The Wicker Man(1974)
A significant number of movie studios have been combing through their vaults for source material and various sections of notable movies with the intention of restoring these cinematic treasures to their original glory. Many of the early movies that formed the foundation of the art form are lost forever but thanks to advances in restoration and editing techniques increasing number of these pivotal are being rescued and restored to high defining releases. With the horror genre diluted by the over dependence on special effects and corrupted by the proliferation of mindless torture just for the sake of depicting elaborate methods of inflicting pain, it is gratifying that there are studios that still regard the older movies as part of our cultural heritage. Yes, even horror is an integral part of that legacy. Lions Gate has been part of that for a while now they have outdone themselves. They are starting out the New Year with a movie that is a truly one of the defining cinematic works of the genre; ‘The Wicker Man’. Like many of the crucial films in a genre this one was ‘reimagined’ in 2006 featuring Nicholas Cage. I will not sully this consideration with further mention of that travesty.
Police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an urgent albeit unusual summoning him to a remote island off the coast of Scotland, Summerisle. As one of the Hebridean islands it as rich in folklore and Celtic mythology as it is fertile soil ideal for fruit trees of all varieties. As a devote Christian he is disturbed by the island’s traditional practice of worshiping the ancient Pagan deities as the Druids of more than a millennium past. Howie was summoned in his professional capacity to work on a local case beyond the expertise of the local authorities. A young girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). When Howie arrives the local residents not only deny any crime was committed they adamantly contend the girl never existed. This unusual assertion is even held by the woman supposedly the girl’s mother, May (Irene Sunters).
Howie is set to return home, perplexed as ever but a few things that don’t add up give him pause sufficient to detain him. Clues begin to accumulate leading him to the suspicion that something is very wrong implying a pervasive conspiracy perpetrated by the entire community. The most committed to the nonexistence of the girl is the village’s hereditary gentry, Laird Summerisle (Christopher Lee). In the guise of a gracious host proud of his community and its long history, he provides Howie with stories of the island’s history and culture. Summer isle’s ancestor who lived in the Victorian era was a renowned horticulturalist who developed a strain of fruit that could thrive in the harsh climate of the region affording the inhabitants an independent living.
Howie’s dedication to his faith makes identifying with the villagers exceedingly arduous. Much to the detective’s chagrin the Pagan practices are deep rooted in the community. The May Day festivities are practiced with a furor and execution reminiscent of the ancient way. School children are taught about the phallic origins of the May Pole, a detail largely lost to history. The focal point of the village’s year is the Harvest festival and the annual crowning of the May Queen. In the local pub there is a wall dedicated as a gallery of former May Queen’s going back many years. Howie deductive eye notices that the current photo is conspicuously missing. He finds the explanation that it "was out for reframing" incredulous. In an attempt to dissuade Howie from that avenue of investigation an attractive young woman, Willow (Britt Ekland) is dispatched to seduce him. Here his Christian values is literally a saving grace as he eschews the offer on the ground that he is engaged and sex outside the sanctity of marriage is a moral sin.
His determination is redoubled by such efforts to side track him and delves deeper into the disappearance and the conspiracy. He comes across a tombstone baring the name, Rowan Morrison. Forcing the locals to exhume the grave it didn’t yield a corpse of a young girl but that of a hare. The Laid states that he believes the young woman was a human sacrifice offered in accordance to ancient pagan rituals performed to ensure a bountiful harvest. As Howie meticulously follows the meager clues he slowly inches closes to the shocking truth about the community and the secret they have held for countless generations.
This is one of the true classics in horror. There have been many imitations, reimaginings and alterations beside the one cited above. One of the most successful has officially gone on to franchise status, ‘Children of the Corn’, but none of the constituent flicks can remotely approach the innovative nature and inherent quality of this film. The director, Robin Hardy has already released the follow up movie, ‘The Wicker Tree’ and is working on completing the ‘Wicker Man Trilogy ‘with ‘The Wrath of the Gods’ rumored to begin production this year. Christopher Lee, a legend in the horror genre, felt so strongly about this movie that offered his talented services for free. He has also stated that of hundreds of films he has papered this was his favorite. Fans and critics alike have joined in that sentiment placing this movie on numerous enumerations of the best and most influential example of horror cinema.
This is old school horror employing the traditional methods of the frightening tale. Remaining true to the elements as old as the human perchance for scary stories this movie embodies the way horror should be done, while some of the imagery is shocking, particularly in context of 1974 sensibilities, they do not overwhelm the story. They are used to support the plot, reinforce the themes and add spice up the production. The use of overt violence builds gradually to an ultimate crescendo that will be etched in your memory. This is an example of why psychological horror is more enduring than its more common place visceral methodology. A shock solely received by the eyes fades over time as the adrenaline rush of the initial surprise or revolution subsides. As so succinctly demonstrated here fright when developed in the mind by means of increasingly intense psychological techniques remain effective for years, even decades after the film has ended. This is possible since the circumstances of what instigated that feeling is rooted internally within you mind rather than before your eyes. I first watched this movie forty years ago and still reacted to the movie pretty much in the same way. The elements of horror that are considered as prerequisites are nicely contained here. The protagonist is isolated, completely cut off from help. He is vastly outnumbered with no one to trust. Finally the town has nothing to loss in making him disappear; they have been practicing these rites for untold centuries. Now in Blu-ray the availability of this critical part of horror history is ensured. I have watched this movie in every conceivable means of exhibition and this release is by far the very best.
Worshipping The Wicker Man Featurette