The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man (1973)

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.

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The Wicker Man

wickermanOther than catching up on good movies, I also decided to catch up on some all-time meme-spawning stinkers, starting with this honest-to-goodness terrible remake of the 1973 cult horror classic. I’ve never seen the original, but I watched its ending on YouTube years ago and it was honestly one of the creepiest, most unsettling movie endings I’ve seen. The 2006 version however is so ludicrous and ineptly made that even my deep-seated fear of fire didn’t stir once during its near-identical ending.

It is however a highly entertaining bad movie if you’re in a mood to laugh incredulously at its bizarre choices and total lack of any sense. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it didn’t star Nicolas Cage, bless him. I haven’t paid money to watch a Nicolas Cage film at the cinemas since Adaptation in 2002, but I confess, I still have a soft spot for the guy and his distinctive half-mumble, just because he’s such a strange creature. Say all you want about his overacting, but at least he’s not your generic leading man. Cage plays a cop called Edward Malus, who receives a letter from his ex-fiance Willow, asking him to come help find her missing daughter Rowan. It leads him to Summersisle, a farming commune on a remote island in the middle of nowhere, where everyone is named after a plant and dresses in 19th century fashions, phone service doesn’t exist, women are in charge and men are their mute submissive servants used for breeding and heavy lifting. And absolutely no one will give him a straight answer. Oh and there’s some pagan festival coming up in a couple of days.

This male vs. female angle, which replaces the original’s Catholic vs. pagan theme, could have been interesting but I’ve no idea what the movie is trying to say. Is it saying that women are scary and evil? Or is it instead a feminist revenge fantasy? Hard to say because all the characters in the movie are awful, including Malus, who acts like a total jerk and might be the worst onscreen detective ever. Mind you, his ire is understandable when he has to deal with his ex, who looks constantly on the verge of tears and won’t… finish… her sentences or give a simple direct answer. Seriously, here’s a sample:

Her: I can’t let them do this to me.
Him: Do what? What? What is it you’re not telling me?
Her: Forgive me.
Him: Forgive you for… I’m lost.
Her: I don’t know…
Me: Arrrrrrrrghhhhhhhh shut uuuuuup!

Malus is also haunted by the memory of a girl he couldn’t save from a burning car at the start of the film, and the movie makes sure to replay that scene over and over for no apparent reason. Is it supposed to be his motivation for wanting to get it right this time and save little Rowan? Why, if the movie then gives him an even stronger personal reason (try to guess it in one go)? In fact, nothing about the story or character motivations makes sense, the movie can’t manage any decent scares, and The Wicker Man is a total failure as a film in general and horror flick in particular. But it does give you such unintentionally hilarious gems as Cage running around in a bear suit and Ellen Burstyn dressed as Braveheart, so I find it impossible to hate. How could anyone look at this and think it was a good idea?

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They might take our lives, but they will never take away our dignity! Oh wait…