Monday, October 29, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #51 - The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy)

Gather round children and I will tell you the tale of a ghostly book: a book that wrote itself with no regard for the truth. It was the scariest…What’s that? Oh Wicker not Wiki…. Yes well The Wicker Man is just as unpredictable, but actually is a terrifying and wonderful movie. It is a horror movie, but it clings to none of the trappings of the typical monster flick. In fact the monsters in The Wicker Man are history and human nature.

The Wicker Man begins with a conservative, buttoned-down police officer in Scotland setting off to an isolated island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Immediately upon landing on the picturesque Summerisle, Sergeant Howie is met with a stonewalling local populace that not only deny the existence of the missing girl but also openly engage in strange, sexually explicit practices. In fact the entirety of the local color seems to be made up of sex, preparing for sex or teaching the children about sexual practices and generally behaving like pagan libertines. This is not far from the truth. It quickly dawns on Sergeant Howie that there is something strange beyond the disappearance of a girl named Rowan Morrison. All activity in Summerisle is ritualized and relates to the natural cycle of sex, death and rebirth. Summerisle is famous for growing delicious apples - itself a seeming impossibility based on the climate of the island, and yet Sergeant Howie finds no apples on the island. 1+1+1 start to add up to at least 3 and it begins to dawn on Howie that the activities on this island are all connected to the barren apple harvest, and he starts to suspect that Rowan Morrison was or will be a sacrifice to the “old gods” in an attempt to improve the next year’s harvest.

Howie takes his theory to Lord Summerisle, played with delicious depravity by the great Christopher Lee. Lord Summerisle, looking and acting like a cross between Baron Frankenstein and Hugh Hefner, confirms Howie’s theories suggesting that these rituals are a benign way to keep the locals happily employed and invested in the harvest. Like everything he observes on the island, Howie is further outraged by Summerisle’s seeming nonchalance about matters of pagan sacrifice and prehistoric ritual among his subjects. When he finds his transport back to the mainland has mysteriously stopped working, Howie decides he will personally crack this case without the aid of reinforcements. Events hurtle toward a completely unexpected, surprise ending. I will not give it away, because it is truly one of the emotional and visual highlights of modern horror.
What makes The Wicker Man so special is the way it brings the audience along on the path of discovery with Sergeant Howie, revealing the truth to us only when it is revealed to Howie. Thus we are part of the shocking ending. In addition, every detail about the locations, costumes, and characters in this movie are nearly perfect. The villagers of Summerisle are some seasoned actors intermingled with lots of actual residents of the filming locales. The veracity of these characters makes their confusing, inappropriate behavior believable. The real actors in addition to Christopher Lee are all ideal. Britt Ekland offers what could be her sexiest (and most flesh revealing) role as the innkeeper’s lascivious daughter. Ekland, like most of the adult women characters in the movie, become living symbols of female sexuality and fertility. Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie strikes the ideal balance between virginal innocent and judgmental prude, allowing us to both wish he’d leave the island folk alone, and to relate, in some way, to his sense of moral outrage and disgust at the actions of these strange people.

The Wicker Man succeeds on almost every level. The script is taut and moves quickly and inexorably towards the horrifying conclusion. The scenery and characters are wonderfully authentic, the soundtrack music is appropriate and stands on its own as a great achievement, and the payoff at the end stands as one of the most shocking and genuinely frightening conclusions to any movie. The Wicker Man is not just a great horror movie it is a great movie - period.
Paul Epstein

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