January 15, 2013

The Wicker Man (1973)
Starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward

Comments:  Two days ago I wrote about one of the nastiest and most effective sucker punches in movie history (Spoorloos).  Well, now I get to write about another one.  This time I get to write about The Wicker Man.

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The Wicker Man is a notorious horror (if you can call it that) movie from 1973, and unlike a lot of the movies on this countdown it is in fact very well known.  For three decades it has always been lurking around every countdown of "great horror movies from the 1970's" and "the most disturbing horror movies ever made."  And my favorite one, "Movies that will make you say "holy shit!" the first time you see them."  Yes, any movie that can make it onto the coveted "Holy shit!  Did you see that!" list is indeed a special one.

The Wicker Man is one of those movies that I have a very personal connection to.

My favorite teacher I have ever had was my classics professor in college.  His name was John Heath and, well, basically, he was a lot like an older version of me.  He loved mythology.  He loved movies.  He loved writing.  Oh and he was also hilarious.  He was basically a stand up comedian who got paid to teach mythology.  I used to hang out with him in his office between classes any chance that I could.  In fact, one of the proudest moments of my life was the day that I introduced Professor Heath to my personal favorite TV show of all time, Mystery Science Theater.  He took to it as quickly as I knew he would.  Like I said, hanging out with him was basically like hanging around with a future version of myself.  He liked the exact same sort of stuff that I liked.

Oh yeah, and Professor Heath's favorite movie was The Wicker Man.

I can't tell you how many times I heard about The Wicker Man before I ever actually saw it.  Professor Heath used to just RAVE about it.  In every class of his I was ever in, in any class he taught that was in any way even remotely associated with mythology, he used to talk about it.  He always said that he wanted to find a copy of it and bring it in.  He wanted to show it to his students during finals week.  

In fact, that was what he specifically tasked me to do.  That was my #1 job in college.  Forget getting a diploma, forget getting an education and a career, forget earning enough credits to graduate.  This is what Professor Heath designated me to do.  I was supposed to track down a copy of The Wicker Man for him.  Because here was the catch.  This was 1995.  And even though it was a well known cult favorite that people around the world had revered and loved for more than twenty years, it was nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find a copy of The Wicker Man in a video store.  Professor Heath had been looking all around the California Bay Area, in and out of video stores, for more than ten years.  And he had never actually found one.  And since he was tired of looking, he turned it over to me, since I was younger and I had more energy.  And, well, because as a college student I theoretically had nothing to do and thus had more spare time on my hands.

So this was my job in college.  Before I graduated, I had to find a copy of The Wicker Man for him.  And then he could show it on the last day of his mythology class like he always wanted to do.

But here is the thing, he wouldn't actually tell me what The Wicker Man was about.  He wouldn't tell ANYONE what it was about.  For two years he wouldn't even give you a hint.  He would just tell people that it was his favorite movie and that it was kind of about mythology.  And then he would smile.  

That smile should have bothered me more.  

I was so foolish.

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Long story short, I never did find a copy of The Wicker Man for Professor Heath.  I looked all around the Bay Area, from San Francisco to Gilroy.  From Berkeley to Santa Cruz.  I looked for two years.  Nobody ever had a copy of it.  It was like looking for a pot of gold, you were never going to find it.  And as a movie buff, it soon became almost like a bucket list thing for me.  Before I die, I have to find a copy of this movie.  I have to figure out why it is such a big god damn deal.  

And why is that that nobody who has seen it will ever tell me what it is about???

Well I finally found The Wicker Man in 1998.  One day I was in a random video store in Issaquah, Washington (of all places), and there it was, buried in the "Special Interests" section at some nameless mom and pop video store.  That probably should have tipped me off.  It wasn't in the horror section.  It wasn't in the drama section.  It was in the Special Interests section.  It was mixed in with the documentaries and the softcore porn movies and the musicals.  And all I knew about the movie was that it had a picture of a smiling Celtic sun symbol on the box.

Why look, a happy Celtic sun.  Why I bet this movie is a happy movie.  I bet it is practically a kid's movie.

I took the Wicker Man home and I watched it with my wife.  And, well, as the name of the movie list implies, holy shit.  And god damn you Professor Heath.  God damn you to hell.  I could just picture him sitting back and laughing.  Because no matter where he was, I knew that he knew.  I knew that somewhere in California he was laughing.  Because he knew that The Wicker Man (and The Wicker Man's sucker punch ending) had just claimed another one.

This movie hit me and it hit me HARD.

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What is The Wicker Man about?  Well if I had written this five years ago I would have been more coy about it.  I would have done exactly like Professor Heath did and I wouldn't have told you anything.  I would have said "Um, it is kind of a musical and it is kind of about mythology.  Uh, just watch it, I bet you will like it."

But I can't do that anymore because unfortunately the secret is out.  They remade the Wicker Man a couple of years ago.  And now everyone knows about it.  It is no longer considered one of the greatest unfindable masterpieces in movie history.  Oh, and of course the remake turned out to be a complete piece of shit.  Don't even waste your time with it.  The Wicker Man remake is memorable only because they screwed everything up about it and it turned out to be unintentionally funny.

The ORIGINAL Wicker Man is the story of a police officer named Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward).  He receives a report of a little girl who has disappeared from the remote Scottish island of Summerisle.  So he flies out to the island to investigate.  And, well, that's when the movie gets weird.

Sgt. Howie

Sgt. Howie quickly discovers that the residents of Summerisle aren't really your normal every day villagers, they are more like a cult.  And as a deeply Christian man, he is offended by their customs.  Between the women walking around the island naked, to the prevalence of phallic symbols being taught to the children in school, to people having sex in plain view on the grass, to their traditions of reincarnation and harvest festivals and maypoles and sacrifice, he is shocked by just about all of it.  And he quickly suspects that little Rowan might not be missing.  He suspects that she may have actually been sacrificed.  

So he goes around the island and he tries to confirm his suspicions.  

And the rest of the movie is The Wicker Man.

The missing little girl, Rowan Morrison

Sgt. Howie trying to figure out what happened to her

More looking

More looking

This is one of those movies that really works better the less you know going into it.  So I don't want to tell you any more than that.  All I will tell you is that it is not a horror movie, it is not a comedy, it is not a drama, it is really more of a musical than anything.  But it is scary.  Oh believe me, it is scary.  You will be haunted by this movie for years.  Even if you know what happens going into it you will remember it for the rest of your life, because the storytelling and the visuals are that damn effective.  

As one of the IMDB reviewers pointed out below, The Wicker Man is the ultimate con game.  You think it is going in one direction, and then BAM, you realize it is going in another.  So ha ha, you figured it out.  I got you, movie.  Only then the film zigs in a third direction right before the ending and it all suddenly makes sense.  And then it hits you with the knockout punch.  And then your jaw just drops to the floor.

I have never seen another movie remotely like it.

There is a reason I compared The Wicker Man to Spoorloos at the beginning of my writeup.  There is a reason I posted them on my countdown almost back to back.  And the reason is because THEY WILL BOTH FUCK YOU UP SO FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT.  And I don't mean that in a bad way.  I don't mean that in a disgusting way.  I don't think there is a drop of blood in this entire movie.  It isn't gory at all.  But neither is Spoorloos and that one will really get in your head and mess you up too.  So buyer beware.  People who are super sensitive and who get upset easily would be wise to build themselves up to both The Wicker Man and Spoorloos.

Seriously, I am warning you.  Do not watch The Wicker Man right before you go to sleep.  This would be a bad idea.

If only these pagans had heard of a little Christianity


In the end, I love and I hate the fact that they remade The Wicker Man.

I love it because, well, to be honest, it just means that more people know about it now.  Fifteen years ago it was almost impossible to find a copy of the original Wicker Man on DVD.  But nowadays it is easy.  So if nothing else, The Wicker Man remake helped raise more awareness of the original.  And for that I will always be thankful.  Even if, yes, it is much harder to spring that surprise ending on people like Professor Heath did to me so many years ago.  It was fun when you could really catch people off guard with this movie.  Nowadays because of the remake it is much harder to do that.

Oh, and the reason I hate the fact that they remade The Wicker Man?  Well the reason I hate it is twofold.  First off, anyone who has seen the remake knows that it sucks.  So it is really hard to convince people that the original is so amazing when they have already seen the remake and they know what happens.  So most of the time when I recommend The Wicker Man to people, what I hear is "Yeah I already saw the remake.  I hated it."   It takes forever to convince people that the original is not terrible at all.  It is hard to explain to people that everything that was so coy and clever and chilling about the original was done completely wrong in the remake.  So that is half of the reason why I hate the remake so much.

The other reason I hate the remake so much?  Well because I saw it.  And because it made me want to put a bullet in my head.

How dare you think you can remake one of the ten scariest movies of all time.  How dare you.  I mean, Christopher Lee (who plays Lord Summerisle) once claimed that The Wicker Man was the best movie he was ever in.  And Christopher Lee was in a lot of good movies.  Christopher Lee was Dracula.  That should tell you something.

Christopher Lee in his favorite movie role.  Lord Summerisle.

In honor of The Wicker Man (which one reviewer below correctly called "the Citizen Kane of horror movies") I am not just posting my top five or six IMDB reviews.  For this one I am posting my top ten.  And I could have posted forty more that all say the exact same thing.  The IMDB is just page after page of people raving about how good The Wicker Man is.  So don't just take it from me, take it from everyone.  This is definitely a movie that everyone who likes creepy movies needs to see.

Yes, even if you saw the remake and you thought it was stupid.  I saw the remake and I thought it was stupid too.  This changes nothing about the original.


* My favorite IMDB user reviews about The Wicker Man

Wow! - 31 March 2008
Finally saw The Wicker Man, a film i've been looking forward to for awhile. I did think it was going to be good but i had no idea it was this good. Probably goes to my Horror Top 10 along with Black X-mas, Suspiria, Deep Red, Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc. I did not think of it as a horror film at first, but more of a mystery or occult thriller, but i realized it was in fact deeply unsettling when you think about it. Very emotionally engaging film, almost suggestive, and affected you in a weird way that most movies don't. Works on a deeper/intellectual level as well and seem to explore some very interesting questions, almost making you dizzy when you think about it. Christopher Lee is usually a creepy guy in films but i think this is the creepiest role i have ever seen him in. And Woodward's performance was excellent too, he was simply perfect for the film, as were most of the other performances. I can't say much more, you have to see the film yourselves.

I find it hard to rate something like this, (i still don't quite know what hit me) but a perfect 10 would probably be closest. The Wicker Man is a strange and unusual film, and completely timeless, i don't know what to compare it to at all...

A Profound impression - 4 September 2008
I know absolutely nothing about criticising films. I wouldn't know good from bad acting. However there's one thing about this film I *do* know. Along with another British film - "The Stranger Left no Card" - this is one that I will *never* forget. It made a profound and lasting impression that will remain with me for all time. In both films we know there's something going wrong. That sense of wrongness builds up over time. You sense that something very evil indeed is about to transpire yet continually hope it doesn't. As the time for the end of the film approaches you wonder exactly where it can possibly go in such a short time. Then suddenly - it happens - and leaves you in a motionless state of stunned silence.

Ambiance perfected. - 9 January 2008
The perfect example of how to create an ambiance that perfectly describes and entrances the viewer into the film. Throughout the entire duration, there is a sense of ominous fear and perfectly constructed surrealism makes you feel uncomfortable and eerie until the final shocking conclusion. The ending is one of the most beautiful and cathartic that I've ever seen. It takes every Hollywood-happy-ending standard and completely turns it on its ear. It shocked me to the core and left me completely numb, well after the credits rolled. I honestly can't express how brilliant the ending was in words. One of, if not the, greatest I've ever seen. I must also praise Edward Woodward's brilliant performance. His emotional strength provided so much more to the already magnificent film this was. Certainly one of the greats.

This is how the horror movies should be made - 22 November 2007
"The Wicker Man" (1973) which is known as one of the best British horror movies and has achieved the cult status since it was released over thirty years ago, is much more than just a horror. It very creatively and successfully mixes straight crime/mystery with horror, thriller, and occult drama, throwing in the elements of musical. The story (written by Anthony Shaffer) is always interesting and the characters are well developed and memorable. Where the film succeeds entirely, it is in slow build of unbearable tension that makes its final both inevitable and unbelievable.

"The Wicker Man" follows the disappearance of a young girl on the remote Scottish island Summerisle. Sergeant Howie of Scotland Yard (Edward Woodward), the serious and rather humorless but decent man whom we would eventually identify with, arrives to Summersville to find the girl but the locals claim that she never existed. Soon he realizes that cheerful and smiling residents of the island, adults and children led by their spiritual leader Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee) are engaged in the pagan religion with the rituals that shock and disgust devoted Christian Howie. The film maintains sensual, creepy, ominous atmosphere throughout yet often makes you smile and in the end leaves you totally stunned. The cinematography is breathtaking, the songs and musical score are beautiful and take the important part in the plot. Even if you guess correctly where the movie takes you, you will be undeniably shocked and disturbed when you see where exactly it took you.

P.S. It's been few weeks since I saw the movie but I still wonder whether the harvest on the island improves the following year.

The best confidence trick movie since Psycho. - 11 October 2002
A Christian policeman visits a Scottish Island to investigate the disappearance of a child and is shocked and puzzled by what he finds.

One of these movies that has formed a cult following because of its original theme, setting and use of music. In truth it is a low budget confidence trick played out on a audience that is expecting one film and is drawn in to another.

This is the kind of film that really should come in to cold. Any prior knowledge - apart from my paragraph above - really damages the impact. Despite all appearances, our hero is an anti-hero. He is a middle aged prude flung in to a liberal society which likes a bit of sex and nudity and doesn't make any bones about it.

The audience is quickly on the side of the villagers rather than the straight-laced Edward Woodward. But slowly, but surely, we get on his side, see his logic, until we have the giant pay-off at the end.

(What an end it is - shame that so many people know about it before viewing. I didn't and couldn't stand up for about five minutes.)

Christopher Lee has his best film role as the feudal lord and ring leader, although that says more about his anything-if-the-money-is-right choices. We also have Brit Ekland in the undressed (or was it a double?) form of her life.

Maybe the film was a happy accident - one of these films where the parts fall in to place almost by themselves? It should be studied by all film students as a lesson on how to manipulate and mislead an audience. Then, when they are staggering, gloves-down, delivering the final knock-out punch.

Stunning and hard to forget - 7 January 2008
Last night I watched director Robin Hardy's 1973 movie The Wicker Man and was completely stunned by what was on the screen. I have heard good things about this movie, and decided to watch it on demand. The music is one of the many things that makes this movie work, along with decent performances by the actors involved, and disturbing scenes that seemed torn from an ancient past.

A police officer named Sargeant Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to an island village in search of a ming girl. The locals deny she ever existed and don't offer him much help. They aren't hostile per say, but you get a sense that something just isn't right about them. After discovering some strange rituals that go on which involve Pagan religion, Howie becomes suspicious and, being a Christian man an all, appalled and disgusted by what is going on. He continues his search for the ming girl using his authority as an officer of the law. He has an idea about what's happening, but never truly suspects where this trip to the island is really going to lead him until the shocking ending which I will not reveal.

The folk music that opens the movie was perfect for a film such as this one. It fits in with everything that goes on. There are dance numbers as well, and one in particular involves Britt Ekland who plays Willow. This scene, which is rather unusual but surprising for a movie out in 1973, will become important to the plot of the film and the shocking journey that follows at the end.

The scenery is eerie and though this film is not scary, well not until the shocking conclusion anyway, it is more of a mood piece that pulls you in and creeps you out instead. The atmosphere is creepy as well, and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle is perfect in his role. He never appears terrifying, but you easily sense that there is a reason to be frightened of this man.

The film is the director's take on two distinct and different religions. Edward Woodward as the passionate Christian fits the mold well. His distaste for Pagan religion feels completely genuine, not like that of a man just playing a part. You feel his anger and disgust. The island's inhabitants also fit their beliefs as well. They never appear to be actors, but a real society that might easily exist somewhere in the world.

Weird, creepy, shocking. These words all fit as descriptions of The Wicker Man. The film is neither gory nor terrifying, but it will make your blood run cold anyway. Highly recommended. I've never seen the remake, but this film is a definite must see.

"Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent." - 15 March 2010
Perhaps the cult film to end all cult films -- due to the fact that it is a cult film that concerns, well, a cult -- "The Wicker Man" is a highly influential and surreal story about a devout Christian police officer sent to a remote island in Scotland in search of a ming girl. Things go awry, as not only does the hedonistic way of life these islanders enjoy clash with that of the officer's beliefs, but also because no one will tell him the truth about what happened to or what will become of the ming child.

Filmed entirely on location in Scotland, "The Wicker Man" has a sense of authenticity that is driven home by a pair of knock-out performances in Edward Woodward and the legendary Christopher Lee. Woodward, as the would-be hero, keeps things grounded even at their most bizarre and ridiculous. His grim facial expressions and looks of horror say it all. Lee, on the other side of the coin, is playing the enigmatic leader of the cult, and is certainly in his prime in one of his finest roles. Elsewhere, the acting ranges from questionable to non-existent, but because these two men deliver in spades, the film rarely suffers.

Granted, there's a wealth of musical numbers that make things a bit awkward, but maybe that's the intention. Afterall, most of the film seems aimed at catching its audience off-guard and creeping it out, and to that end, it certainly succeeds. Even nearly forty years later, it still manages to at least make you uncomfortable one way or another, whether it's through the unassuming scenery, the outrageous costumes and rituals or simply in its shocking ending that will certainly leave you with a little extra left to chew on. "The Wicker Man" is quite simply a unique horror film that is must-see material. Whatever you feel after watching the film, you'll certainly be affected one way or another, and that's the film's ultimate brilliance.

Edward Woodward at His Best - 25 January 2010
After hearing Edward Woodward died late last year and hearing that this was his most famous film, I was curious to see it. I saw the 88-minute version and was floored by it. Of course, if you're quick, you'll catch all the little things along the way.

It concerns a call that the mainland police received about a ming girl on an island off the Scotland coast. Enter Sgt. Howie (Woodward) and his attempt to interrogate the people on the island as to the whereabouts of the girl. For the most part, they are not only uncooperative, but rather amused by his manner and his determination to get to the truth and by certain remarks he makes about his own beliefs.

If you've never seen this movie, you should rent it right now. Considered by many as the "Citizen Kane" of horror movies, it leaves you thinking about it long after it's over, and that's even creepier.

A great and disturbing film ( theatrical cut review ) - 15 August 2008
A claustrophobic tension pervades this film from the first moment, when a devout Presbyterian policeman sets of on a journey to a remote Scottish island, to investigate the disappearance of a ming girl. He receives a frosty reception from the villagers upon arriving on the island. He also suspects them of stonewalling but is impotent to counter their response effectively. This dynamic sets a pattern for much of the film.

Howie, played to perfection by Edward Woodward, is further disturbed to learn the islanders practice ancient pagan rituals, in stark contrast to his absolute devotion to the Christian faith. The more frightened he becomes, the more dogmatic his reactions, and the less he's able to see what is happening around him. His interplay with the charismatic community leader, played brilliantly by Christopher Lee, only adds to his distress in his search for answers. Howie correctly perceives that the pagan religion is being used by Summerisle as a form of social control, but is unable to counter Summerisle's challenges to his own religious beliefs.

Symbolism is very important in this film. The meanings of various animals and shapes may baffle you when you first see the movie. If you can hang on till the final 20 minutes, everything becomes wonderfully and completely clear. It's well worth the wait. It's a superbly written and acted movie, that will leave the viewer with questions about society and life long after the final credits have rolled.

Tremendous, atmospheric horror film with an unforgettable ending. - 19 February 2006
The Wicker Man is an outstanding horror film from 1973 - perhaps the finest British horror film of all-time, and certainly a film that weaves an absorbing spell on a whole range of levels. It is not a horror film in the sense of buckets of blood and gore. Nor is it a horror film with ghosts and creaking doors and strange sounds in the night. The film plays out more like an enigmatic mystery thriller, with the horror coming right at the very end when we learn where the narrative has been leading us all along. In fact, The Wicker Man has a classic climax that will both surprise and unsettle viewers who are new to the movie. It is an ending far more memorable, and horrific in a subtle way, than any shock moment in, say, an Italian gore film.

Deeply religious Christian policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies out to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Almost immediately upon arriving, he finds the islanders alternately unwelcoming or downright peculiar. The ming girl's mother, May Morrison (Irene Sunters), claims that she never even had a daughter; the locals in the island pub refuse to acknowledge the girl's existence; and at the island school, the pupils and the teacher (Diane Cilento) say they've never heard of the ming girl. Howie is equally perturbed by some of the other events he witnesses - the pub landlord willingly surrenders his daughter for sexual hijinks; the children at the school are taught about phallic imagery and are encouraged to dance naked through flames; pagan symbols are to be found everywhere. The entire island seems lost under the sinister spell of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), and Sgt. Howie becomes increasingly certain that his ming girl may be the victim of some kind of pagan sacrifice....

To reveal much more would be to rob the viewer of a staggering conclusion. Let's just say that Howie finds out all too plainly what is really going on by the film's end. Woodward gives a career-best performance in the film, etching a remarkable portrayal of a devout man who is so bound to his moral code that he is sometimes as dislikable as he is honourable. Lee excels too as the island's top man - this is one of the great roles of his prolific career. The film switches from police mystery to pagan horror, with frequent pauses for atmospheric folk songs, and is at all stages a work of real intelligence. In both its shorter theatrical version and the longer Director's Cut, it tells an enthralling story while keeping its trump card cunningly disguised. There aren't many movies in the history of the medium that are genuine "must sees".... The Wicker Man, though, is one of the few!

* My favorite trivia about The Wicker Man

* Christopher Lee agreed to appear in this film for free.

* This film was intended as a vehicle for Christopher Lee. Lee himself has said that he considers this to be one of his greatest ever roles.

* Was filmed in 1972 in Galloway in South West Scotland, and there was some controversy when Britt Ekland labelled it as the "bleakest place on Earth". The producers were forced to apologize to the locals.

* During 2006, The Wicker Man ranked 45th on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

* The Wicker Man was ranked by Empire Magazine as 485th of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time

* (from Wikipedia) A remake, starring Nicolas Cage and Ellen Burstyn and directed by Neil LaBute was released on September 1, 2006.  Original Wicker Man director Robin Hardy expressed concern about the remake. After its release, Hardy simply described it as a different film rather than a remake. The remake was panned critically and was a failure at the box office. Today it has a significant cult following as an unintentional comedy, with several scenes on YouTube boasting Cage brutalizing various women throughout and terrorizing children, a fan-made comedy trailer of the film, and more.

* My favorite scene in The Wicker Man





The Wicker Man at the IMDB

The Wicker Man at Wikipedia

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