Monday, March 12, 2012

Vital Viewing: The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man is a stand-out classic of cult proportions - one that every horror fan should see, regardless of the fact that it plays as a strange and unconventional mystery throughout most of the film up until its startling ending. 

Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has come to a small off-shore island from mainland Scotland to look into the disappearance of one Rowan Morrison.  What he finds when he gets there is a full-on Pagan community that takes their beliefs quite seriously and are not afraid to show it.  Naked women dancing around Stonehenge-type monuments, young men dancing around maypoles, Christopher Lee dancing in a parade of heathen sacrifice.  Everybody's dancing! 

Locals are quick to dismiss the young girl's disappearance, claiming she never even existed.  He starts his search at The Green Man Inn, where he is introduced to the landlord's daughter, Willow (Britt Eckland).  Rooming at the tavern, he is tempted beyond belief when Willow uses all her feminine wiles (albeit in an adjoining room) to tease him into joining her for a little romp.  Writhing naked to sensual music and thrashing herself against the walls and doors, Willow sings a fertility song designed to make Howie forget about his girlfriend back home and his (!) virginity.  How he keeps his chastity is anyone's guess.

As he continues his exploration of the town, no one is fessing up to having knowledge of young Rowan.  He checks the post office, school, library, even the chemist's shop; but no Rowan.

Sgt. Howie is aghast at the blatant religious disregard in the isolated island town that has apparently never embraced Christianity and prefers to spend its days growing apples and having sex (and why the hell not?!).  And when they are not actually procreating, they are discussing the act - even the school children are taking lessons in 'celtic' sex-ed.  Besides all the sex, some of the other unorthodox rituals he is witness to tend to lean towards the bizarre - like when he sees a woman making a young child put a toad in her mouth to rid her of a throat infection, among other things.

After discovering a grave marker in the local cemetery that bears Rowan's name, and because the townsfolk are unwilling to admit Rowan ever existed (even the girl's own mother denies her!) and keep rambling on about their gods and their religion, Howie seeks out their enigmatic leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).  At once a charismatic and charming man, he tries to lay Howie's fears to rest and ends up taking him on a tour of the island, explaining to him the foundation of their Pagan religion and revealing that they believe that the gods of old shine on them and their orchards and fields because they worship them and offer them sacrifices to ensure this happens.  Of course Lord Summerisle assures Sgt. Howie that the sacrifices are of the animal variety, and only when necessary. 

Howie doesn't seem too sure of this or anything else after witnessing naked women performing some kind of peculiar ritual, young boys singing songs about "planting their seeds", school girls discussing how the maypole is a phallic symbol, and a night-time orgy that sends a sweating and turned-on Howie back to his room at the inn to try to recover.

He concedes defeat and tells himself he has no choice but to leave in the morning, to get as far away from the sacrilegious bunch of nut jobs as he can.  Unfortunately, morning brings a plane that won't start and Howie determined to at last find young Rowan, as he has a sneaking suspicion that she has been tucked away in hiding somewhere to be used as the sacrifice during the May Day celebration that day.  The inn has photos of each yearly celebration, but the most recent picture is missing.  When Howie sneaks around searching, he does indeed find the absent photo, which shows a young girl (Rowan?) in front of failing crops and orchards.

Certain that Rowan is still alive, he accosts the innkeeper and steals his May Day costume, resolute in his decision to stop the sacrifice of the child.  He joins in the ensuing parade (led by Lord Summerisle in a creepy black wig and snazzy yellow turtleneck) and proceeds to the shoreline where the grim festivities are culminating. Because this movie really needs and deserves to be seen, I can't disclose the finale, except to say it hits you like a ton of bricks. 

The Wicker Man is not your typical horror movie.  In fact I'm really not sure there is any blood at all.  But it gets under your skin like no film I have ever seen.  While in some places it can seem almost comical, there is an underlying sense of doom that permeates throughout.  It is a fascinating and mostly true look at the Pagan lifestyle (sans sacrifices of course).  The film is highlighted by several traditional folk tunes and original songs by Paul Giovanni which add to the mystery and enchantment of the Pagan society.

I think people that don't like this film don't really get what the filmmakers were striving for.  Regardless of how religious you may or may not be, for most people it is an intriguing thought (no matter how lewd or nefarious it may seem) to be utterly devoid of morality and just do what you feel.  Modern Christianity and the other religions of the world demand that we conform to the standard views and doctrines that are set before us. To imagine frolicking in the woods naked or teaching our children about the birds and bees in classrooms seems unthinkable, let alone having orgies or worrying more about the apple harvest than your tax return. As a society, most people are way too judgmental and far too ethical to allow themselves to be that capricious.

What The Wicker Man does is present us with a premise that seems like a simple missing person's case, but in actuality it is a much darker film.  The impending May Day celebration gives Summerisle a hint of jubilation, a sense of 'all is right with the world'. Alas, we soon find out it is not. There are more malevolent forces at work here - an occult underbelly of aberrant life-styles and eccentric beliefs.
The best way to see The Wicker Man is to come into it completely unprepared and with no prior knowledge of the film. It will make the biggest impact this way, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

*Do not read the comments section if you haven't seen the film, there are spoilers...


The Film Connoisseur said...

I like the point the film makes, what you believe in will largely depend on what society you were born.

Had we been born in Summerisle, we would probably be worshipping the sun and sacrificing people to the sun god as well.

How powerless do we feel during the last few minutes of this film, its a dreadful feeling. We simply cant do anything as spectators. And the smiles of the people of Summer Isle as if this is all perfectly fine. So chilling! So powerful! It speaks volumes about what belief systems will get you to do once your hooked on them.

Scared said...

I'd imagine that The Wicker Man is saying a lot about what British society meant after the failed revolutions of 1960s, but I don't know enough about the politics and history to say for sure. Is it just a stark warning against free love and paganism? Or are we supposed to celebrate the burning of the policeman? Been too long since I saw it. Fun stuff.

Christine Hadden said...

TFC: The last moments of this film are the ultimate payoff, yet so disturbing. We knew something was coming...but the surprise of what did made the whole film worthwhile. I think even if you weren't "into" the movie, the ending had to be satisfying. (Except for Howie, that is.)

Scared: I think there are things in every religion that are frightening in their own ways. This film says a lot in subtle ways, even without the in-your-face ending. Love it.

Doug Brunell said...

As much as I want to like this film, it never did much for me. It is wonderfully done all around, but the story failed to move me. I even went back to it about a decade ago to see if my age changed how I felt. Nope. It still did nothing.

Christine Hadden said...

I definitely think this is one of those films that one either loves or hates. It is certainly different, but for me that is why I am so enamored with it...

Will Errickson said...

WICKER MAN was for years a movie I tried to see when I was a teen, but videostores never stocked it. Finally got to see it - on VHS, back in the day - and loved it immediately because it's like nothing else! I've read the novelization and it has lots more on Howie's prudery and religious nature, particularly in his relationship with his wife. It makes what happens to him even *more* horrifying!