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The Wicker Man

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The Wicker Man
1973
Director: Robin Hardy
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento

Horror is a very personal genre. What scares one person doesn’t affect someone else in the slightest. Like comedy, it’s impossible to make a scary movie that can get under everyone’s skin. While The Wicker Man is not a horror movie through and through, it certainly has certain classic horror elements, and although tame by today’s bloodbath torture porn, it still has the ability to be creepy. I can see why some would find it ridiculous, but personally, I find The Wicker Man disturbing.

More a mystery, perhaps, than a horror film, the story focuses on Scottish cop Sergeant Howie (Woodward) who goes to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of the young girl Rowan Morrison. When he gets there, though, all the locals deny ever knowing Rowan, let alone being able to help him in his investigation. Moreover, the longer he’s on the island, the more he’s exposed to, and offended by, the free love pagan rituals that start to show up. Howie, a devoted Christian, clashes with Lord Summerisle (Lee) and the local schoolteacher (Cilento) over “proper practices” for worship and education.

Most of the film focuses on this clash between Christianity and paganism. The paganism is not always overt, and director Hardy slowly uncovers it. When Sergeant Howie arrives, he is not greeted at the dock by flower-wreathed hippies, but by regular classic salty old Scotsmen. But a few things seem off – their denial of knowing Rowan, for one thing. He goes to the sweets shop, where we have candies and chocolates of perhaps too many woodland animals and a disturbing image called the Green Man. At the local pub, the locals suddenly break out in a graphic song about having sex with the landlord’s daughter. By the time we see naked young women leaping over an open fire, there is no doubt that these people celebrate pagan rituals, but the movie takes its time in establishing that.

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It’s important that Howie is as devotedly Christian as he is. A virgin himself, he is completely shocked and horrified by the rituals he uncovers on the island. He does not have the capacity to understand what he is seeing, thus providing the tension of most of the film. If he were accepting, we wouldn’t have a movie. But instead, he is outraged, which lends the film the sinister nature that is so important to its mood. The natives on Summerisle are happy. That’s nice, you might say, to which I reply that they are a little TOO happy. They’re always smiling and dancing and singing and chanting. Because Howie is outraged by what he sees, their incessantly cheerful demeanor starts to become frighteningly sinister and very, very creepy.

This is a movie more about mood and less about plot. The central mystery of what happened to Rowan Morrison is abandoned in entire scenes, focusing instead on the pagan culture of the town. I don’t believe this hurts the film. I don’t mind the narrative thread being dropped every now and then for a spell (ha ha) because the tension between Howie and the rest of the island is actually far more interesting than little Rowan. While more important than a MacGuffin, she’s nonetheless of the same idea. In fact, in one of the final scenes of the film where the central mystery is explained, the whole explanation seems a bit contrived and feels slightly unsatisfying. What IS satisfying is the culmination of the mood of happy terror the film has been cultivating. Narratively speaking, the finale is a little weak, but it succeeds wildly in bringing to a head the uncomfortable clash between Christian Howie and the pagan townspeople. By the final shot of the film, you won’t really care about what happened to Rowan either.

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IMDB categorizes The Wicker Man as “Mystery,” “Horror,” and “Thriller.” I’d agree with that, but for the first hour, it’s only sort of a mystery and not really horror or thriller. In that regard, it’s difficult to categorize. From a horror vantage point, though, I am fascinated with the setting of the film. Having what amounts to a horror film climax taking place in the incredibly idyllic setting of a Scottish island is surprising and, frankly, that’s where the film can milk most of its scares from. We aren’t expecting a horror film in such a travel tourist destination. Heck, Summerisle seems like a fantastic place to visit. And the people are so damn happy! From an American standpoint (because this film is most definitely Scottish in characters and setting), the equivalent would be making a horror movie set in a hippie commune. Everyone is happy and hippy-dippy and in tune with nature and the world around them. It’s very unexpected. Given that this movie was made in 1973 when such hippie culture was still highly visible, I get the feeling that this clash of nature-loving pagans against classical Christian law and order to be symbolic of more than just Sergeant Howie’s story.

SORT OF SPOILERS: I must add the ending of this movie REALLY wigs me out. It horrifies me in a very gut-wrenching way. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It’s not so much what you see that scares me, because we don’t see much, but the very concept of it. Howie’s desperation in his final moments and his song – wailing, more like it – is utterly terrifying to me. In my opinion, this is a movie made by its final ten minutes; it earns its horror tag there, and then some. END OF SORT OF SPOILERS.

The Wicker Man isn’t a film that delivers a thrill a minute, but it delivers the slow burn very well. Throughout the entire film, you’re constantly feeling as though something is wrong, something is off, in spite of all the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces. When it all comes horribly to a head, it’s easy to see why this film made it into the annals of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

That being said, I can also understand how this was remade into a gawdawful Nic Cage D-movie.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10

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