November 23, 2009

The Wicker Man (1973)

Ever since its troubled release back in 1973, director Robin Hardy's "The Wicker Man" has been slowly (but constantly) adding new members to its cult following as the film becomes better known, and it's just now that finally the movie is getting the praise it deserves as one of the best films ever made. Watching it now, more than 30 years after its release, it's hard to believe that this superb example of mystery and suspense in film was almost lost, as the financial problems of its production company (British Lion Films) nearly cost Hardy his movie. Fortunately, British Lion Films was bought and its new proprietor needed a movie released quickly; so Robin Hardy's film still managed to be finished, and while not exactly in the complete version of the director's vision, "The Wicker Man" was finally released theatrically and Hardy's tale of the disastrously horrific consequences of a clash of faiths was able to enchant us with its perfect mix of horror, mystery and suspense.

In "The Wicker Man", Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Neil Howie, an officer from the mainland who travels to the remote island of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter informing him of the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan. Immediately after his arrival to Summerisle, Howie begins his investigation, but discovers that the locals refuse having met Rowan in the island, as if the girl had never existed. Somewhat discouraged by the answers, Howie decides to keep investigating, and soon discovers that the population of the island follow a strange religion with pagan beliefs that are a complete shock for his very conservative Christian faith. As he discovers that there's a chance that young Rowan may still be alive (with the villagers being responsible for plotting her kidnapping), he decides to attempt to rescue her from what he thinks is a barbaric and uncivilized way of life, but he'll discover that there is much more in Summerisle than the case of a kidnapped child. In his trip to Summerisle, Sergeant Howie will also discover a different law from his own, and the true nature of sacrifice.

Writer Anthony Shaffer became fascinated by the idea of a modern clash of religions when he attempted to adapt David Pinner's novel "Ritual" to film, but while the adaptation failed, the idea became the source for "The Wicker Man"'s main theme: a confrontation between two extreme sides of religiousness. It's really amazing the way that Shaffer explores this theme through the story, because as the plot unfolds, he interestingly avoids to use the basic archetypes of "hero" and "villian", and just lets the characters be quite human, exposing their personalities and making the choices that ultimately drive the plot towards it's legendary finale. While he cleverly utilizes the missing child plot to raise questions about the nature of faith and believers, it's surprisingly never disrespectful about it; and while it certainly uses exaggerated features of both faiths in his characters, the movie is more a cry against blind fanaticism than against a specific religion.

Even when Shaffer's brilliant screenplay is one of the film's fundamental elements, the direction by Robin Hardy is what truly completes the circle and makes the whole movie what it is. Despite being under a serious budgetary problem, Hardy managed to bring to life Shaffer's thriller taking advantage of the script's exhaustively researched plot to create a movie that was ambiguously captivating, frighteningly realistic and of a simply otherworldly nature. By blending a very natural, almost semi-documentary visual look with the unforgettable folk score by Paul Giovanni (that updated old traditional songs), Hardy created a joyful atmosphere that despite being cheerful and playful at first sight, becomes increasingly haunting as the plot unfolds. Hardy maintains every element so human that it never feels illogical. In fact, that's perhaps what's so terrifying about "The Wicker Man", the fact that this, sociological horror, could really happen. Giving little to no clue about the mystery of the plot, Hardy maintains the suspense always at the maximum level in preparation to a sublime conclusion that has now become a classic.

Another of the film's best features are the incredible performance of the members of the cast. Edward Woodward is simply perfect in the difficult role of Sergeant Howie, delivering one of the best performances in the history of the horror genre as the main character of this brutal clash of cultures. The legendary Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, owner and ruler of the island, and one of the movie's most interesting characters. Lee literally becomes Summerisle and fills the role with his natural charm and breathtaking talent, showing that there is more in him than the Dracula of his Hammer films. Director Hardy managed to convince Diane Cilento to come out of retirement and play a part in "The Wicker Man", adding her experience to the film's assortment of talents. Finally, Britt Ekland plays Willow, a local of Summersile who gets interested in the newly arrived cop. Ekland may not give a performance as amazing as her three co-stars, but she gives the eroticism the movie needs in an unforgettable scene.

Sadly, the first thing one notices about "The Wicker Man" is how dated it looks. While the themes at play are really universal, the movie can't help but look like a product of its time, specifically a product of Great Britain in the 70s. It's colors, it's overall design, it all feels quite dated by now. True, this can be a flaw in a way, however, thanks to the style Hardy took on the making of the film (like truly exploring a different culture) make up for this flaw, justifying it and giving the film the look of a real documentary film. This of course has the immediate result of increasing its gritty realism in frightening proportions. Through the years, "The Wicker Man" has faced some criticism due to the constant use of songs through the movie, almost to the point of being labeled a pseudo musical film. While this is true to an extent (the songs are certainly omnipresent, and a couple may break the pace the film has at times), I think that the way they are used fits perfectly the detailed plot and its intended theme, adding as well an enormous amount of realism to Summerisle village and its culture.

"The Wicker Man" may look like another typical thriller with the same kind of mystery and suspense that has been done over and over for a long long time, but it's actually one of the most intelligent and interesting movies ever made. It is a brilliantly written movie that invites its audience to question the nature of heroism and morality, and to witness how far mankind can go for their beliefs. Raising difficult yet interesting question, Hardy and Shaffer create in "The Wicker Man" a powerful tale about faith that definitely leaves a mark on its viewers, regardless of their beliefs. While it really looks dated by now, it's still one of those movies where everything fits in the right place, making the movie as a whole feel like perfect. "The Wicker Man" is definitely a must-see, and not only for the horror genre fans, but for everyone interested in cinema in general. Time to keep the appointment with "The Wicker Man".



DS said...

This was just repeated on UK TV, I have it on DVD, VHS and also have the book, despite the fact I've seen it numerous times it never fails to impress.

The remake is to be avoided at all costs, completely misses the point.

J Luis Rivera said...

The remake is quite a mess, isn't it? I wonder what they thought they were doing...