Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Movie: Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Police (television actor Edward Woodward) travels by seaplane to Summerisle, a small island off the coast of Scotland. Howie comes on official business; he has received an anonymous letter about the disappearance of Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), a local girl. It would appear that a horrible fate may have befallen her, and Sergeant Howie is determined to get to the bottom of it.

But it is not going to be easy. The inhabitants of Summerisle are very unhelpful, and at times even seem to be blocking his investigations. What’s more, Howie is a devout Christian and something of a bigot. The people of Summerisle are openly Pagan, and Sergeant Howie is even more angered and disgusted by their beliefs and lifestyle than he is by the potential fate of the missing girl.

The islanders’ upcoming spring celebration has Howie convinced that a horrible fate awaits Rowan; and he is determined to find her before it happens. Unfortunately, his bigotry and intolerance leaves him blind to the dark destiny that he is being led to himself…

The Review:
"The little old beetle goes 'round and 'round. Always the same way, y'see, until it ends up right up tight to the nail. Poor old thing!"-Daisy Pringle (a little girl at school)

The Wicker Man is a true classic of a movie; one that has received, quite deservingly, much admiration over the years since its release. And yet, it is a film that was almost lost. Throughout the early years of its existence, The Wicker Man was owned by individuals who neither knew nor cared what kind of treasure they had; and it was only through the devotion of the movie’s makers that it has received the recognition it deserves. For all the depressing details, look at the review for this movie on the site And You Call Yourself a Scientist, which you will find on my link to the B-Masters’ Cabal.

Unfortunately, due to this, parts of the original movie were lost. There is a restored version (which, unfortunately, I have yet to see), but even that, I understand, is missing a little bit of the running time. The version I am reviewing is, by necessity, the truncated version of the film. It really says something that even in its truncated state; Wicker Man is still an extremely moving and effective work.

At this point I must warn that to analyze this movie any further, I will have to give some serious spoilers. Admittedly, the big reveal at the end was spoiled for me long before there was an internet (yes, I am that old); and yet I still found the movie incredibly effective. Still, if you haven’t seen Wicker Man; and more so, if you are one of the rare individuals who don’t know how it ends; stop reading this, watch the movie, and then come back to see what I have to say about it. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later. This is your final warning.

Okay, here we go. In place of the typical horror movie tropes of build-up and then scare; the Wicker Man uses two very clever examples of cinematic sleight of hand to convey its horror. Actually, I don’t think I have ever seen another horror movie that employs the specific techniques Wicker Man does.

The first bit of sleight of hand is with the atmosphere and the build up to the horror. The majority of the running time of the film consists of what seem to be the typical buildups to horror that we would expect. There is the set up, and we go through it waiting for the pay-off; but it always ends up at best, anti-climactic, and at worst a very tasteless joke. As an example, there is a scene late in the film where our “hero” has taken it upon himself to do a house to house search; barging into homes and businesses and opening everything he can find. At one point he opens a wardrobe, and the body of a little girl falls out. However, after he has started to examine her, the “corpse” giggles, gets up, and runs off laughing.

What this does is subconsciously condition the viewer so that eventually, on some level, we expect that nothing serious will happen. This continues to the final build up at the very end, which is the one time the movie plays it straight. Having been conditioned to expect yet another anti-climax, the seriousness of this final outcome packs far more of a punch than it would have if all of the build-ups had paid off like we’d been led to expect.

However, at the same time these anti-climactic help to continuously build a very subtle but palpable tone of unease. From almost the beginning we get the sense of being a traveler in a foreign culture (and make no mistake, Summerisle may be technically under Sergeant Howie’s jurisdiction, but for all intents and purposes it is very much a different country entirely); one that seems oddly familiar and yet disconcertingly alien. While the symbols that are very much in evidence may be known to us, they are consistently outside to cultural context we are used to seeing them in. This sense of the alien combined with the very real fact that a child has disappeared sets a tone of dread; even as we are conditioned not to expect something truly terrible to happen, there is still a part of us expecting it.

The other bit of sleight of hand that makes Wicker Man so effective is in its characters. This is a movie with no true heroes, where all of the individuals we are involved with are disconcertingly ambiguous in their motivations. There are a few elements of Sergeant Howie’s circumstances that evoke our sympathies at first. The sense of being a fish out of water in a strange culture is something all of us can identify with on some level; ditto how galling it is that the locals very clearly don’t take him seriously, and are even blatantly trying to push his buttons much of the time.

However, our sympathy for the good sergeant fades very quickly. Howie proves to be one of those small-minded bigots who is utterly convinced that he, and he alone, has the lock on Truth and faith. What’s more, he feels that it’s his duty to bludgeon them into anyone who thinks differently. And whenever he fails to bludgeon the locals with his religion, he’ll attempt to bludgeon them with his civil authority and his search for Rowan instead. There are also a few parts that reveal him to be a bit of a hypocrite as well. It’s not long before I’m actually praying for something horrible to happen to him.

The locals seem just the opposite. They generally come across as happy and good natured, and at many points it’s hard not to admire and envy their lifestyle. We very quickly grow very sympathetic to their plight of having this asshole outsider barge into their community and attempt to bully them. However, there is that sense of dread we cannot help but feel. There’s also the character of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the community leader, who it becomes obvious is every bit as bigoted as Howie, just in the opposite direction.

Still, for most of the movie our main feelings tend to be sympathy for the locals and disgust for Sergeant Howie. It’s when we reach the horrifying climax that those opinions are brutally reversed. We may have been praying for something horrible to happen to the sergeant, but he certainly doesn’t deserve what does happen to him. And the villagers, who for the most part come across as, at worst, harmlessly eccentric; suddenly reveal a true and unexpected viciousness.

Probably what makes the Wicker Man most effective is that, aside from the subtly growing unease and the one true scene of horror at the end, it really doesn’t feel like a horror movie at all. Nearly all the movie, including that concluding scene, are in bright sunlight; the setting is a “quaint” little village in the middle of some truly beautiful landscape; and there is much humor and singing throughout it. The interesting thing about the latter two elements is that they do not seem intrusive at all; they are very much a part of the setting.

The singing is a part of the culture depicted, and illustrates the natives’ lifestyles very well (plus gives Howie one more thing to irritate him, what with the ribald and graphically sexual lyrics). In fact, it is a very large part of what I find to be the most effective scene of the movie, where Willow (the lovely Britt Eckland, of Royal Flash), the innkeeper’s daughter, is attempting to seduce the good sergeant in his bed from her room. The song being sung weaves a spell over the proceedings that, combined with the wonderful performances of Ekland and her body double, creates one of the most erotic and arousing scenes I have ever seen on film.

Likewise, the humor adds to the plot and the characters. Probably the part I found funniest was the expression on Sergeant Howie’s face when he steps into the girls’ classroom of the schoolhouse to find their teacher (Diane Cliento) teaching them a lesson on what the maypole represents (hint, it’s a long shaft with a knob on top, and it is a symbol of fertility). And that thing about the humor is that it also really adds to the atmosphere, and helps to throw us further off kilter as we get into what’s really going on.

In conclusion, the Wicker Man is a true movie classic. It is very well made, I cannot think of a single criticism to apply to it; and even in the truncated form which is all that’s been available to most of us for so long, it’s still pretty damn impressive. It’s also one of those movies where I notice something new every time I watch. Hopefully you will have discovered this for yourself before reading this, but even if you haven’t you should go find a copy and watch.

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