Radiohead's new single "Burn the Witch" skewers British politics in stop-motion form. Thanks to the straightforward nature of much of the video's allegory, it's easy to pick up on many of the social messages even if you're not British.
The song's music video takes you on a tour of a macabre English village, where houses are marked for an ominous Passover, whole bulls are roasted on spits, women are tied to trees as part of a strange masked ritual, and a wicker man presides over all. As Radiohead warns, "Shoot the messenger … we know where you live," we're shown the town through the point of view of an increasingly baffled inspector who ultimately gets to meet the wicker man himself.
But while the basic concept of a work themed around the phrase "burn the witch" has been on Radiohead's radar since at least 2002, fans could miss Radiohead's perhaps inadvertent tribute to a more recent meta-commentary on small English villages: the movie Hot Fuzz.
Hot Fuzz is a lot more than an action movie
For those of you who haven't seen director Edgar Wright's 2007 masterpiece, co-written with Simon Pegg and starring Pegg and Nick Frost, you might be wondering what an action comedy has to do with English politics.
But Hot Fuzz is anything but a standard action movie spoof. Jam-packed with references, Hot Fuzz is a giant running meta-commentary on the quintessential pastoral English village. It's dripping with layered homages to English garden mysteries, horror films, vintage British comedy, and more.
Hot Fuzz takes place in an idyllic hamlet called Sandford, a rural paradise that's won the British "Village of the Year" award an unholy number of consecutive times. (In real life, the part of Sandford is played by the city of Wells in Somerset, England.) For the most part, the action in Sandford doesn't get more intense than this:
But soon after fussy detective Nick Angel (Pegg) relocates to the sleepy burg, the local Neighborhood Watch Alliance starts to give him a creepy vibe, bodies begin piling up, and he discovers that Sandford is harboring a terrifying number of secrets.
Hot Fuzz's plot centers on the upcoming judging for the Village of the Year award. The towns' most upstanding citizens are obsessed with winning it again, and many of them go to great lengths to keep Sandford blemish-free for the big day.
This is where Radiohead steps in. At the beginning of "Burn the Witch," a town constable appears to be consulting eagerly with the townspeople to get them to spruce up the neighborhood in anticipation of the arriving inspector.
Here's Hot Fuzz's Village of the Year inspection. (Spoiler: it doesn't go as expected.)
Here's "Burn the Witch's" equally confused inspector:
The plot of "Burn the Witch" proceeds to unfold much like the basic plot of Hot Fuzz as well as that of the British cult horror classic The Wicker Man: The inspector, standing in for the two police sergeants from both films, is presented with a series of bizarre and over-the-top community rituals, each one increasingly macabre.
But instead of realizing how sinister these rites appear to the average outsider, the community is totally brainwashed to believe their murderous ways are the new norm. It all culminates in an actual burning wicker man, while the inspector narrowly escapes being charbroiled to death.
These homages are all part of what some fans have called "The Camberwickerman" — the eerie comparisons between two cult British classics, both of which ultimately connect back to Hot Fuzz.
The unlikely trilogy that serves as the cornerstone inspiration for "Burn the Witch"
Trumptonshire is a trilogy of interconnected animated children's television films that aired on the BBC in the late '60s.
The three films — Camberwick Green, Trumpton, and Chigley — were widely parodied, overly simplistic visions of an English garden village utopia. Each installment of the series explored the happy residents of a small rural town dealing with a small problem nearly always solved by community teamwork.
In one episode, the owner of a mill has to get townspeople to help him whistle down the wind. In another, the town has to battle an errant beehive. And so on.
"Burn the Witch" uses not only stylistic references to the Trumptonshire films but also visual references to many of the characters. But Radiohead goes further, referencing another beloved classic about an English village.
Like any idyllic, utopic hamlet populated by ridiculously happy people, there's an element of sinister creepiness to the entire Trumptonshire scenario. And that's exactly what a 1973 cult classic presented better than any film before or since.
The Wicker Man skewers the notion of perfect communities
At the chilling end of the Radiohead video, happy villagers lead the inspector to a waiting wicker man, where they proceed to nearly burn him alive.
But even before the climax, there are plenty of references to the famous 1973 horror musical (yes, horror musical) classic The Wicker Man. Famously touted as horror maven Christopher Lee's favorite film he worked on, The Wicker Man is a surreal treatise on utopian idealism gone terribly wrong.
Brimming with dark comedy and cheery musical numbers up until its horrifying finale, The Wicker Man threads a basic conservative "slippery slope" argument through its depiction of a remote English island, Summerisle, known for its crisp delicious apples, which miraculously grow year-round on the island.
When a frigid, virginal police sergeant heeds a call from someone on the island to investigate a missing person report, he discovers it to be teeming with sexually charged paganism and ruled by a single man, Lord Summerisle.
In The Wicker Man, the villagers will do anything to secure their annual crop of beautiful reputation-making apples. "Burn the Witch" references this through its recurring image of "Jobe" tomatoes. The Wicker Man's spring maypole is referenced — but this time it's a hangman's noose.
And the chilling sequence where masked figures holding swords dance around a girl bound to a tree recalls a similar sequence — part of the elaborate masked ritual the Summerisle denizens use to lure their sergeant to his ultimate doom.
Hot Fuzz is one giant homage to The Wicker Man, which makes "Burn the Witch" comparisons inevitable
Hot Fuzz picks up where The Wicker Man left off, reinventing Edward Woodward's uptight sergeant as an anal-retentive modern copper having trouble adjusting to country life.
The detectives in both films find themselves totally out of their depth when faced with the lengths the villagers are willing to go to preserve their town's spotless reputation. And in both films, the community forms a deep-set cult of belief to justify its murderous tendencies.
But don't just take my word for it — Hot Fuzz itself contains commentary on its own homage to The Wicker Man.
In the earlier film, the part of the anal big-city detective who's ultimately killed by Summerisle's terrifying village cult is played by Edward Woodward. Years later, Hot Fuzz chose to cast Woodward as the town priest of Sandford — only this time he's a part of the community's vicious cult of killers.
Hot Fuzz's finale sees him being taken out by detective Nick Angel in a clever inversion of the ending of The Wicker Man: This time, Woodward is a member of a remote village cult who's done in by a determined copper from the big city.
"Burn the Witch" also contains several visual and aesthetic references to Hot Fuzz. Notably, the village inspector inspects the town's model village, which is the centerpiece for one of Hot Fuzz's best gags.
But what's most interesting is what it does with its village inspector compared with the endings of The Wicker Man and Hot Fuzz. In The Wicker Man, Woodward's detective is forced into the wicker man, where he burns alive. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg's detective escapes and fights back. In "Burn the Witch," the village inspector, despite all the disturbing things he's seen that day, climbs willingly into the wicker man — and this might be what allows him to miraculously escape later, just a little singed.
And what of the detective? He could easily be the officiant showing the inspector around. It's almost as if Radiohead watched the two movies and then came up with an alternate fanfic version of Hot Fuzz in which Simon Pegg's sergeant has become a corrupt member of the batshit cult society he once set out to oppose, and now is thoroughly behind the tactics his citizens are willing to employ in order to secure the Village of the Year award.
Given the authoritarianism that's fueling Donald Trump's victory in the Republican primary and giving credence to UK conservatives like the Independence Party, it's easy to see "Burn the Witch" as a commentary on brainwashed citizenry falling behind sinister leaders like Lord Summerisle and Sandford's Neighborhood Watch Alliance. The village inspector's narrow escape might be read as a not-so-subtle warning to the rest of us, a sign that no one is ever just an outside observer. Sooner or later we all become party to the madness of a dystopian society.
Or you could just take it as a sign you should really watch both movies again. We highly recommend it.