I watched the so-bad-it’s-good remake with Nicolas Cage a while ago, so I thought I’d look up the original British cult horror movie with Christopher Lee. I really mean it in the best possible way, but my reaction could be boiled down to, what the hell did I just watch? This is a strange, strange movie, an utterly bizarre blend of folk traditions vs. Christianity, musical (no, really), detective story and horror. The latter doesn’t really kick in until the last ten minutes or so, but when it does the results are uniquely creepy and chilling. It was also interesting to compare the film with the misbegotten Neil LaBute remake, whose inexplicably terrible choices and revisions are even more stark in direct comparison.
The story takes place on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, where a police detective named Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives to investigate a missing child, after receiving an anonymous tip-off. From the moment he sets his foot onshore, it’s clear that something is off-kilter. At first, no one seems to have heard of the girl, including her own mother and sister. Then it appears that she’s dead, a fact that nobody on the island is overly concerned about. As a devout and conservative Christian, Howie is also disgusted by the old pagan rites and beliefs that thrive on Summerisle, which include much frolicking in the nude, maypole dancing, reincarnation, worship of nature, and, as Howie comes to suspect, human sacrifices.
The many folky musical interludes took me by complete surprise, but they’re pleasant and catchy and help immerse the viewer further into the insular world of this small community where quaint, happy and colourful ever so often gets interspersed with dark and weird. I always found the old pagan lore fascinating and eerie, and with a huge cruel, mad-eyed streak to it. Nature makes for a pretty terrifying deity. Even so, for much of the film Howie’s narrow-minded intolerance makes him a rather off-putting protagonist, a sanctimonious prudish sourpuss with no sense of humour whatsoever who constantly lectures the islanders and berates them for abandoning Jesus.
At the centre of the mystery is the suave and benevolent Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), a gracious host who smiles fondly upon the girls jumping naked over the fires and insists that “We don’t commit murder up here”. Lee is absolutely magnetic in the role, and has to be about the only person who could make a goofy yellow turtleneck and seablown 70s hair look sinister. No scratch that; there’s a sequence near the end of the film where, during the May Day village parade, Lord Summerisle prances around in what amounts to drag, a long black wig and all, which in any other film would have looked like the most ridiculous thing ever, but comes off as super-creepy here.
Regardless of what side you think the filmmakers take in the clash of Christianity with the old pagan beliefs, the ability of seemingly normal, decent people to commit and go along with horrific acts done in the name of their religion is scary as hell. The Wicker Man is a truly original gem and hopefully it doesn’t get completely overshadowed by the silly Nicolas Cage bees meme, as entertaining as it is.