A police sergeant is sent to a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl whom the townsfolk claim never existed. Stranger still are the rites that take place there. (IMDB synopsis)
First of all, I’d like to apologise for bringing this review to you so late on a Monday night. I had to bring a lot of work home with me today, and hopefully things will be back on track in time for Friday’s review. But anyway. Today’s film is the original version of The Wicker Man (so, rest assured Nicholas, there shall be no bees today). I forget the name of the nice young lady who requested this over deviantArt, but I hope she enjoys my take on it. Tally ho!
We first see our protagonist, Sergeant Neil Howie, taking communion or something like it. To be honest, I haven’t set foot in a church for a long time; I always get the funny feeling I’ll step inside and burst into flames. The next time we see him, Howie flies his hydroplane to sunny Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child. And he’s immediately surrounded by Simon and Garfunkel-style guitar strumming and annoying highland singing, the kind of which Billy Connolly has oft complained.
It quickly becomes apparent to the upstanding and God-loving officer that the people of Summerisle are not Christian types. Instead, they happily knock boots in the open, teach children of the phallic symbolism of the spring maypole, use toads as a remedy for sore throats and generally frolick in the nuddy as often as they possibly can. As Howie continues to search for the missing girl, Rowan Morrison, he grows increasingly frustrated at the unhelpful villagers and libidinous way of life. Unfortunately for him, the truth behind the girl’s disappearance is much darker than he could ever have suspected.
Now then. I’d watched the film’s final scene far in advance of sitting down to watch the entire thing. That’s not entirely my fault; I just like a good horror movie countdown. I like any countdown, really. So I knew the film’s plot twist going in. Did that ruin the plot for me? No. It allowed me to sit back and watch the story unfold to get to that point. Actually, it seemed to go on for longer than I expected, and apparently I didn’t watch the longer version.
I feel like The Wicker Man has a few things in common with The Gorgon – for one thing, both films contain a lot of talking and exposition before the final ‘reveal’, and for another thing, both films contain Christopher Lee. In this, he plays Lord Summerisle, the grandson of the island founder and apparently a member of the aristocracy. It’s unclear whether or not he actually buys into the worship of old gods, but he certainly doesn’t mind indulging in it. Towards the end, when he dresses in a long black wig and yellow frock for the mayday celebration, he looks utterly terrifying and a little amusing. But I like his character a lot. He has an understated creepiness. Maybe it’s the voice. Lee has the booming voice of a god himself. No wonder people take notice of him.
As for Edward Woodward’s Howie… well, not such an ambiguous character there. He’s a good man at heart, unrelenting in his search for the endangered girl. At first, Howie seems unapproachable due to the stiff upper face and religious pragmatism he carries with him at all times; however, he demonstrates more and more real emotion as the story progresses. He also becomes a tragic character in the literal sense. You see, the islanders hope to revive their dying crops with a human sacrifice, and in fact Howie has been drawn to the island to serve as that very sacrifice. Throughout the film, he’s lead to believe that Rowan is the one in danger, when HE more accurately fits the bill.
“He came of his own free will, by representing The Law has “the power of a king”, is a virgin, and is a fool.” (Wikipedia sums it up nicely)
The funny part is that if Howie had acted differently, it might have saved his life. Some of the villagers tell him to avoid the Mayday celebrations – but of course he doesn’t, because he wants to be there to save Rowan. The landlord’s daughter, Willow, turns up the night before to rid him of his pesky virginity, but of course he declines, not being a fan of premarital hanky-panky. (Someone in my RE class felt the same way, but he also planned to marry around the age of fourteen. Good thinking, Sam.)
Oh, Howie, you only have yourself to blame here. You just needed to be understanding and open-minded and… wait, what does that gravestone say?
“Here lieth Beech Buchanan, protected by the ejaculation of serpents.”
Hm. Maybe Paganism isn’t for everyone.
And now it’s time to talk about that horror aspect. The Wicker Man certainly makes use of some creepy imagery, from the local pub that falls silent to newcomers, to the photographs of children surrounded by harvest veggies, to a beetle on a string, to a jar of foreskins (what?), to a naked song-and-dance, to Chrisopher Lee in a dress… I could go on. The soundtrack also contributes to the atmosphere, evoking a strong sense of this Paganistic culture with songs that experts like to call ‘old as f***’. Very creepy indeed, especially to audiences in the 1970s. At the time of the film’s release, people were growing very interested in cults, and regular church attendance was starting to decline (according to my research, anyway).
I think it was a wise move, making a film that tried to be cleverer than most others in its genre. The Wicker Man doesn’t rely on supernatural goings-on or bucket-loads of viscera (the jar of foreskins notwithstanding). It relies almost entirely on the stellar acting skills of Woodward, Lee and many others to press home the frightfulness of the entire situation. My favourite scene came at the very end, when Howie is locked up inside the eponymous Wicker Man and left to burn to death. You can see the genuine terror on his face as the flames grow higher and the trapped animals around him get Kentucky-fried. But it’s not just this that terrifies him – it’s the fact that he’s the only voice for Christianity in his final moments of life. Nobody’s coming to save him, and his captors and their beliefs far outnumber him. Awesome.
I was thoroughly impressed by this film. The plot was astoundingly well-constructed, played with viewer expectations and delivered a devastating punchline at the very end. There wasn’t a lot to find fault with – just that the film spawned a hilarious remake. I’d definitely recommend this one.
8 jam sandwiches.