Filling the Gaps: The Wicker Man (1973)

In the interests of improving my film knowledge and experiencing as many important films as I can, from time to time I am going to watch and try to write on classics and various other movies that I haven’t seen, but feel that I should. So it was that tonight I found myself watching Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. I already knew the basic plot of the film having regrettably seen the awful 2006 remake, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how bizarre, ghastly, yet wonderfully surprising The Wicker Man was.

Telling the story of a police officer sent to a small island off the coast of Scotland to investigate a missing child case, The Wicker Man was seemingly almost destined to be a cult success, given the subject matter. Upon his arrival on the island, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, finds himself in a community engulfed in archaic, Pagan traditions, led by the charismatic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Thwarted at every turn in his attempts to get simple, straight answers out of the islanders, Howie discovers the shocking secrets of the seemingly idyllic community. It’s a deeply uneasy film, aided by unconventional, canted camerawork, darkly sinister performances, and some of the weirdest and most creepy use of music I’ve ever seen/heard.

A couple of things that really stood out for me were, firstly, the great sense of watchfulness and constant observation that follows Howie from the minute he steps onto the island. Hardy repeatedly inserts shots of eyes into the film, and indeed it seems as if there are eyes everywhere, following Howie’s every move, and it really gives a terrific sense of menace. He is an outsider, poking his nose into places where it doesn’t belong, and the islanders are always several steps ahead of him. Also, the film has some very interesting things to say about religion. Howie’s steadfast belief in Christianity is challenged at every turn by the Pagan community, and his disgust at local traditions and rituals grows as the film progresses and reveals more and more of the awful truth about the island and its inhabitants. Whether or not The Wicker Man was intended to be a critique on Christianity is perhaps not for me to say, but the film certainly poses some interesting questions about the nature of God and his followers. When the film’s excellent twist comes toward the end, let me just say that one system of beliefs comes off as looking rather more foolish than the other.

There’s not a lot else I can say about The Wicker Man without giving too much away, but having seen it I can appreciate its value as a cult item. It’s perhaps not the genuine classic that many people seem to believe, but it’s mostly a fun, creepy and effective mystery made all the more enjoyable by the sheer nuttiness of it.

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