Yeah, I'm slow. I admit it.
For instance, I dodged watching Zardoz for a quarter of a century, mainly because everyone told me how stupid it was. Then, when I finally gave in and watched it, I actually enjoyed it. I should have taken a hint from the fact that almost without exception, every such review took it upon themselves to mention Sean Connery in a wedding dress, which seems to imply that all those opinions were carbon-copied from one opinion. When that moment came, it was actually quite logical.
You'd think that by now I would have learned to stop listening to other people. (Appropriate responses to this include Uh huh, right, shyeah and surrrrrrrre you will.)
But with The Wicker Man there seemed to be an entirely different dynamic at work. There was nobody telling me how dreadful it was - in fact, praise for the movie seems almost universal. Which brings me to another reason why I am so glacial about watching certain movies: I don't hold out much hope for popular horror movies.
There is some manner of terrible nerd elitism at work here. My two favorite movies are titles the average gangsta on the street has never heard of, much less seen, so how could I possibly appreciate anything that can be found on the lips of the vox populi, I ask, pinky imperiously outstretched as I savor my green tea with just the slightest twist of Moroccan lemon. Though I consistently pick up new offerings at the BlockWood Previously Viewed rack, they inevitably wind up in The Box, languishing until I have nothing else more exciting to see. And even then, I'm more likely to go back to swearing at Wario Wares instead of popping in Cabin Fever or House of 1000 Corpses. (and there will be slalom skiing in Hell before I even touch a copy of Michael Bay's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, except to get at the movie hidden behind it on the Blockwood shelf)
So.The Wicker Man - the "thinking man's horror film" - had a very problematic release, detailed in the featurette The Wicker Man Enigma on Anchor Bay's disc. Basically, its eventual apotheosis was due to two young men who believed in the movie so fervently they resurrected it on the art house circuit after its disastrous first run.
Now, living in a relatively small Texas town during the 70s, I had no access to niceties like art house cinemas; no, my first introduction to the movie was casual mentions in various magazines, and an issue of Cinefantastique devoted to the movie. There was a washed-out videotape release, and it appeared on cable every now and then, but it wasn't until this exercise that I finally, actually, sat down and watched it.
Hm. We're going to be engaging in spoilers, most likely, so you may want to just stop here. I liked it, three and a half stars, now back to our regularly scheduled program. Or if like me, you'd already had the ending blown for you, even long before the Internet, well, I guess you can stay.
Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives via seaplane at the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a letter he has received concerning the disappearance of a young girl. He finds his investigation blocked at every turn, with the entire island denying the girl ever existed. The puritanical Howie is shocked to find that everyone here subscribes to nature worship, indulging in practices and rituals that would have gotten them burned a few centuries earlier, like fornicating in the moonlight or leaping naked over bonfires. First his investigation turns up clues that the girl is dead, possibly murdered; then he begins to suspect that she has, in fact, been hidden away to be offered as a virgin sacrifice on May Day, to appease the Old Gods, because last year's crops failed dismally.
That's a formula for a fairly potent little tale right there, but where The Wicker Man distinguishes itself is in the complexity of the characters and the story's unfolding, all thanks to a great script by Anthony Shaffer. Howie is an ardent, if not overbearing, Christian, the sort of Christian who derives no comfort from his religion, but rather a bullying strength. Humorless and abrasive in his demands that all people observe his One True Way, it is hard not to side with the joyous pagans of Summerisle against the condemning interloper.
Howie's demeanor is in stark contrast to the local member of the aristocracy, Lord Summerisle (no less than Christopher Lee), who is genteel and well-spoken. He adds to the complexity of the situation by freely admitting that his grandfather gave the island's inhabitants the Old Ways back in order to get them to labor harder in the fruitless orchards - given the reputation of the island's exports since, it seems to have rather worked - but Summerisle himself, two generations removed and raised in the pagan ways, is a firm believer.
In less competent hands, the movie would have simply been a potboiler, the cinematic equivalent of a paperback hastily bought at an airport shop to while away a few hours; but just when we're certain of how things will end up, an element of doubt is introduced. The missing girl is brought from hiding during the May Day festivities that Howie is certain will end in her murder, and she seems genuinely relieved to find a policeman is there to rescue her. After a chase through some caverns, they exit into the sunlight, only to find Summerisle and the others waiting for them.
And here's that spoiler I warned you about.
It turns out that Howie is the virgin sacrifice the islanders have been wanting, all this time, and everyone, even the girl, has been playing a massive game to coax the priggishly upright man to don the proper mantle (of a fool) and participate in the May Day rituals (even in disguise), all to willingly present himself at the scene of his own sacrifice in the titular device, an enormous wooden effigy of a man which will be set afire with him in it.
Again, this is the sort of thing that any other movie would use as the final twist, and the metaphoric curtain would ring down. Not so in The Wicker Man, where the movie seems to go on a good twenty minutes or so as Howie is loaded into the Wicker Man and turns into a screaming biblical prophet, finally finding what comfort he can in his religion, a comfort he unwittingly denied himself in life - all while the people of Summerisle sing a jaunty tune.
To be fair, though, the ending comes as very little surprise if you have any wit, especially after, in perhaps the movie's most infamous scene, Howie manages to resist the love spell of the local landlord's daughter, a very scrumptious (and very dubbed) Britt Ekland. Why infamous? Ekland literally does a song and dance in the altogether in her adjacent room. Like most of the songs in Wicker Man, it sounds like a genuine folk song (though actually composed by Paul Giovanni), and is more affecting than you'd probably like -possibly the most realistic love philtre I've ever encountered. Only Howie's belief that there should be no sex until marriage enables him to resist.
Music is important to all religions and for the first act of Wicker Man it seems like the movie is in real danger of becoming a musical. The people of Summerisle burst into song at the tiniest provocation, and when Ekland actually makes eye contact with the camera while she's crooning to the sweating, torn Howie, a thin wall away, it is an electric moment. It's also a moment when I was fairly certain that a big production number was coming, but that's just the cynic in me. The production number comes the next day, where it logically should, with the maypole dance.
Woodward, who isn't flashy but has never been less than rock solid, is a believable Howie, absolutely essential to the success of the story. Christopher Lee frequently points to Lord Summerisle as his best role, and I tend to agree. Frankly, I've never been a huge fan of Lee. He's an actor of unquestionable presence, but limited range, and seeing him let his hair down, so to speak, is truly refreshing. The fact that he has all the good lines in the movie helps, too. Another familiar face hoping to distance herself from becoming a Hammer cliche is Ingrid Pitt, lovely as always but a bit wasted here. You'll find a few more familiar faces here and there, but largely it's the ideas, the clash of old values that are really allowed to shine.
If you're looking for overt horror in The Wicker Man, you simply aren't going to find it. It's mainly all in that last segment, when those happy pagans you've spent the last hour or so really rather liking, prove themselves to be happily capable of atrocity, with no trace of remorse apparent. Just to bring music into it one last time, the ending reminds me of the lyrics to Shriekback's Nemesis: "We are not monsters, we're moral people/ and yet we have the strength to do this." When the defiant Howie proclaims to Summerisle one last time his faith in the Christian God, the man replies, quite honestly, "That is good, for believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift, these days - a martyr's death." This is something that we used to seeing in movies set in Imperial Rome, but the addition of modern clothing makes it chilling. It's subtlety like this that sticks with you far longer than any number of explosive or blood-drenched climaxes.