You’d think after so many years of being in the public consciousness as well as the insane meme-machine that is the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage that I would know what I was in for with The Wicker Man. Ladies and gentlemen…I was not. What director Robin hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer have crafted is a bright spectacle that slowly devolves from oddity to horror. Even knowing the ending you don’t really see it coming, and I came away really understanding why the film has been held aloft as one of the finest British horror films of all time.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: Officer Neil Howie is on the case! After receiving a message about the disappearance of a young girl Howie travels to the remote island Summerisle where his strict Christian upbringing is immediately at odds with the free-loving and clothing-optional paganism of its inhabitants. What happened to the young Rowan Morrision – is she dead? Where’s the body? Why does no one seem to acknowledge her? And what’s with all the nude dancing? Howie is determined to get to the bottom of things and lay down the law, but what he discovers is that his law holds little sway with the populace, and his idea of a Christian God even less…
In interviews director Robin Hardy stared he never wanted to make a conventional horror film, and hats off to him, because for much of The Wicker Man’s running time it doesn’t feel remotely like a horror film. There’s an outright musical number, and many of the scenes play like a fish-out-of-water comedy than it does a foreshadowing of dread. But over time the oddness of the inhabitants does start to induce that dread, and as Howie becomes more and more upset at what he perceives as heathen behavior the movie takes on his anxiety and fear until that bang up ending I assume everyone knows at this point.
Another thing I don’t think gets talked about enough is how great Edward Woodward’s performance is, and how unhinged it gets. If anything (maybe this is a more modern reading, and 1973 audiences were more inclined to be on his side) Howie comes off as a sanctimonious prick for most of the movie. Woodward combines his straitlaced police officer with an old world school marm, aghast as the blasphemy being extolled in the community. As things get worse and worse Woodward sinks into a demented frenzy that’s at odds with how cheerful everyone else is on the island, right up until the torch is lit.
It’s been said that of all his hundred of films, this was one of Christopher Lee’s favorites, and I can see why: his cheery demeanor is an abrupt change from what he’s more normally known for, and he takes a delight in making Woodward’s Howie even more frustrated and angry. if you’re new to The Wicker Man, the only thing I’ll say is hang with it – it gets weird, but it all leads to a fantastically weird little film that will linger with you in the best possible way.