The Wicker Man

>> Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Finally saw The Wicker Man last night. No, not the American remake with Nicholas Cage that has managed to become a kind of "alternative classic" thanks to a legendarily delirious godawfulness. I haven't seen that one, although I really think I need to based on the YouTube clips in circulation of Cage running around punching women and screaming about honey in a bearsuit. Some things need to be seen not to be believed. No, I finally saw the original theatrical release version on DVD (there's a restored cut with fifteen extra minutes of footage I haven't seen).

I'd seen bits and pieces of Wicker Man over the years, mostly on TV where all they can show are bits and pieces because... well, because of all the bits and pieces on display in the movie. Wicker Man is the kind of movie that you could only make as a low-budget British movie in the '70s, and an example of that is the frequent, conspicuous, and surprisingly non-prurient female nudity on display throughout the whole thing.

Actually, you could probably say that you couldn't even get away with a movie like Wicker Man on those terms in the '70s, since the movie got practically lost in the midst of a studio management shakeup/buyout that resulted in the movie being drastically cut by fifteen-to-twenty minutes, being marketed in a kind of desultory fashion and mismarketed as a horror film in the places it was promoted, an equally scattered release, and the negatives and early positives of the movie eventually being (probably) buried--no shit--under a British turnpike.

So this is how yet another classic in one of my favorite genres (or ostensibly in that genre) slipped under my radar for years and years and years. Happily, in this case, because I'm not sure I would have appreciated it when I was younger. The times I had seen bits and pieces on TV, the movie seemed a bit dull and plodding, and if I'd actually seen the whole thing I probably would have found it unfathomably weird, and this is coming from a guy who's been fond of David Lynch's work since seeing Eraserhead on video in the '80s.

I've twice-mentioned Wicker Man's status as a horror film, so it might be something to go ahead and address. The movie features Christopher Lee, of course, and was made at a time when Lee was still more famous for playing Dracula than for playing evil wizardly people in huge-epic-franchise features, which probably factors into the movie's identification as a horror movie. Plus, there's the ending, which probably isn't a spoiler at this point (much as the ending of Psycho has become part of the fabric of pop culture), but just-in-case I won't be specific and will only say that it's a bit dark and nightmarish. And then there's the fact that Wicker Man is structured around a framework that was made classic by H.P. Lovecraft back in the day: an investigator goes to a secluded, remote town dominated by an increasingly-weird-seeming cult, wherein said investigator is exposed to increasingly distressing revelations leading to a terrible climax (don't get the wrong idea, though--no Elder Gods or Cosmic Mysteries show up here). So there are certainly horror elements and if you want to class Wicker Man as horror it certainly honors the genre. But the movie is also--and here's where we get into the '70s-Britishness of it--is also a black comedy about religious dogma, a musical and an Agatha Christie-ish whodunnit. I mention the last because the play/film that Wicker Man actually resembles the most is Wicker Man screenwriter Anthony Shaffer's most famous creation, Sleuth, which debuted as a hugely successful play, was adapted into a very good movie starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, and eventually remade as another movie that nobody's ever seen starring Jude Law or somebody and Michael Caine again and apparently isn't good at all (I really can't be bothered to look it up, frankly). Both scripts are built around games of (to steal a perfectly ludicrous line from Venture Brothers archvillain The Monarch) cat-and-also-cat being played out by participants who seem to be in control but clearly (to the audience, at least) aren't; they're like watching games of Texas Hold'em, with Shaffer dealing out most of the cards in plain view and the suspense arising from figuring out who knows what and who knows who knows what, and who... well, you get the idea.

The plot, if you don't already know, is deceptively straightforward: Scottish police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies out to the remote island village of Summerisle to conduct a missing persons investigation after receiving a letter reporting that a little girl has vanished and the worst is feared. Upon arrival, the conservative, straitlaced, very Christian Howie is stymied by the locals' claims that they don't recognize the child in the photograph that was included with the letter and then shocked by the open prevalence of pagan rituals--pagan symbols are everywhere, fertility rituals are performed openly (many of them in the nude), and the parish church is a crumbling husk that's been abandoned for decades. Going out for a walk at night, Howie is appalled to see a field full of people having sex under the moonlight; he's possibly more appalled the following day when he discovers that all of the graves in the churchyard are marked by planted trees instead of "proper" markers and that girls in the local school are being openly taught about phallic symbols and the power of the feminine principle (upon asking if the students are taught about Christianity, the slightly-put-out teacher responds that of course there's a comparative religion course). When he's not having his prejudices assaulted or boorishly reminding villagers that theirs is a Christian nation, Howie discovers that the villagers are lying about the allegedly missing girl (of course).

The religion thing is another reason you'd have a hard time making this movie these days or getting it released, and I've heard that the religious conflict (which drives the original) is notably missing from the remake (though the remake does apparently include some form of the paganism that ultimately gives the movie its title). In the original, Howie's religiosity ultimately becomes the engine driving the plot as much as or more than the detective story involving the child. The inhabitants of Summerisle take their beliefs just as seriously and just as for-granted as Howie takes his, and Howie's shock at discovering this is the movie's central conflict. It's also where the black comedy element comes in, since it becomes increasingly clear that whatever it is the residents of Summerisle have done for their faith, or haven't done, or are about to do, Howie is still a bigoted jerk and complete asshole. Brits seem (based on their movies, songs and books, at least) to have a bit of a snarky attitude towards religion in general, and the wry running joke in The Wicker Man becomes the fact that Howie's beliefs are just as crazy and irrational as the Summerisle residents' appear to be, maybe moreso since the Summerisle residents can at least try to claim that the island's past, improbably-fecund apple harvests appear to be a sign of the gods' favor while Howie's faith ultimately rests on because-I-said-so. By the end of the film, even, there appears to be a kind of goofy "rationality" to the residents' cheeriness in ignoring Howie's rantings and ravings. As The Onion A/V Club's "Year Of Flops" entry linked to above puts it, Howie "earn[s] himself a fate... simultaneously fitting and ironic." And I really don't think you can bash--well, not even just Christianity, even; The Wicker Man's attitude towards faith in general is one of bemused rejection.

And did I mention it's a musical? I did? Apparently director Robin Hardy went so far as to tell everybody that on the first day of shooting, and it's completely true. Having decided that music must have been a vital part of pagan ritual and ancient communal life (reasonable enough suppositions), the producers commissioned a Celtic-folk soundtrack featuring a mix of original lyrics and lines lifted from Robert Burns; it actually works quite well. The music is fairly good, it's presented in a way that fits with the movie's internal logic, and it doesn't bring anything to a screeching halt. It is, however, an element of the movie's basic strangeness: one doesn't necessarily expect a thriller with police procedural elements to suddenly pull up and stop for a bawdy song about the innkeeper's daughter or a folksy tune about the Great Circle Of Life.

Anyway, it's a damn weird film. Not sure if that recommends it or not, but there you go. I enjoyed it.



4 comments:

Carol Elaine Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 2:03:00 PM EDT  

R: the Sleuth remake - I have the DVD (got it dirt cheap) and it's not bad. Not as good as the original, true, because as pretty as Jude Law is, he doesn't have Michael Caine's charisma which simply oozes in both the original and the remake. But Law does a credible job essaying Caine's original role and Caine is a lot of fun in Olivier's role. The remake (or reimagining, as Law, Branagh and Pinter saw it) takes full advantage of the technological advances in the intervening thirty-five years. Kenneth Branagh directed it, so if you like Branagh's direction you'll probably like this. If not, probably not. Plus the screenplay is by Harold Pinter and the music is by Patrick Doyle (love Doyle's work). The original is still better, but the remake isn't half-bad.

As for The Wicker Man - oh yeah, baby. I finally saw it for the first time last year (after wanting to see it for ages). I really enjoyed it. Christopher Lee is in top form, Edward Woodward is perfect and the weirdness is somehow completely and utterly logical (thank you, Peter Shaffer). Listening to the commentary is a ton of fun, too.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 5:18:00 PM EDT  

Boy I remember seeing a chopped up version on late Saturday night TV a long time ago. Might have to check out the uncut versions.

Your description of the "hero" reminds me of the main character in District 9. (grin) At least in regards to being a bigoted asshole.

Dr. Phil

vince Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 5:52:00 PM EDT  

I've never seen the movie, but now I want to see it. I have an odd affection for strange movies and I'm a Christopher Lee fan.

Jim Wright Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 6:10:00 PM EDT  

I've seen the remake. It feels like something written by Stephen King. I don't recommend it.

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