The Wicker Man - 1973
Director(s): Robin Hardy
Writer(s): Anthony Shaffer (screenplay) / David Pinner (novel)
Cinematography by: Harry Waxman
Editor(s): Eric Boyd-Perkins
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt and Lindsay Kemp
A lot of horror movies love to shroud their worlds in darkness and heavy mist. I have nothing against this, as many stories require this setting - but many uses this to hide the fact that they aren't scary at all; they look "scary." So, when a horror film comes along that chooses to not hide in the dark, I sit up and pay attention. This week Ari Aster's Midsommar hits the theater, and while watching the trailer, I could not stop to think about the folk-horror cult classic, The Wicker Man.
The story follows Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) as he journeys to a remote Hebridean island Summerside to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, at the request of a letter sent to him. Howie is a devout Christian and is met by a community that denies the existence of the disappeared girl, and are devoted pagans gearing up to pay tribute to their gods in the form of rituals and sacrifices in the hopes of getting a fruitful harvest. As Howie's investigation digs deeper into the society, the more he disagrees with everything they hold true - making his intentions blur between his Christian beliefs and duties as an officer of the law.
Anthony Shaffer's manages to balance the horror elements of the situation, a man trying to save a little girl in the face of a community that, on the surface, does not care at all and Pagan traditions that he heavily researched in hopes to be true to its practitioners. I loved the clash between this carefree, loving community, and the uptight judgmental sergeant. Even though Howie is the lead, and some may argue the hero, he comes across as the villain by passing judgment on everything he sees around him because it goes against his Christian beliefs. The first two acts of the film play as a commentary on the intolerance of Howie, and an unabashed demonstration to Pagan life - and it takes a dramatic shift in the third act once the twist is revealed and we witness Howie's fate. There is something seriously disturbing in watching a man burn to death as a group of men, women, and children gleefully sing and dance around the fire. You walk away disturbed and almost unclean from this experience, despite the joyful and at times, funny elements of the script.
Woodward as Howie is perfection, as he walks around with an air of self-righteousness and spouts his judgmental views on his surrounding at will without giving a second thought how it would offend the Islanders. He makes it easy for us as an audience member root against him, even though he is trying to save (at least in his head) a little girl. Christopher Lee is a joy to watch in this film, as he goes for broke as the leader of the community laughing away all the accusation leveled against him – this film is worth it to see him leading the parade in the end. Director Hardy creates a tone that blurs the line between cinéma verité and suspense that adds to the discomfort and the tension of watching this man plead for this disappeared girl and be received by denials and smiles.
The Wicker Man at times feels like a waking nightmare, as no matter how loud Howie yells or how hard he tries to fight against the current he ends up right where the society wanted him from the very start - powerless and left alone (both by his beliefs and powers given by the law). Hardy and Shaffer fill the runtime with dancing, singing, nature and love all to set up the audience for a gut-wrenching finale that stays with you long after the credits roll.
The Wicker is Why I Love Movies.
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