November 23, 2015

The Wicker Man (1973)

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the northern Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl. There he finds a community that has abandoned Christianity for pagan worship, and locals who obfuscate and frustrate him at every turn. Even the island's owner, the laconic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), seems unwilling to help. Howie doggedly refuses to abandon his search, leading him towards a sinister secret.

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy from Anthony Shaffer's screenplay, is one of the most famous British films ever made. It's widely regarded as a classic of its genre, and while time has perhaps not been entirely kind it remains a unique sort of peculiarly British horror film. It spends much of its time being unsettling rather than frightening, and almost wilfully absurd. It's also suffered from multiple cuts and competing versions over the years. This review is based on the 2013 'final cut', which incorporates some of the footage from the earlier 'director's cut' but remains closer to the original theatrical cut. To be honest there's not enough of a difference here to make it matter too much which version of the film one watches.

As soon as Howie arrives on Summerisle, piloting a one-seater police seaplane, he is met with comedic locals frustrating his investigations. They flat-out lie, misdirect, taunt and tease him. The woman who sent him a letter about her missing daughter not only denies she sent the letter; she denies she even had the daughter in the first place. There's an odd tone to much of these early scenes, which are regularly punctuated with folk music - both diegetic and not - and deliberately weird behaviours. Couples openly fornicate outside of the pub. The villagers sing a ridiculously lewd song about the innkeeper's daughter (Britt Eckland). It's all a bit much for the fastidious and stiffly Christian Howie, who simply gets more and more offended and frustrated as he goes.

Coming back to The Wicker Man after some years, and having watched the BBC sketch comedy series The League of Gentlemen in the meantime, makes many of these early scenes quite difficult to treat seriously. It's one of those cases where the parody of the original text was so effective that it's actually affected one's ability to properly enjoy the original any more.

The film employs a long burn, without much in the way of actual horror until its climax. It does continue to unsettle though, as Howie's suspicions change from a girl being kidnapped, to being murdered, and back to being kidnapped - or worse. All the while there's a marvellous sense of growing unease: there's clearly something very wrong going on in the Summerisle community, but Shaffer's screenplay wisely keeps it constantly just out of reach for the viewer. Some of the early imagery is fantastic: at one point Howie opens a child's school desk to find a beetle inside, tied to a nail and slowly walking itself to death.

When the climax does arrive it's a hell of a gut-punch. A lesser movie would hit its shock ending and get out while the audience is reeling. The Wicker Man deliberately lingers on its final horrors, forcing its audience to sit through it for an incredibly long time. It's as if director Robin Hardy really wants the audience to hold out hope that things are going to be okay, and that some last-minute reprieve is going to stop the horrors from happening. That reprieve never comes.

Personally I find the film's most impressive aspects are the performances, particularly those of Woodward and Lee. Lee plays Lord Summerisle with a patient and genial tone. Right to the film's very end he is a calm, paternal leader to his community, and rather warm and polite. It makes his actions all the more creepy, since he clearly believes himself to be a good man doing what's right for his community. It's testament to the strength of his performance that he can spend much of the climax in a summer dress and a Morticia Addams-style wig and not seem ridiculous and silly at all, but rather somewhat frightening.

Edward Woodward is marvellous as the pent-up, rod-straight Sergeant Howie. In many ways he's an unsympathetic character, but as his frustrations and fears develop it's hard not to sympathise with him. It's a great performance, particularly his clipped Scottish accent and stern interactions with the villagers - increasingly angry, but always kept carefully under control.

The Wicker Man has certainly dated quite a lot over the past 40-odd years, but then that's typically what old movies do. It still retains a lot of power and intrigue, and while its earlier scenes are remarkably silly they're actually a quite disturbing kind of silly. Any lover of horror cinema needs to have watched this film at least once.

1 comment:

  1. indeed to the last comment and agree fairly wholeheartedly, though I don't know if I watched enough of the League of Gentleman to worry me.