The Wicker Man manages to do two things at once, and it does both with ease. It is first and foremost a horror story, but it doesn’t scare you the way The Ring does; it uses very clever staging and pitch-perfect setting up to guide its audience into the terror of its unorthodox characters. They are normal human beings, but their practices are questionable, maybe even illegal. Secondly, The Wicker Man argues the validity of religion, in particular Christianity. It has a very staunch Christian who encounters the strange and unfamiliar world of paganism. Imagine the outcome.
The Christian is Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a police officer who puts just as much faith into the law and justice as he does into his church. He is called to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Written by Anthony Shaffer — famous for his screenplays of Sleuth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy — the story doesn’t hesitate to irk us. As soon as Howie lands his personal plane on the waters just off the coast of Summerisle, he is met with lukewarm greetings from the elderly harbour masters who control the island’s docks. They then claim to have no knowledge of Rowan Morrison, a response that immediately ignites Howie’s suspicions. He is, of course, steadfast, and he proceeds to question everyone on the small patch of land, each giving answers that contradict the other’s: Rowan doesn’t exist, Rowan is a hare, Rowan is dead, Rowan is a spirit. No one is direct.
He quickly discovers that the island itself, along with all its inhabitants, is hiding very dark secrets. Secrets that are centuries old and have somehow managed to escape the ears and eyes of civilized society. Naturally, I will not divulge these secrets, though I have given you hints in the first paragraph. But a hint is just a hint; the power of Robin Hardy’s film must be seen to be believed.
It works because it is eerie. It’s the kind of movie that alerts your senses (yes, including the sixth one) right from the start, and doesn’t let up even when the end seems clear. And then when the frightening end comes, it doesn’t turn out the way you hoped it would. The story takes twists and turns with its content, sometimes to happy places, sometimes to scary ones, but always to unpredictable ones. The camera pans and zooms to faces, objects, and places that either take a while to show their true colours, or show them immediately. I’m referring to a particular pan that reveals a number of animal-associated disguises. Shocking, unexpected, eerie.
Ed Woodward does a marvelous job as the rigid police officer. He sticks to his beliefs and doesn’t hesitate to reprimand non-believers. He realises he’s alone on the island, with no help and no friends, and yet he presses on, no matter the danger. He is joined by a good cast of creepy townsfolk, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the apparent owner of the island who has hair that can rival Beethoven’s. Lee has said that his performance as Summerisle is the best of his career. I am in no position to agree or disagree, but I can say that if someone manages to pull off prancing around in a bright dress, white facial make up, and a long black wig, that someone has accomplished the impossible.
It’s difficult to review a movie like this for risk of damaging its intended effect. I cannot say too much, nor can I say too little. I can only recommend it as a piece of good, true cinema, where it works perfectly with itself to build up a solid story. It doesn’t cut corners, like many horror stories do, and it doesn’t kill for the sake of killing. It meanders like a gushing river, taking Howie on a boat ride that he can neither escape from nor survive. The thought is a scary one. And that’s where The Wicker Man is most successful — it penetrates our minds and attacks the trajectories of our thoughts. And then it burns them.
Best Moment | It might be that pan I mentioned. Or it could be the sensational climax.
Worst Moment | Any scene involving Britt Ekland. Yes, even when she was dancing naked around her room. Damn body double.