THE WICKER MAN, 1973
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Aubrey Morris
After a young girl goes missing on the isolated Summer Isle a strict Christian policeman called Sgt Howie from the Scottish mainland is called into investigate. As he explores the island he finds that the people have forsaken the Christian God and now practice paganism. Even more troubling is the care free attitude of the islanders as regards to the missing girl Rowan.
Howies faith is shaken by the sexual and liberated attitudes of the islanders as they attempt to sidetrack his investigation. It soon becomes apparent that Rowan may be used as a virgin sacrifice to appease the pagan gods in the hope of restoring the poor apple crops from the previous year. With this dawning realisation Howie soon finds that there is a sacrifice to be made but who it will be turns into a more horrific situation than the virginal policeman can imagine.
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From the 1950s through to the mid 70ís British horror films were associated with one name, Hammer. From the Quartermass Experiment through to Frankenstein and Dracula they ruled the horror roost with their atmospheric, gory, sexy and camp films. With the odd exception Hammer Horror was the be all and end all of the British horror genre. That would all change however with this suspenseful little film that reimagined British horror as something beyond heaving bosoms, bright red blood and Christopher Lee... well two out of three isnít bad.
The Wicker Man is not only a great horror film itís also a great thriller too with a genuinely chilling mystery that culminates with a heart stopping revelation as Howie solves the disappearance of the missing girl Rowan. Itís also genuinely funny especially when Howie is confronted by the heathen lifestyle of the islanders. The late Edward Woodwardís portrayal of uptight indignation is hilarious but never farcical. Instead it is left to the bizarre behaviour of the people of Summerisle to add an element of ridiculous to the proceedings. However this is all done to lull the viewer and Sgt Howie into a false sense of security. When their master plan is revealed it shows an astonishing amount of subterfuge and lies performed by a driven and much smarter than they look populace.
From the moment Howie steps foot on the island he is met by a group of men who play dumb when Howie starts asking about Rowan. The audience is led to believe that this specific group of Islanders are either oblivious to events on the island or are toying with Howie for their own amusement. Soon after Howie talks to the shop lady and the people in a pub and they also seem to feign ignorance. At this point it soon becomes apparent that something sinister is afoot. The audience along with Howie starts to notice the clues that show the belief system of the pagan people. Howie realising that the people are not going to help him he decides to visit Lord Summerisle to see if he can shed any light on the situation.
In a wonderful bit of casting Christopher Lee portrays Lord Summerisle. Christopher Lee is a revelation in this role. Clearly seizing the chance to appear in something a bit more literate than the average Hammer Horror he plays Summerisle with glee and playfulness rather than playing menacing and scary. The scenes between Lee and Woodward crackle with intensity, Lee is all charm and completely sure of himself while Woodward is disgusted by what he sees but unable to retaliate because of his strict moral and religious code. The two characters differing religious views are so strong that it blinds them both and leads them to that unexpected ending.
The major theme of the Wicker Man is the extreme nature of religious beliefs. Itís shown quite clearly in the first meeting between Howie and Lord Summerisle. Howie having witnessed the strange behaviours of the islanders calls Summerisle on it. Summerisles responses show that he has been let down by God and has instead returned to worshipping the old pagan gods. He also mocks the ridiculousness of the stories in the Bible much to Howies annoyance. Howies disbelief that an entire group of people have abandoned Christianity is powerful and ultimately what seals his fate. Lord Summerisle and the islanderís pagan beliefs have warped their minds to the point where they can happily sacrifice a human being for the good of their livelihood.
The Wicker Man is not a horror film that everyone will like. For one, it has no gore and all the violence is implied. Itís also a lot wordier than a lot of horror films, the menace coming from the seemingly dim but genuine populace. Itís also got a lot to say about religion and community and in not a very kind way. It holds a mirror up to human belief systems and shows us that following these beliefs blindly without reason and logic will lead to death and destruction. A theme that is relevant today as it was then.
There are those who will love it though, in fact probably a lot of people who will. Itís smart, funny and looks gorgeous from the beautiful scenery to the abundance of naked flesh on screen. It has an ending that doesnít pull any punches. The bad guys win but it is hard to really describe them as the bad guys they are just really misguided and that makes it an almost perfect tragedy. If possible hunt down the directorís cut which adds some extra back-story for Howie and make sure to completely avoid the Neal La Bute remake which completely misses the point. It is however quite (unintentionally) funny.