The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

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Christopher Lee led the islanders in a merry dance - sing cuckoo...
Christopher Lee led the islanders in a merry dance – sing cuckoo…

Twitter Plot Summary: Christian copper Sgt Howie travels to the island of Summerisle to investigate the case of a missing girl. The locals are weird.

Five Point Summary:

1. The Dandy Barman!
2. Jar of foreskins…
3. The Temptation of Sergeant Howie
4. Need a hand?!
5. The shadow of the Wicker Man is rising up again…

Ever since my university days I have had a soft spot for The Wicker Man, the 1973 horror/thriller/musical multiple genre hybrid that saw a puritanical Christian police officer visit an isolated island community off the coast of Scotland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. On reaching the island the officer, Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward), is repeatedly given conflicting information by the locals who are devout followers of the pagan gods. Spending 2-3 days on the island, Howie starts to unravel the mystery placed in front of him whilst trying (and failing) to deal with the un-Christian attitudes and iconography that faces him everywhere he turns.

Anyone wanting to call this an out and out horror film are wrong – yes, there is the now infamous inevitable, horrific conclusion, and there is a constantly building sense of unease and tension that develops as Howie gets deeper into his investigation – the failed crops in last year’s harvest; the subtle yet sinister attitudes of everybody on the island; the charm offensive of Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle – yet it’s as much a folk-oriented musical and police procedural thriller as it is a horror film. The soundtrack tells a story in itself, the tracks chosen specifically to enhance the island existence and to some extent make clear how their lifestyle differs from that on the mainland. It doesn’t hurt that the songs themselves are also great to listen to in isolation.

There have been several cuts of the film over the years. The version I am most familiar with is the Director’s Cut which saw several minutes of previously unseen/unused footage reinserted into the narrative. More recently the film has been re-released with what is being dubbed The Final Cut, which I have recently watched in its rather impressive restored Blu-Ray edition. The narrative doesn’t differ too extensively between the versions, but the main point to raise is the number of nights Howie spends on the island, and at what point Lord Summerisle is introduced into the narrative.

The decor on the island of Summerisle left a lot to be desired.
The decor on the island of Summerisle left a lot to be desired.

Performances are strong across the board, although given that this is supposed to be a Scottish island there’s a distinct lack of appropriate accents for the region. Britt Ekland might look the part but she can’t manage a Scots accent. It’s therefore somewhat disappointing that all of her dialogue is obviously dubbed. It’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things, in particular when you also take into account that she had a bum double in one key scene. Christopher Lee doesn’t command much in terms of screen time, but he is an intriguing presence every time he makes an appearance. Charming and erudite, there’s still an air of sinister intention about him at every juncture, and I doubt there are many other actors of that particular era who could convey such menace whilst offering a pleasant smile. The interplay between Lord Summerisle and Sgt Howie zings and is a highlight in a film of highlights. And on that note, Woodward is excellent as Howie – the character has depth

Praise also must be bestowed on the script for building up the tension slowly over the course of the 90-100 minute running time (depending on which version you watch), and for similarly slowly revealing the extent of Sgt Howie’s puritanical zeal in the face of unrepentant paganism. As time goes on, Howie becomes less and less of the classic hero archetype and more somebody to root against as his intolerance for non-Christian beliefs becomes more pronounced.

Then of course there is the final scene. Moving, powerful and unerringly inevitable. There’s no heroic rescue, no last minute reprieve. Howie is ultimately a victim of his own intolerance, and the horror is ultimately his own to bear. At one point he states that he is only interested in the law, which to the audience and, no doubt, to the island inhabitants is a clear lie and an indication that Howie is blind to his own religious zeal. Somewhat appropriately, The Wicker Man raises many questions about faith and religion, yet creates genuine debate on its themes rather than a slanging match from the various sides of the argument. That in itself should be a clear indication of its quality.

Score: 5/5

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21gb49H-Uo4

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