Bucket List Movie #460: The Wicker Man (1973)
Horror-tober continues with a BLM that could be a considered a casualty of not only a terrible, superfluous remake, but a series of internet memes that will never go away.
I'm of course speaking of another great horror film from 1973, Robin Hardy's magnum opus The Wicker Man. Remade in 2006 by that progressive feminist Neil LaBute, the newer Wicker Man deep-sixes the original's themes of paganism, religious intolerance, superstition, and patriarchal societies, and replaces them with ugly, archaic misogyny, unintentionally funny scenes and lines ("HOW'D IT GET BURNED?!?!") and Nicholas Cage acting like a deranged idiot (in other words, like Nicholas Cage).
I could ramble on for hours, days, about how painfully inferior the remake is (though I do highly recommend watching it with Mike Nelson's RiffTrax), but that would defeat the purpose of my review. I was able to temporarily banish the memory of the remake while viewing the '73 Wicker Man, I'm glad I did, and I urge you all to do the same, because it is a subtle, thought-provoking fable that will make you question your own tendency to question of other faiths and cultures.
The Wicker Man tells the simple tale of English police officer Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), who is summoned to the tiny Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of local school girl, Rowan Morrison (twins Gerry and Jackie Cowper). Howie, a devout Christian who goes above and beyond the notion of "stiff upper lip", is instantly put off by the bizarre, pagan traditions of Summerisle: girls are taught of the phallic symbolism of the maypole by a sweetly matter-of-fact teacher, there are random orgies seemingly at every corner, and it doesn't help that Summerisle's leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, who is reason alone to watch this movie) seems nuttier than a PayDay bar. On top of all that, there is ongoing preparation for a vague but no less unsettling festival. It's a lot for a conservative chap like Howie to take in.
But the biggest problem Howie faces is that Summerisle's citizens are remarkably unconcerned about Rowan Morrison; in fact, most people, even the woman who is supposedly her mother, seem to deny her very existence. Howie, disgusted by this obstruction of justice (not to mention by those damned hippie weirdos), refuses to give up. Perseverance doesn't win the prize, however, as Howie's investigation leads him in the midst of the highly anticipated festival, and he and the townspeople finally collide in a horrifying reckoning.
Poor, poor, Howie has been magnificently set up as a sacrifice to renew next year's crops by being locked in "the wicker man", a towering monstrosity in which he (and some unfortunate livestock) will be burned alive. Howie tries both Christianity and cold, hard logic to appeal to his captors, but they'll have none of it. The film closes on his screams of agony, and it is made all the more effective by juxtaposing the glorious setting sun and the townspeople swaying and singing merrily.
I promised myself I wouldn't harp too much on anything to do with the remake, but some promises were meant to be broken, especially to yourself. Why in the world was this even remade? The Wicker Man was part of a glorious trend of beautiful, atmospheric, and relentlessly disturbing films from the 1970s that are equal parts suspense and horror (Don't Look Now and The Omen are other examples). Unfortunately, the slasher films of the 80s destroyed this particular form of horror movie. Now, stylish horror films that dare to be creepy before being scary are decidedly rare. We just don't have the attention span to appreciate this kind of movie anymore. Still, there are filmmakers who, in an alternate universe, are at least decent candidates for remaking The Wicker Man (Steve McQueen, Terrence Malick, or Kelly Reichardt could pull it off). But, wow, Neil LaBute was not the man to try. Muddy cinematography, sluggish pacing, not even bothering to hide his questionable views on women, and NIcholas Cage... is it any wonder the 2006 remake is only enjoyed ironically? I don't doubt some of you are thinking "NOT THE BEES! AUUUGGHHH!!" Needless to say, LaBute and company just did not get what made the original work so well.
1973's The Wicker Man tells a linear story, but peppers it with surreal images that give it disjointed feel that makes you relate to Howie's experiences. What I found interesting was that it feels like a satire on ancient, patriarchal societies, in which women exist to provide babies (and possibly be sacrificed, depending), and little else. Schoolchildren chant songs filled with metaphors about passing seeds, and in one unsettling scene, the innkeeper's daughter (Britt Ekland) is treated to a serenade by the bar patrons about how hot she is and how they'd pretty much like to bang her.
I mentioned earlier how The Wicker Man touches upon the theme of religious tolerance, and it does it much better than most stories. We are definitely on Howie's side when it comes to finding Rowan and how friggin' weird everyone in this town is, but on the other hand, it's frustrating how he pompously condemns these people who dare to wear their religious beliefs on their collective sleeve as much as he does. Howie is a complex character: we simultaneously root for him and want him knocked down a peg or three. I think it can be agreed upon that he absolutely doesn't deserve what happens in the end.
The Wicker Man is an eerie oddity that deserves a look on blu-ray, on which it's been most lovingly restored. Of all the performances, the one I must praise above else is Ol' Reliable himself, Christopher Lee. Is there anything this distinguished beanpole of a man can't do? Poor Woodward is good as Howie, but is easily upstaged by Lee, who relishes his part as the eccentric (possibly inbred, you know those aristocratic families) Lord Summerisle, a dandy libertine who manages to be both funny and menacing during the festival when he shows up in full make-up and drag. If IMDb is to believed, Lee did The Wicker Man for free. He appears to be having so much fun, you can tell just being there was his own reward.
So if you've seen the 2006 remake, don't let it detract you off from seeing the original. Hardy's The Wicker Man flows with the delicious insanity of a fever dream, and will keep even the most jaded viewer glued to the screen from beginning to end.