Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wicker Me Wonderful

When Final Girl Stacie Ponder announced The Wicker Man as December 14th's film club pick (a monthly roundup of movie blogs reviewing the same movie; come here  tomorrow and check it out) I was more than apprehensive to type a single word. Aside from a few carnivorous klowns, stab-happy dolls, and shopaholic zombies, Robin Hardy’s 1973 musical/thriller/drama/horror/mystery comes close to topping my list of all-time favorites. Witness this very special corner of my apartment:

Sure, I’ve been known to bookmark the infamous 2 minute best-of youtube clip of LeBute’s remake (an incredibly campy example of what happens when a misogynist filmmaker gets his hands on good actors,  bad special effects, and bear suits), but my heart forever belongs to what is quite rightfully cited as “The Citizen Kane of Horror Cinema.”

As I assume most of you have already viewed this film, I’ll spare the synopsis to get to the meat and apples-of-a-good-harvest-season: why I adore The Wicker Man. Spoilers will follow, so if by some promiscuity loving pagan god forbidden chance you haven’t seen it, I implore you to close this link, velcro up your shoes, put on your best bunny head mask and get thee to a video store to pick up the Special Edition 2-disc set.

Back? Now ask the landlord's lovely daughter to pour you a pint and settle in for why The Wicker Man is perhaps the most awesome film of all time:

The Look

Not only is the Scottish location a truly gorgeous sight to behold, but Hardy and cinematographer Harry Waxman capture its strange beauty in such an intriguing way. The glare of the sun blocking our view in the film’s final act stays in many a watcher’s head long after it’s done, while other “eye” choices (such as having the early landing of Sgt. Howie’s plane shown through his bobbing-on-water point of view) all work to make the film’s actual shooting just as memorable as its famous performances, songs, and script.

The Language
The fact that it incorporates words like strumpet, mead, assiduous, wench, bawdy, and a barrel more of playful yet underused vocabulary

Touches of the Eerie
Strange little moments of horror add up throughout the film, slowly hinting at what might lay below the surface of this strangely organic world. Several brief scenes never fail to tickle my skin, including the giggling schoolgirl’s gleeful pleasure in tethering a beetle to her desk and the children’s all-too-happy games playing dead during Howie’s frantic search for Rowan. Plus, clown dolls!

Christopher Lee
If one were to compile a list of the greatest speaking voices in cinematic history, Christopher Lee’s rich bass would surely find its way close to the top. The Wicker Man gloriously milks those well-traveled vocal chords for all their worth, letting Lord Summerisle wax nostalgic in unusual sermons and sing a few ditties with an energy rarely seen by such a cinematic titan.

The Overall Mood
Much like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Wicker Man casts an inescapable spell over its audience without relying on obvious visual cues. It’s a combination of the living landscape, offbeat songs, and peculiar dialect amongst Summerisle residents that leaves you enraptured, if always uncomfortable inside a simultaneously familiar and strange land.

Incredible Buildup
Rarely does a film with a body count of one merit so much horror, but credit The Wicker Man’s carefully planned crescendo as Howie plays detective on an island where the typical rules of investigation simply don’t apply. One of the tensest moments comes during the big parade, as one by one, nervously laughing pagans in costume step into a sword drawn circle to learn their fate. The fake-out beheading summons one of the all-time biggest gasps I’ve ever released while watching a film.

Paul Giovanni’s folky songs are one of a kind, from the brilliantly catchy Maypole dance to the sensual siren song a nude Britt Eckland coos from behind a heavy wall. Wedding DJs probably don’t get a lot of requests for "The Landlord’s Daughter" and we’ll probably never hear an American Idol contestant cover "Corn Riggs", but it’s impossible to deny the importance of these unique compositions in such an atmospheric film.

Edward Woodward
The first time I watched The Wicker Man, I was glaring my way through its running time at Sgt. Howie’s close-minded aggressiveness amid a free-spirited land of good-natured barflies who just wanted to rock. With each viewing, I come to admire the late Woodward’s work more and more. It’s not an easy task to carry a film as a somewhat unlikable character, but Howie always seems a real, fervent man doing his job and trusting in his faith. It’s a testament to Woodward’s performance that, despite his character’s attitude throughout the film, we as the audience are completely invested in his fate.

I dare you not to get goosebumps as Woodward screams out that hymn, raising his voice  to mount the crackling of flames and joyous choral song of the townspeople’s joyous swaying below. The contrast creates what may be one of the most haunting scenes in filmic history.

One restored scene to the extended cut doesn’t quite sit well with me: While the theatrical version opens with Howie arriving at Summerisle, the restored film starts on the mainland, with Sgt. Howie singing at church and his fellow policemen joking about his virginity. Does anybody else find this a little too obvious, too soon? 

The music played during Howie and Rowan’s near escape feels, much like Peter’s last stand in Dawn of the Dead, jarringly out of place, taking us into ‘70s TV cop chases and out of a May Day celebration

Lessons Learned
If an attractive young woman is nakedly banging on your walls, it might not be a bad idea to give in to one night of carnal pleasure

It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on

Snails are horny, selfish, and highly admired by pagan chiefs

Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent

Own it. Watch it. Love it. Sacrifice a virgin to it. The Special Edition features a rewarding batch of extras, including an energetic 35 minute retrospective where we learn that Ingrid Pitt is quite possibly one of the most happening dames in the business. The commentary track is not to be missed, especially to hear Christopher Lee’s praise of just how much he believed in the film. It’s a classic like no other.

And don't forget to head over to Film club captain Final Girl's site  on Monday afternoon and browse a few more reviews from fellow movie geeks. You don't need even need a secret code!


  1. Awesome review! I haven't seen the original - made the huge mistake of watching the remake and getting insanely angry. Glad I wasn't the only one to notice how misogynistic that heap of trash was. I'm putting this in my DVD queue right now!

  2. Thanks Tasha! Yeah, Neil LeBute's work has always kind of annoyed me, but I thought his remake was just hysterical in obviously angry it was. His other films and plays have just cast women in really negative lights, but The Wicker Man made them undeniably evil, then gave him the chance to physically beat them up by making it all "allegorical." It surprised me that more people didn't comment on the sheer misogyny of that film, but I guess everyone was too distracted by Nicolas Cage's drop kicks.

    Be sure to come back after you watch the original! It really is a film like no other.

  3. I have a hard time convincing people who don't normally have a taste for such things to give a film like The Wicker Man a chance ("This isn't another of those confusing '70s naked hippie coven killer with vampires and Satan and wah-wah pedals kinda movies, is it?") but this post is an excellent summary as to why it really is something special, and definitely deserves a larger audience. Excellent post!

    Also, my favorite yuletide classic: The Lion In Winter, which if you take a *really* broad view can be considered a horror film, I think.

  4. The story behind The Wicker Man's post-production is almost as fascinating as the film itself. On one hand, it's insane that a studio would butcher up a few scenes, 'lose' the footage, and drop the rest as the backend to late night drive-in double features. On the other, you can almost understand a studio having absolutely no idea what to make out of a horror/musical/mystery.

    Thankfully, we've got most of the original product. The beauty of it is that once someone sits down to watch it, almost anyone will take something from The Wicker Man--even those normally not predisposed to horror. Convincing them that it's not The Devil's Rain, however, can be a challenge!

    Thanks for the comment and kind words db! I'm embarrassed to say I've never seen The Lion In Winter, but you're the second person in a week to rave about it so it may just be time to climb its way up the queue.

  5. Excellent Review Em. One of your best!

  6. I never liked the original. Don't know why. The remake was just laughably bad. Like FOC bad, but with a real budget and Nic Cage.

  7. EDJ: Thanks so much!

    Sir Kangas: Don't you dare sell yourself so short. To draw a horror analogy, FOC is like Romero's original Dawn of the Dead to The Wicker Man remake's Day of the Dead 2: Contagium. At least you never had your male protagonist punch a few women in the face while screaming "Bitches!"

    Then again, I haven't seen your sequel...

  8. Great review! I kind of agree about Howie and Rowan's chase music, but I love it so much when she says "Please help me, Mr. Policeman!" Summerisle -- where you can't even trust the tiny damsels in distress. Anyway, maybe that chase is the only interlude where Howie feels like he knows what's going on... he's in police-chase mode! Sadly, he soon loses his edge again.

    You'll never love another! Although it's not the kind of film to take home to your mother!

  9. Thanks AE!

    The Rowan twist really caught me the first time I watched it, especially the nasty little pride she has for doing such a good job. And I suppose a point could certainly made that the police-chase music serves a purpose by temporarily putting Howie in a more confident place. It's just a little too 'boom chicka bang' for my tastes.

    Heigh ho!

  10. Wow! This is less a review than a master's thesis! Now I'm hungry for a Hanging Rock/Wicker Man double feature...

    You know what would make that tree a little more robust?

  11. Thanks so much CWL. I'm blushing myself into the pinker shade of a snail.

    And hmmmm to the tree. I suppose it could use a nice pure sacrifice, but I wouldn't know where to begin looking for virgins in the Bronx!