Monday, January 20, 2014

Filling in the Gaps: THE WICKER MAN (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
Rating: 9 / 10
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham NC

The Wicker Man is one of those films whose story I somehow absorbed without ever having seen firsthand. Who knows how - maybe bits of it have trickled into the collective horror subconscious. Maybe other films have since drawn enough bits and pieces from it that it just seemed familiar. Or maybe it's that the film's end is telegraphed that strongly from the beginning. Something sinister seems inevitable as we fly from the god-fearing Christian world to a more primal land, folk music droning behind the blare of a plane's engine as the trappings of civilized society fade away below.

Sergeant Howie has been sent to the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. Edward Woodward portrays the Sergeant with a doomed naiveté that only grows and deepens throughout the film. He's determined to have the matter of Rowan's vanishing wrapped up within days, with reports filed and everything set right by the time he returns to the mainland. Little does he know that Summerisle has little time for the conventions of mannered society. He's entered a realm where the old gods rule, free love runs rampant, and death is only a small piece of a cycle that has been turning for for millennia.

Pitting Howie's staunch Christianity against the pagan rites of the island is amusing at first, as the islanders taunt him with lurid songs and open displays of sexuality that he's clearly never encountered before. Howie sweats and huffs his way through the film, praying desperately in his upstairs room in the town inn for the resolve to keep a chaste mind. He's flabbergasted by the unorthodox teachings going on down at the schoolhouse, where boys dance around a maypole singing songs laced with innuendo ("And on that bed there was a girl / And on that girl there was a man / And from that man there was a seed / And from that seed there was a boy...") and the teacher lectures to the girls about phallic symbology. This is clearly a town that has strayed far from Christendom, and Howie is intent to bring the hand of the law down on its backside - smack! Er, um, no, no - none of that...

Amidst the sea of phallic symbols emerges Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, creeping around in the darkness and quoting Walt Whitman between shots of slugs fucking. Lee is truly a highlight in what was his self-proclaimed proudest role, lecturing Howie with discursive histories of the island as if he's a child, prancing around in drag, grinning maniacally with his wild hair framing his head like rays from an ancient sun. Lord Summerisle is something of an enigma, clearly too intelligent to fall prey to the somewhat simplistic pagan faith of the island, yet orchestrating all its rituals and remaining intentionally vague about Rowan's disappearance. Is she truly dead? Transformed by some ancient ritual? Tucked away in a basement in preparation for some ghastly sacrifice?

Summerisle toys with Howie in the same way that the film toys with us, for the sergeant's ignorance regarding the pagan religion of the island mirrors our own. (Or, I should say, my own.) We're uncertain as to whether something supernatural is actually going on, or if we're witnessing harmless pagan ceremonies that seem sinister only due to their foreign nature. Imagery centered around cannibalism is thrown around for most of the film, despite being a giant ruse in the end. The final parade is a great exercise in deceit, with one of the best decapitation fake-outs I've seen on film.

Despite the totally outrageous sexuality on display for much of the film and the somewhat blatant attack on Howie's Christian beliefs, The Wicker Man seems to have a message that extends a little deeper than it might initially seem. To what extent is Summerisle manipulating the townsfolk with paganism, which we find out, was only adopted by the inhabitants a few generations ago? Is the phallocentric paganism of the isle really that different from a patriarchal Christian society?

The pieces all seem to fall into place in the end, when Howie realizes that he's been merely a pawn in Summerisle's games. Some of the early portions of the film alternate between silliness and sincerity, but I absolutely loved the final fifteen minutes, in which Howie blunders his way to his own doom. The truly awful events of the ending even manage to evoke a little bit of sympathy for what up until now has been a truly hard-to-like main character. The worst part about Howie's demise is that even in his last moments he doesn't realize that the religion he's fallen prey to isn't that different from his own. The sacrifice dictated by the sun-worship ritual is of the same nature as the one made by the Son he's praying to as he dies. He's given the opportunity to experience the awful core of his own faith firsthand, but never sways from his prayers, won't embrace his martyrdom, nor give up one final chance to try to convert the islanders.

Paul Giovanni's soundtrack is also outstanding. Performed with Magnet, a collection of prog musicians assembled for the film, the music draws on old folk songs mixed with original compositions. Most of the songs are have a wonderfully pastoral aura about them, and work well with the anachronistic feel of the isle. It's no wonder that this soundtrack is a major influence of the hauntology movement, as it allows the past to permeate the more modern aspects of the songs, just as the influence of the old gods has bled into the present on Summerisle. (Also, I suddenly got the reference in Pye Corner Audio's "Now Ends the Beginning" when the notes of "Lullaby" were plucked out during the final sequence.)

I had no idea that The Wicker Man had such a devout following, but the screening I attended sold out well before the show started. Despite the fact that I had a blast with the film, I couldn't help but wonder why the film resonates with so many people. Is it because of the overt attacks on the Christian protagonist? The sex? I have a hard time interpreting audience reactions at large screenings, particularly when every hint of datedness seems to provoke laughter from a nontrivial subset of the crowd. Are these viewers just like the island's inhabitants - so eager to see the dominant culture overturned that they cheer on a new one that's equally bloodthirsty? If so, then the film is that much more chilling.


  1. Hey Eric, I too saw The Wicker Man for the first time at a screening recently. I still don't know how I feel about it; but I do admire its' bravery. Truth be told, I was incredibly sleep deprived when I saw it so I wonder if that affected my patience. That said, you're dead on about the ending...everything falls into place perfectly. It's enough to make me want to watch the film again for the "a-ha" moment. Why is it a cult classic? I'm not entirely sure. I feel like its reputation precedes it. I had heard about the movie for years without having seen it. Glad I finally did.

    Nice review!

    1. Hey Dusty - thanks for commenting, and sorry for my delayed response. I wasn't completely sold on this one until the end either, even though there were some really great scenes and images along the way (the bug tied to a nail, the rabbit in the unearthed coffin). The film felt sort of ... disparate (?) until the ending, but I think knowing what's coming would help make everything a lot more coherent. One thing that I really liked was the atmosphere of the film. That was one aspect that I felt was great the whole way through.

      I'm also not sure why it's such a cult classic though. I certainly didn't expect to have to wait in line for 20 minutes for my ticket. I guess cult appeal is one of those things that's impossible to completely nail down.