Monday, October 24, 2011

The Wicker Man (1973)

Sergent Howie (Edward Woodward, who without the "ward" becomes a terrible director), a police officer from mainland Scotland, has received an anonymous letter urging him to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison from her home on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle.  Howie flies a seaplane to the island and begins to poke around, but finds himself stonewalled at every turn.  The locals feign ignorance of the girl, her mother doesn't acknowledge Rowan's existence; all Howie gets for his efforts is frustration.
Not a clue
Even more frustrating for the strict Christian Howie is the fact that the island's people are obviously pagan.  As he wanders about town, he finds schoolchildren singing songs about sex, schoolgirls reciting the importance of the phallus in their culture, and a group of couples openly "doing it" outdoors.  When Howie eventually meets with Lord Summerilse (Christopher Lee), he declares that Rowan was most likely murdered as a sacrifice to the island's pagan gods.  That's pretty nasty if he's right, but there is something even more sinister happening on Summerisle.
Do these people look like they have something to hide?

That plot doesn't sound like much of a horror movie, does it?  The Wicker Man is an odd hybrid of genres (suspense/thriller, musical, and horror) that sound like they shouldn't gel properly, but are surprisingly effective when combined.  This won't knock Willy Wonka from the top of your "favorite musicals" list (it is on top, right?), but the folk stylings of the soundtrack provide some interesting moments that supplement the plot.
Example: Britt Ekland beating a wall and slapping her ass in the nude to music
As for the other elements, the film handles them in turn.  The horror does not become apparent until the very end, but the suspense is effective at a slow boil.

The acting in The Wicker Man is pretty solid, but most of the cast is forced by the plot to remain fairly impassive.  Edward Woodward was fine in the lead.  It's one thing to play a cop as Sgt. Killjoy, interrupting festivities and generally trying to play the part of a disapproving father figure, but Woodward was also able to lace his performance with an increasing degree of desperation.  Sometimes, it's the little additions that make all the difference.  Christopher Lee plays Woodward's opposite with relish, charisma, and the male equivalent of a bouffant. 
I generally like Lee for being such a good villain --- his voice alone is usually enough to make him watchable --- but this is definitely one of my favorite performances by him.  Lee isn't in much of the movie, but his presence makes all the difference.  Plus, he prances around while dressed as an ugly woman.  Bonus!  The only other noteworthy actors are a bevy of busty women.  Britt Ekland stands out the most, as she is given the most screen time as Sgt. Howie's would-be seducer and has a prominent nude scene (although the full-body shots were a body double, since Ekland had recently become pregnant).  Ekland is halfway decent here, but her talent still lies primarily with her body.  Diane Cilento was definitely the best actress in the film as the schoolteacher.  Hers is not a very large role, but she gets a little extra time as one of the characters that tries to explain the island's religion to Howie; she comes across as clever and earnest, although obviously hiding something.  Horror veteran Ingrid Pitt also has a small role as a sexy librarian.  She doesn't do much in her bit role, but I liked her.  Maybe it was the hair.
Pitt, about to record a message with her droid

This was director Robin Hardy's first effort behind the camera, and it would be his only directing credit for more than fifteen years.  I don't know why --- I thought he did a very good job.  The version I watched was the theatrical one, which is nine minutes shorter than the difficult to find special edition, but I still enjoyed the film and his direction.  The movie takes place mostly during the daytime, which is unusual for any horror or thriller movie.  Something sinister is obviously going on, but it is not hiding in the shadows, but in plain sight.  It was an interesting choice to include so many songs in the film, but they are handled pretty well; most of the songs provide interesting insights into the culture on the island.  There are a few stinkers in the soundtrack, but it is, for the most part, likable enough.  The best work Hardy does is with the pacing of the film.  He builds up the tension slowly, and it only feels like a horror movie when the mystery is revealed and the ending becomes apparent.  It's hard to make a good mystery and it's even more difficult to make a good horror movie --- Hardy did both at the same time, while avoiding just about every genre cliche in the book.
The terrible truth: Lee needs more hair product

The Wicker Man is definitely a bizarre film, though.  The tone is very atypical and there are more than a few moments that lean dangerously close to camp.  Luckily, the suspense is assembled effectively enough to keep most people from laughing at the more ridiculous scenes.
Oddly not humorous, in context
As much as I admire this film for being so different, that also makes it an acquired taste.  I bought this DVD about three years ago, and had never gotten around to watching it a second time.  Sure, I like the film, but it is so damn odd that I never felt like it fit my mood at any given time.  That's all that keeps me from giving it a truly fantastic rating --- a personal idiosyncrasy on my part.  Oh, and cosplay is weird.

Here's the Sneaker Pimps covering the song that Britt Ekland obviously sung and definitely did not have her voice dubbed over during.


  1. This is one of those movies I thought was frigging wierd all the way through... the music particularly had me giggling throughout. But then that end changed my view forever. Could not believe it ended the way it did. Still a total shocker.

  2. Yeah, it's a great ending. To be fair, it needed an ending that awesome to combat the bizarre feel of the rest of the movie, but it is able to pull it off with skill.