

There is a rumour of a new horror adaptation coming from Dreamworks, so let me know if you hear anything in the blogosphere

Best wishes

Ric Cooper

Drew said...

Hey, Ric. Thanks a lot for dropping in and sharing that information with me. Your take on the movie is very interesting, and really makes me want to get hold of a copy of the original radio play, as a pared down, more subtle version of the story sounds quite appealing. That is also interesting about Dreamworks possibly getting a hold of it, I do think the story could be well served by a modern adaptation, but I fear the over-sensationalism and lack of subtlety you felt in the '71 version is ripe to be completely taken over the edge by Hollywood. Who knows though. I will definitely keep my eyes and ears open.

Thanks for pointing out my two errors; I think the island thing was me simply overplaying in my head the comparisons with The Wicker Man, I'm not sure why I stuck that in there. And I definitely meant to say "upper crust", that was a simple typo. I've corrected the review on both fronts.

Thanks again, Ric!

Anonymous said...

Just a little info, the film weas partially filmed at my old school St Davids College, The initial sequence of the fall of the cliff was in fact a polystyrene ball with a camera inbdide and then thrown off the Great Orme just off Llandudno

Anonymous said...

I saw this at the bottom half of a double bill on its original release. Does anyone remember what it was paired up with in UK cinemas?.