Monday, October 02, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Wicker Man (1973)

Next up on my month-long tribute to all things creepy is the quintessential cult movie - a term which here means "movie about cults" - The Wicker Man. [*not-so-mild SPOILERS for film below*]

The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police officer, Sgt. Howie, who is summoned to a remote village in the British Isles to find out what has happened to a young girl who has gone missing. From the very beginning, there is something odd about the people on this island - how they talk to Sgt. Howie, their seeming reluctance to answer his questions, and (most tellingly) their inability to agree on whether or not the young girl even exists.

And when night falls, the very religious and conservative Sgt. Howie gets an even bigger culture shock. The culture of this village seems to revolve around sexuality and fertility. Howie is utterly shocked to see the locals engaging in very sexual rituals and even teaching the young schoolchildren about fertility rites (including what the "maypole" represents). But shock gives way to suspicion as he gets increasingly contradictory testimonies from people about the young girl whose disappearance he is investigating. Eventually, Howie meets Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the patriarch of the island, and becomes even more suspicious.

*Please don't read any further if you don't want to be thoroughly spoiled.*

One detail in particular catches Sgt. Howie's attention. The island has a festival every year, and at the center of each festival is a specially chosen young girl. Howie - along with the audience - comes to believe that the purpose of the girl is to be a sacrifice to the village's pagan gods, burnt alive to prevent their crops from failing. Sgt. Howie's search then becomes much more urgent, as he tries to find the girl before the festival takes place. What Howie doesn't know, however, is that the entire time he has been searching for the girl, she hasn't been missing at all. In truth, the sacrifice is Sgt. Howie himself, and the girl was simply a ploy to lure him there.

What follows this revelation is a quite unsettling ritual sequence. Seen out of context, the climactic scene in which Sgt. Howie is tied to a platform and raised up through the infrastructure of the burning "Wicker Man" is quite disturbing. He is shouting out a hymn written to the 23rd Psalm while the villagers are dancing and singing around the Wicker Man in celebration. I suppose people's view of this scene will be different, depending on what they bring to it. In the context of the entire closing sequence, I see Howie as dying a martyr's death - confident in the knowledge that he will soon be in heaven. Someone else, however, might see it as Howie crying out to God for help and not getting an answer.

This is a very interesting and quirky film - the kind that was meant to be made in the 1970s. If you're not really a horror fan but are in the mood for something kind of off the wall, this might be a movie for you. And I'd definitely recommend this as a substitute for the new remake with Nicholas Cage.

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