Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Wicker Man (1973)

I've been pulling up some old DVD and Video Risk reviews from the cybertomb that once was Hope you enjoy. This review was from January 2001.

I believe it was Danny Perry, in his wonderful book "Cult Movies" who said that Anthony Shaffer's "The Wicker Man" (1973) is the "best movie you've never seen." Anyway, I know someone said it, and I have to agree. Set on a quaint Scottish farming island, this supernatural, erotic film at first appears to be a straightforward missing person investigation, but all is not what it seems on the surface. "The Wicker Man" takes its own sweet time unfolding. The rewards to the patient viewer are, to quote president-elect Bush, multitudinous. I will try (short of placing a gun to your head) in my humble way to persuade you to rent this overlooked gem. If you do decide to shell out the $3.00 to rent it, please check the running time, as several cuts of this movie exist. Do not rent any version that doesn't run 102 minutes.

Edward Woodward portrays Sergeant Howie, who, after receiving an anonymous letter, travels to the remote island of Summerisle in his jurisdiction to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowen. Howie is a devout Christian and a virgin saving himself for marriage who suffers the slings and arrows of ridicule from the men of his own force. His faith is the backbone of his existence. He seems extremely rigid at times, yet he is not a bore. Once on the island, Howie discovers that this otherwise normal village, is inhabited by modern day druids. Needless to say, this devout Christian has his faith put to the test. The island's inhabitants, including Rowen's parents feign ignorance as to the girl's disappearance. This lack of help by the locals forces Howie to delve into the druid religion in order to understand and solve the mystery of Rowen's disappearance. Howie begins to suspect that the missing girl has come to a foul and bloody end at the hands of these practitioners of the old ways. The more Howie learns about these pagans the further he travels along the road to discovering just what happened to the young lady.

The island's "ruler" for lack of a better word is Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee.) With the exception of his performance in "The Horror of Dracula," Lee has never been better or sexier. Lord Summerisle greets the Sgt. Howie at his gigantic country estate. Lee stands before him in a kilt, with the luscious librarian (Ingrid Pitt) and the local goddess of love and fertility, Willow (Britt Ekland) on their knees before him. The tableau is like something out of a Frank Frazeta or Boris Vallejo painting. Summerisle and the others on this island have no shame about their beliefs or lifestyle. Woodward is wonderful to watch as he is exposed to more and more on the island which is at odds with his beliefs. I especially like his reaction as he watches Lord Summerisle bring a young man who has come of age to Willow for a ritual deflowering. Talk about a fun Bar Mitzvah.

"The Wicker Man" is one of the greatest mysteries ever put on celluloid. Like "The Usual Suspects" only the shrewdest of movie-goers will unravel the mystery before the films shocking conclusion. So, as not to ruin the experience, I will delve no further into the plot.

"The Wicker Man" is so well written. Anthony Schaffer's script should have won the Oscar, but we all know that just desserts and Oscar don't always walk hand-in-hand. Schaffer provides director Robin Hardy and the multitalented cast to explore and revel in a sweetly decadent world that exists beyond the pale of normal human existence. In our puritanical society, human sexuality has been treated as something that needs to hidden. The inhabitants of this island, not only celebrate, but worship the natural urges common to all living things. Sgt. Howie is shocked when, upon visiting the islands grade school, that students are engaged in an explicit maypole dance. The island children are be taught about sex is a frank and straightforward way which would make anyone who was raised in a "sex is dirty" household extremely uncomfortable. Again, Woodward is outstanding during his confrontation over the children's curriculum with the teacher, Miss. Rose (Diane Cilento). Over and over again, the policeman's faith is put to the test of sexual temptation. The most serious test comes in the form of the sensual earth mother, Willow. As islanders make love in the moonlight under Woodward's hotel window, Ekland dances nude in the next room, pounding on the wall, inviting and tempting the forlorned policeman. All of this is pertinent to the plot. The film is very erotic, but if you want to watch it just for titillation purposes then you might as well just rent a porno flick. The film's exploration of sexuality is serious, and everything in this movie is there for a purpose.

I have enjoyed Edward Woodward's work since I first saw him in "Breaker Morant." I miss the 80s TV series "The Equalizer." This film predates both of those. Woodward is a joy to behold. He plays a character that some people might not find sympathetic. Agree with his point of view or not, Woodward's work is outstanding. He is a man thrown into a conflict that he cannot begin to fathom at first. His Sgt. Howie turns out to be a character who's strength is admirable. This is due in large part to the fact that Schaffer didn't write the character as a lunatic religious zealot, but rather as a man who has convictions and lives by them without going out of his way to alienate others.

Schaffer lets the viewer uncover the mystery along side of Sgt. Howie. Unlike Hitchcock, Schaffer does not give the viewer more information than the hero in order to build suspense. The suspense comes from not knowing what will happen, and half the fun of the movie is trying to unravel the clues as Sgt. Howie uncovers them. The clues are there, but it is not likely that the average viewer will be able to figure out the ending before the final reel unfolds. The ending is powerful and unforgettable.

"The Wicker Man" will stay with you long after you see it. It is a creepy classic that is a fun movie to show someone who hasn't seen it before. It is very erotic, so it would make a great 5th date movie. Again, if you do decide to follow my advice, please make sure you rent the 102 minute version, as there are several cut up versions out there. If you have seen an edited version on TV and were disappointed, you should be. Rent the uncut version, sit back and enjoy. Just remember, "There's flesh to touch, and flesh to burn...the Wicker Man is waiting..." for you!

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