31 Days to Scare ~ The Wicker Man (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A police sergeant is called to an island village in search of a missing girl whom the locals claim never existed. Stranger still, however, are the rituals that take place there.

Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento

Director: Robin Hardy

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In 2006 a remake of The Wicker Man was released (more like unleashed) onto audiences who rightly stayed in away in droves (not me…I saw it OPENING DAY…yeesh).  Sunk by a lousy script from director Neil LaBute and a hysterically awful performance by Nicolas Cage, the film was a total mess of a picture without any true redeeming quality.  I saw that film before I had ever seen the original so I was hesitant to see what could have inspired such a heinous remake.  Would it be worse?

Thankfully…no…but it’s an even odder duck than the remake.  This film from the UK has become a cult classic in the four decades since it was released and rightfully so, it has some wonderfully camp moments wrapped up in a creepy little thriller plotline.  While it was more amusing than scary, there are enough strange happenings going on in this tiny village to keep the audience interested in sticking around to see how it all turns out.

When police sergeant Howie (Woodward who will always be The Equalizer to me) arrives on Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl, he can’t be prepared for the kind of welcome he gets.  The townspeople refute the report and can’t even say for sure that a girl by that name lived there at all.  With its small population, Howie finds that hard to believe and his dealings with the town elders confirm his suspicions.  Where did the girl go and why does the entire hamlet seem to want to cover it up?  And what of the sinister looking autumnal festival that Howie happened to arrive just in time for?

The early 70’s brought a lot of occult and pagan conspiracy films to the film going audience and The Wicker Man is no exception.  This was before access to the history of these practices was widely known and dispersed via the internet so not everyone was finely tuned into what these dealings actually meant beyond celebrating the changing of the seasons.  The Wicker Man’s dealings are quite on the dark side but it’s presented in a quaint fashion of English refinement.

The town of Summerisle comes off as a fairy tale coastal UK…albeit with evil behind more than a few doorways.  As Howie goes from house to house and establishment to establishment he is drawn deeper into the mystery and beguiling nature of a few comely local lasses.  Very few scenes take place in the evening so the majority of the film happens in daylight hours when there isn’t much room for jump scares or other stalwarts of the genre.  Instead, director Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer create menace from seemingly innocuous happenstance.

More than a few times, I wondered if The Wicker Man was some sort of strange hybrid of horror and musical.  Hold on for a second before you remove this from your Netflix queue…it’s not an outright musical but it’s filled with more than a few creepy ditties that don’t necessarily fit in with what’s happening onscreen.  After a while, I just chalked it up to the film keeping us off balance with yet another slightly off occurrence that our main character deals with on the island.

As far as early 70’s European films go, it’s frank in its display of nudity in a non-sexual way.  More than one towns member is seen in their birthday suit in a natural display of the human form…and it goes with the no-rules nature that the town seems to employ. The baring of flesh has always been less of an issue in European cinema and it’s used here not in a lascivious way but to show Howie and the audience that these people will do just about anything they feel like doing whenever they feel like doing it.

With interesting turns by Lee, Pitt, and future Bond girl Ekland, Woodward has a nice group of actors to play off of.  Even though I knew where it was headed, the film takes the scenic and curvy route to reach its end destination.  As is the case with other films that deal with the occult (like the jaw-dropping Kill List), the ending leaves you with more questions than answers but could provide lively discussion among your group.

I struggled at times to really enjoy The Wicker Man but knew that getting through it was an important part of my cinematic education.  It’s a fine film that is pretty dated and tame by our 21st century ADD standards, but I can see why it had such an impact upon its first release and continues to catch people off guard even today.  You should never, ever see the remake but by all means take a visit to Summerisle and meet the wicker man.