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|A chameleon of a film,
The Wicker Man hits every point
The Wicker Mann (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
By JIM CAROLUS
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man falls under so many different
categories its difficult to keep track of them all. It is,
simultaneously, a musical-comedy, detective story, religious
examination, and horror movie. That it succeeds at nearly all
of them is a credit to its relatively untested director, who never
made another film anywhere near the quality on display here.
Perhaps Anthony Schaffer’s screenplay had a bit more to do
with the film’s success than Hardy would care to admit.
Whatever the case, he nevertheless pulled off an impressive
hat trick here. The Wicker Man is about as perfect a
psychological thriller film as you are ever likely to see.
M. Night Shyamalan should have taken extensive notes before
hiring poor Adrian Brody and William Hurt to put on Wild Boar
costumes, take a long drink from a trough called “mediocrity”,
and urinate all over their Oscar Statuettes in The Village. If you
haven’t seen The Village, I might have just spoiled the movie.
Still, its better to spoil The Village than let The Village spoil a
perfectly good night.
Like Shyamalan’s nearly unforgivable dud, The Wicker Man concerns itself with an isolated community. Unlike
it, however, Wicker doesn’t need a contrived “monster” to create tension – its humans are creepy enough as it
is. Most impressively, this film creates its horrific impact through disturbing suggestion rather than explicit gore.
Literally everything on this island seems “different”. For example, when Sergeant Howie visits a candy shop, the
creations on display are some of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen. Who would have thought chocolate could be
so menacing? You won’t find a single drop of blood in this movie, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be left
genuinely unsettled by it.
The plot is deceptively simple; morally righteous (and obnoxiously Fundamentalist) Scottish police Sergeant Neil
Howie lands on the private island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl. The members of the island
community, sexually promiscuous nature-worshippers, claim to have never seen the girl before, but details
proving her existence keep “slipping out” during questioning. As the repressed Christian Policeman learns
increasingly more about the islanders’ bizarre pagan rituals (including some truly unique and disquieting folk
songs), he begins to suspect that the young girl may have been offered as a human sacrifice. Things build to a
nearly unbearable climax, as the grim reality of the young girl’s fate becomes all too clear.
This climax, a real shocker, is unquestionably the most worthwhile aspect of the movie. It easily ranks with
(ironically enough) The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Seven as the best “surprise endings”
ever filmed. David Fincher’s 1997 Michael Douglas thriller The Game owes so much to this film he should be
sending royalty checks to all involved.
I’ve been careful to avoid giving any hints as to the nature of the ending, but even if you manage to guess the
outcome, the film still holds tremendous power, not least because of Christopher Lee’s sinister performance as
Lord Summerisle, the island’s “community leader”. Lee is one of the most famous actors in film history, playing
Dracula more famously (and frequently) than any other actor, and currently starring in both the Lord of the Rings
(traitorous wizard Saruman) and Star Wars (traitorous Count Dooku) trilogies.
But Lee’s performance is matched in every respect by that of Edward Woodward as the police officer. I expected
good things from Lee, but Woodward was the real surprise here. He carries this film on his back for its entire
duration (the camera never leaves his side), and puts out a deeply moving performance. Its no wonder
Woodward has played “God” on the stage. His character’s far-right, Catholic zealot would, in a lesser actor’s
hands, have degenerated into the clichéd caricature it was (frankly) written to be.
Instead, I was surprised how often I sided with him during the film. Despite my revulsion at Howie’s shallow-
minded beliefs, his reactions to the near-barbarous pagan practices made absolute sense and underline the
film’s profound statement about the hypocritical nature of fundamentalism.
Make no mistake, without Woodward in the lead role, this film would have been an interesting failure. With him,
it’s a classic. Not a “cult classic” or a “new classic” (as its often described), but a classic…pure and simple.
Woodward’s eerie (and appropriate) physical resemblance to Bill O’Reilly is especially interesting. It isn’t just a
slight resemblance either. One would imagine O’Reilly behaving in exactly the same way were he thrust into this
situation. That’s an acting triumph, and Woodward should be proud. If all this doesn’t sound relevant in these
times of “moral values,” I don’t know what is. This film was seriously ahead of its time.
The Wicker Man will be remade under the title May Day in 2005. It will be directed by Hardy (fingers crossed)
and again star Christopher Lee (who still calls The Wicker Man his “best film”).
Maybe M. Night can catch it this time…