Friday, May 1, 2015

Wicker Man, The (1973)

It's difficult to define exactly what a "cult classic" is because the term has been applied and misapplied so often. Usually, though, a cult classic is defined by two common traits: first, it tends to have an obsessive and devoted fanbase, hence the "cult" qualifier; and second, it was not a financial success at the time of its release.

Some cult films go beyond merely being box office bombs that found loyal followings years after the fact. Some cult films barely got the chance to be failures and were even sabotaged by the studios that supposedly wanted to make money off of them. And few can claim that honor quite like The Wicker Man.

I won't go into the whole sordid story here, but The Wicker Man was unfortunately a victim of that bane of filmmakers everywhere: the distributors who "just don't get it." Reportedly the film originally ran 99 minutes, then was released to cinemas with a runtime of 87 minutes. No one knows where that lost footage went, but urban legend holds that it ended up among materials used to pave the M4 motorway.

A restored version made from a telecine transfer--and therefore a lower quality source, similar to VHS--was released in a limited edition DVD in 2001, which reportedly runs around 99 minutes. (I, having only adopted the format at the end of that year, never got a chance to obtain a copy) And then the telecine copy vanished. Luckily, in 2013 at least some of the footage was recovered and the "Final Cut" version of the film was released to theaters and Blu-ray/DVD.

The "Final Cut" runs about 92 minutes.

Now, given what I've just said about how many different versions are available, you might think that The Wicker Man is a mess. And if you're only familiar with the inexplicable remake with Nicolas Cage punching women while wearing a bear suit and screaming about bees and burned dolls, you're equally likely to think that. However, it doesn't matter what version you watch: the film still holds up.

For the sake of ease, I'll be reviewing the "Final Cut", however.

To begin with, we are introduced to Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) of the West Highland Police. He's not in uniform at present, for he is at church with his fiancee. This introduction ends with Howie delivering the benediction. You know, where the congregation eats the wafers and drinks the wine that are to stand in for the flesh and blood of Jesus. Already the film is introducing us to the concept of sacrifice and just how many religions are based around it.

Now, there's a few more scenes here in the 99 minute cut, but for our part we cut to the credits as Howie pilots an amphibious plane through the gorgeous Scottish countryside, while a wonderfully affecting rendition of "The Highland Widow's Lament" plays. Howie's destination is the island community of Summerisle, which he buzzes over on his way in so we can see the various orchards and crops that call the island home.

When Howie lands and addresses the crowd gathered at the docks to request a dinghy be sent to ferry him to shore, the greeting he gets is openly suspicious and the locals seem reluctant. He gets his dinghy after explaining that he received a letter about a missing girl, and is there on official police business. When he comes ashore he explains he is there to find the girl in the photograph he shows around, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). The locals at the docks all claim to not recognize the girl, but when he explains the letter came from the girl's mother, one May Morrison (Irene Sunter), the locals cheerfully that they do have a May Morrison, who runs the post office--but that's not May's daughter.

Indeed, Howie finds that May, an eccentric woman with March hares all about her shop, has a daughter named Myrtle (Jennifer Martin). Myrtle isn't missing and May has no memory of ever having another daughter. As Howie helps Myrtle paint a drawing of a hare, he discovers that Myrtle knows a Rowan, though. It's pretty far from a lead, though, for Myrtle's Rowan is a hare.

So Howie checks into the local inn, The Green Man. And here Howie begins to make notice of the fact that Summerisle may not be the place for him, as a righteous Christian prick--er, gentleman. First, the landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp) introduces Howie to his voluptuous daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, though dubbed by someone who sounds Scottish), and the whole inn breaks into a ribald tune about her. Stranger, both Alder and Willow are gleeful about this turn of events. And when Howie goes outside, he sees couples fornicating openly on the inn's lawn, a naked woman crying on a gravestone, and other unusual sights.

Stranger than that, for supper the only food that Willow can offer him comes from cans. She can't even offer him one of Summerisle's famed apples. And her attempts to distract him with innuendo can't change the fact that it strikes Howie as peculiar that none of the island's produce was held back from exportation.

"Cheer up, Sergeant. Food isn't everything in life, you know?" 
Howie's evening prayers are interrupted by the sound of someone outside his window calling to Willow. Howie watches as Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee!) presents Willow with "an offering for Aphrodite," which is a joking reference to the young man at Lord Summerisle's side. The young man really is an offering for Willow, however, apparently as a rite of sexual passage. In the tavern below, the locals sing gentle songs to cheer the young lovers on, Lord Summerisle cheekily recites poetry to copulating snails, and poor Howie tries to shut out the sounds of what he can only deem madness.

The madness continues the next morning. The whole community is gearing up for May Day, and that includes a school of young boys dancing around a Maypole to a jaunty tune (which will burrow into your brain for days) about the cycle of life that has way more frank references to sexuality than Howie likes. He's even less enamored of the schoolmarm, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), explaining to her class of young girls that the Maypole in religions such as theirs symbolizes the penis.

Oh, yes, this is an island of Pagans, in case you hadn't figured it out. And for someone as nonreligious--and anti-Christian, at least in the context of the way the organized religion has presented itself for many scores of years--the community is highly appealing. They're fun and free, and Howie is an intolerant and boorish prude who reacts to their nonconformity to his beliefs with indignation and blustering.

However, Howie's not wrong that something about these islanders is amiss. None of Miss Rose's students claims to know Rowan, but there is an empty desk and the register proves to have one Rowan Morrison listed. Howie's opinion of the little girls as liars is quickly amended to include them as little sadists, for the empty desk proves to have nothing inside but a beetle tied to a bit of string that is attached to a nail on the other end. As one girl explains, the game is that the beetle continues around the nail in circles, never changing direction until it finds itself right up against the nail.

Miss Rose explains to Howie that it's actually a miscommunication based on their belief system. The girls claimed to not know Rowan because, well, they don't know her any more. Rowan is dead. But when Howie visits the Librarian (Ingrid Pitt!), the woman can produce no death certificate and claims to know nothing about the circumstances of Rowan's demise. So Howie goes to visit Lord Summerisle for permission to exhume the body.

And Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying that Lord Summmerisle was his favorite role. It's not hard to see that here, as Lee has a blast playing off of Howie's horror at their Pagan traditions, such as having teenage girls jumping naked over a fire as part of a fertility ritual. "Well, naturally, it's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!"

"Sit down, won't you, Sergeant? Shocks are so much easier to absorb with the knees bent."
Lord Summerisle explains how his grandfather came to the island in the 19th Century and brought with him new methods of horticulture and the Old Ways of religion, The people eagerly accepted both and Christianity has never darkened their doorstep since until Howie's arrival. Howie insults Lord Summerisle's beliefs, naturally, but Summerisle still grants him permission to exhume Rowan's grave.

Oh, that grave? It contains a dead hare.

Howie has just about had it. His rage at the dead hare falls on unconcerned ears when he confronts Summerisle and Rose, interrupting them as they are singing a bawdy duet about nails and kettles. Rowan loved the hares, they insist, and this is just a sort of transfiguration that is to be expected. Summerisle expresses sympathy to Howie, but suggests that maybe it would be best for him to depart.

"You wouldn't want to be here on May Day," he intones.

Even stranger than that, when Howie retires to his room, exhausted, a naked Willow sings a seductive song to him from her room. This is the closest the film gets to suggesting any kind of actual supernatural influence from the islanders, as it sure seems like Howie struggles to resist the call of her song.

"Please come, say 'How do?'
The things I'll show to you.
But resist her he does. And an observance he made earlier leads him to finding a huge piece of the puzzle. In the inn, the pictures of each year's harvest are shown, with the young girl chosen as the Queen of the May surrounded by the harvest. Last year's is missing, and no one has given Howie a clear answer as to why. When Howie follows up on this suspicion and breaks into the photographer's studio and develops the negative, he discovers the Queen that year was Rowan Morrison and the crops were dismal.

Howie thinks he has the answer at last. Everyone wants him out by May Day, which is only scant hours away, because Rowan is to be sacrificed to the Gods of the Harvest. Well, Howie isn't going to let that happen on his watch! Of course, it's not really as simple as that--remember the beetle?

"You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice."
The Wicker Man is not exactly what anyone thinks of when you talk about horror movies. There aren't any jump scares, nor really any attempt to scare the audience. Except, perhaps, for the ending, where ultimately nothing can stop the sacrifice from making their appointment with The Wicker Man. Up to that point, the movie is more of a mystery of sorts.

Is Rowan Morrison missing? Does she exist? Is she dead? Is she going to be dead?

Even its villains are not what you would expect. Pagans are often used interchangeably with Satanists as antagonists in horror, but regardless of what they are they are it is usually clear that they are in some way sinister. Sure, they may start out nice, but in the end you'll see them as evil. The residents of Summerisle are still amiable, cheerful people even when we know they are engaged in human sacrifice. They don't do this out of sadism or a thirst for blood. They are just following their religious convictions. To that end, they're little different than Howie.

In fact, the islanders make it quite clear that they believe their "dreadful sacrifice" is actually a win for all involved including the sacrificial victim. They're also genuinely Pagan, as the filmmakers put actual research into Pagan traditions and customs. I'm sure some of it is embellished or a bit off the mark, but nothing as thuddingly obvious as someone mispronouncing "Samhain." That attention to detail really sells the authenticity of the island community.

(Amusingly, the first time I ever saw the film, in its truncated version, it began with a title card thanking the residents of Summerisle for their cooperation, as if it were a real community that had happily helped the production out)

The film also has a whimsical tone that you don't usually see in horror films. The soundtrack is full of traditional folk songs and newer ones, none of which are used in the "some innocuous tune made sinister" manner of most horror films that use old standards, It's also legitimately funny in many places, for the Summerisle folks are jovial and charming. In a way, that adds to the horror of what they are willing to do for the sake of their crops.

It's hard to find words to effectively describe The Wicker Man. If you're reading this then chances are excellent that A) you've already seen the film or B) you've seen it written about at great length. It's transcended cult classic status to pretty much stand as a classic. Even the ill-conceived remake in 2006 couldn't topple its legacy in that arena. Referring to it as "the Citizen Kane of horror films" might be a bit hyperbolic, but it's actually pretty apt.

After all, Citizen Kane may be frequently called "the greatest movie ever made," but it's also arguably a cult classic. Many contemporary critics loved it, but in its original release it lost money. (Having the media mogul it was loosely based on attempting to destroy it didn't help) Both this film and Citizen Kane only truly attained their current reputation as examples of the heights of cinema in the years following their release.

I also see nothing all that excessive about praising The Wicker Man so highly. I don't know that I would ever rank the best horror films--I tend to prefer not to rank movies at all, honestly--but if I did, The Wicker Man would definitely have a spot near the top.

If you haven't seen it, you simply must. Especially on Mayday.

1 comment:

  1. This movie is just brilliant. Perhaps my favorite aspect of it is the way it treats Sgt. Howie. True, he comes across as a supercilious bigot when dealing with the pagans--but to be fair, he does think they are covering up a child murder (and maybe they are, or would be...) More importantly, the opening sequence in the church shows that Howie is a perfectly pleasant man in his own culture. How many of us would react well when dropped into a culture so completely different from our own (especially with the whole child sacrifice thing...)

    And arguably Howie actually "wins" in the end, depending on what one thinks the villagers were planning to do if he had left before May Day--he saved the girl and achieved one of the highest honors one can have in Christianity, emulating his savior. Granted, it was a Pyrrhic victory...(pun definitely intended.)