Christopher Lee in 1973's "The Wicker Man."

The Wicker Man 

August 19, 2019  

DIRECTED BY

Robin Hardy

 

STARRING

Edward Woodward
Christopher Lee
Britt Ekland
Ingrid Pitt
Diane Cilento

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1973

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 27 Mins.

M

ainland Scots don’t know much about Summerisle. A secluded island on the country’s west side, it's most famous for its exported fruits. These days, though, it’s most famous for the disappearance of a pre-teen girl named Rowan Morrison. It’s the latter event that brings the mainland's Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) to the isolated patch of land, which otherwise is left almost unbothered,

as The Wicker Man (1973) opens. Howie, a humorless Calvinist unhealthily preoccupied with his mortality, enters with preconceived ideas of the hamlet’s inhabitants. Namely they have to do with their being “uncivilized” and their "unseemly" rejection of Christianity.

 

It’s evident, not long after Howie arrives in Summerisle, that something is amiss in the town. Even though its locals were the ones who reported Rowan as missing in the first place, everyone whom the officer speaks with claims to have never seen or heard of her. That includes her dubiously cheerful mother, who runs a shop which sells pastries that look like cursed dolls. A day or so passes, and Howie has convinced himself that a town-wide conspiracy is at hand. We’d like to write off his hysteria as being purely hysterical — a direct extension of his religious views opposing with the apparently Paganism-imbued ones of Summerisle’s denizens.

 

But these people are uncomfortably outré. Together they form what appears to be a cult. They are like stereotypical flower children; laugh giddily at uncomfortable in-jokes; have orgies outdoors on the other side of midnight; randomly break out into what sound and look a lot like pre-choreographed movie musical numbers, just with wan fairy-tale lyrics and ritualistic body movements. (On Howie’s first night in, an employee of the town’s sole hotel, played by a sultry Britt Ekland, sings and dances naked outside the walls of his room, putatively trying to seduce him.) They speak of Rowan in the same way a child who has snuck a Snickerdoodle from a cookie jar would speak to their vexed parents. Indeed a Rowan Morrison has lived in Summerisle. But it’s likely that her disappearance is akin to a hallway decorated by smoke and mirrors. It’s obvious that it’s a ruse. But a ruse covering what is less so. 

 

The truth behind Rowan’s disappearance is inevitably revealed at the end of the film. And like so much else in the jocular and relentlessly strange The Wicker Man, we’re not sure whether to be scared by or laugh at the truth. Yet the abnormal dichotomy makes it understandable why the film magazine Cinefantastique once called it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies." The film’s writer and director, Robin Hardy, who never again made a movie so prized, strikes a singular balance between ludic absurdity and undiluted terror. It’s a one-false-move-and-you’re-dead sort of horror film. One too-surrealistic set-piece might lead it to appear forcedly cockeyed, weird for the sake of being weird; one too dark of a plot twist could lead it to what might feel like a whiplash-like tonal shift. Yet Hardy steers the cinematic ship coolly. Using and then reinvigorating an age-old genre platitude — the truth cannot be as bad as we think it is, right? — he confidently cultivates a tricky-to-master horror hybrid. It feels inaccurate to call The Wicker Man a horror comedy, and not just because it never appears to be shooting for obvious laughs. What it does, more remarkably, is make the comedy horrific, and the horror itself so inconceivable that it’s comedic. 

 

The Wicker Man wasn’t a success upon release. (A lot of the time such is blamed on its botched distribution, but I doubt it would have stumbled on that many an open arm even if given a wide release.) But a select few — like Christopher Lee, who plays the wild-haired chieftain of the island, Lord Summerisle, and lead actor Woodward — spoke so highly of it that it became difficult to ignore. (Both, in later years, would rank it among the best movies they’d ever been part of; it’s rumored that Lee, in an effort to get the film press attention, went as far as buying critics seats to screenings during its theatrical run.) Then came fated cult audiences, who saw in the movie what many did not upon release: a horror movie whose belligerent oddness and askew terror are in themselves something to behold. 

 

There are several cuts of the movie, a problem with which some of the movie’s most devoted fans, including the author Bob Calhoun, have taken an issue. I loved the 88-minute theatrical version I watched on DVD, which makes me wonder what sort of ethereal delights await me if to scrub the internet clean for the definitive edition. That alternative, in contrast, runs for about 102 minutes.

 

Unlike in the movie, where an “appointment” (as Lord Summerisle calls it) with the eponymous structure is, spoiler alert, unappealing, any appointment with any copy of The Wicker Man sounds conversely appealing — like different glimpses at a movie whose conceit, no matter how it’s presented, evokes serious macabre pleasure. A