Friday, October 28, 2011

THE WICKER MAN: Man of Wicker, Feet of Clay

My husband Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci caps on for this week’s Halloween post about the original British Lion 1973 version of The Wicker Man (TWM)!  If you’re expecting a high body count, slam-bang action, buckets of blood and gore, and fast-paced editing of the sort lampooned so brilliantly in Edgar Wright’s 2007 police procedural spoof Hot Fuzz (which also happens to co-star TWM’s protagonist Edward Woodward), you may feel impatient at first. But if you chill out and pay attention to this subtle masterpiece of suspense and the pitfalls of religious intolerance, you just might be glad you did. Granted, we personally have yet to actually meet anyone who wasn’t drawn into the story and stunned by the denouement, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up just in case!

Sgt. Howie investigates, but will these salty sea dogs bite?
Everyone's friendly on Summerisle! 
After a puckish opening title screen thanking the people of Summerisle “for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the making of this film,” the devilishly clever screenplay by Sir Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun) tells the story of Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) investigating an anonymous tip begging him to find Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), a 12-year-old girl living—or is she?—on Summerisle, an island off Scotland that’s renowned for its apples and other produce. A staunch Catholic and by-the-book police officer, Sgt. Howie’s expectations are confounded from square one. When he arrives via seaplane for an overnight stay, expecting to be served fresh Summerisle apples and veggies, he’s surprised to be handed a plateful of turquoise-hued beans from a can. Indeed, all the islanders seem to be eating nothing but canned produce as Summerisle’s apple crates lie empty. But that’s nothing compared to Howie’s outrage as his investigation reveals that the islanders, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in a performance brimming with urbane mischief and menace) are all free-thinking, free-singing, free-loving pagans. And don’t get Sgt. Howie started about the phallic symbols all over Summerisle, including the well-tended shrubbery! With all its bawdy and beautifully-performed songs and dance numbers, TWM would make a great musical (albeit kinda kinky and twisted).

Rowan Morrison: flower of young girlhood
The culture clash between Sgt. Howie and the Summerislers lends TWM as much wry humor as mystery and suspense. Things only get weirder, creepier, and often, more titillating as everyone he meets stymies his investigation into Rowan’s disappearance, which probably isn’t doing our courageous copper’s blood pressure any good. Everybody from Rowan’s family to her teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento, whose many roles had included her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1964 costume comedy Tom Jones, as well as being author Shaffer’s wife of 16 years), to Lord Summerisle himself initially deny that Rowan even exists, then claim she’s dead, then…well, with the strange excuses and even stranger rituals on Summerisle, the determined Sgt. Howie has his work cut out for him as the film reaches its shocking, jaw-dropping climax.
On the good ship Lollipop, it’s a strange trip to the pagan shop…
Sgt. Howie has his own cross to bear

Nix muskrat love; sexy snails rule!
Is there no end to the carnal subtext?
Frog in your throat? Try Summerisle’s natural cure!
Over the years, fans and critics alike have tried to stuff TWM into the horror and fantasy categories, perhaps because the cast includes Lee and fellow genre movie veterans Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland. However, anyone anticipating traditional monsters, copious bloodletting, or F/X-oriented frights will be disappointed; that’s not what TWM is about. For all its suspense, we never see anything supernatural happen; even the weirdest things can be explained by real-world circumstances. There’s a bit of low-key gore, but by and large, the monstrousness is of a purely human variety, the evil and intolerance that lives and lurks quietly like a sleeper cell in people’s hearts, minds, and belief systems. To me, that’s scarier than any supernatural creature, because it hits closer to home.
TWM creates an air of unworldly unease, of events beyond what we can see and hear, keeping us guessing to the end. Between the uniformly fine acting, Robin Hardy’s skillful direction, and Shaffer’s slyly sinister script, TWM is a great example of how you don’t need endless gore and sadism to chill an audience to the bone, just suspense crafted from atmospheric direction, a stellar cast, and foreboding arising from the enigmatic circumstances, character development, and a location whose beauty hides its treachery.  Shaffer’s script plays fair, trusting the audience to keep up with its skillful combination of wit, mystery, and dread. The characterizations are fascinating throughout, particularly with Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle. Paul Giovanni’s haunting music, with traditional Celtic songs woven throughout, is practically another character in the film, by turns erotic and beautiful, bawdy and joyful, fitting the film’s tone perfectly. No wonder Eli Roth used “Willow’s Song” in a key scene in his 2005 horror film Hostel! As Willow, Ekland looks luscious and does a decent Scots accent, though her singing is dubbed by Annie Ross, and some shots of her backside were done by a body double, as Ekland was reportedly pregnant and entering her second trimester. But why quibble when there’s such a powerful erotic charge to watching Willow drive poor Sgt. Howie nearly mad by essentially making love to the wall separating her room from his? Say what you will about pagans, they know how to party!
Willow drives Sgt. Howie up the wall in her own bewitching way.

Will lovely town librarian Ingrid Pitt make the cut?

Meet the beetle!

Our Anchor Bay DVD’s extras include the restored version and a terrific commentary track on Disc 2, with moderator Mark Kermode interviewing Hardy, Lee, and Woodward, exchanging entertaining stories about the tricks involved in making a low-budget, tight-scheduled movie while studio British Lion was on the slippery slope to bankruptcy. Disc 1’s excellent documentary featurette, The Wicker Man Enigma, includes interviews with Woodward, Lee, Pitt, Hardy, Shaffer, and Roger Corman, as well as the jaw-dropping story of the idiots who thought they were putting the TWM negative in a vault but instead put it in a waste pile that was buried under England’s M3 highway! The 2-disc DVD edition of the 1973 British cult classic The Wicker Man includes both the 88-minute cut that played in theaters, and the restored 99-minute version.

 “The children do love their divinity lessons.” I’ll say! They’re all fired up!

It's May Day! Cut some capers, people! Everybody conga!
Who can sleep with all that singing? Darn hippies!

The Wicker Man Spoiler!

Vinnie and I have often said that in the end, what really killed poor, stalwart, well-meaning Sgt. Howie was the stick up his butt. Even before he realized he’d been tricked, that he and not young Rowan Morrison was the intended blood sacrifice that the Summerislers hoped would appease their ancient gods and jump-start their crops, Sgt. Howie showed nothing but hostility and intolerance towards the placid islanders’ religious practices. If he’d only loosened up and let himself be seduced by the bewitching Willow McGregor, he’d have lost his virginity, rendered himself useless as a blood sacrifice, and saved his own life! God and Howie’s fiancée would’ve forgiven him, I’m sure. It’s certainly better than having big, burly men shove you into a highly flammable giant wicker figure and set you and a barnyard’s worth of animals on fire to slowly burn to death, praying all the way.

Yikes! Burning Man this ain’t!

Turning other people on to TWM and watching them react as the plot unfolds is almost as much fun as watching the movie itself. Our daughter Siobhan and I used to visit my dear mom at her home in Florida, and she always encouraged us to bring DVDs we liked so we could watch them together in the evening. When I found out Mom had never seen TWM, I made it a point to bring the DVD set with me to Florida because she was both a suspense fan and a devout Catholic in her own flexible way (long story). One night Mom and I hunkered down to watch it in her bedroom, while Siobhan preferred to watch the animated movies she’d brought in her guest bedroom (just as well; at that time Siobhan was a little young for TWM's mature themes). I correctly predicted that Mom would find TWM as spellbinding as Vinnie and I did. Mom had always been a pretty sophisticated gal, but even she was couldn’t predict how things would turn out. Throughout the film, Mom kept eagerly asking me what was going to happen, and I kept refusing to give away the ending. Sure enough, when the big twist happened, Mom was just as gobsmacked by Sgt. Howie’s fate as I had been— even more so, because she brought it up in conversation almost every day during the rest of our visit! Mom and I had always had great conversations covering all kinds of topics over the years, but our conversations after watching TWM together were especially thoughtful and compelling. We had some fascinating conversations not only about the cleverness of TWM’s plotting, but also about respecting other people’s religions and beliefs and their right to live.

Incidentally, when Mom first saw young Edward Woodward onscreen, she knew she’d seen him in other things, but she couldn’t remember what. I cited his 1980s TV stardom on The Equalizer, figuring that was where she’d have been most likely to have seen Woodward before. Soon, however, Mom remembered where she’d previously seen him: “He was ‘Breaker Morant!’” (You’d think I’d have remembered that, too, since Mom and I saw Breaker Morant together during its 1980 theatrical release. Silly us!) It’s always interesting and fun to discover the roots of other people’s pop culture references.

I’ll admit that as much as I love the film as is, there’s always a part of me that wishes they could have had one last shot set one year later, showing whether Summerisle got their hoped-for bumper crop—or perhaps showing Lord Summerisle himself being dragged into the Wicker Man and set aflame after another disastrous barren year. Yeah, I guess it’s better to keep the audience guessing in the name of suspense, but closure has its merits, too.

Vinnie says:  The wife can giggle at her Mom for her open-mouthed reaction to the film, but let's just say the Summerisle Red doesn't fall far from the tree. The Wife watches movies with her whole body -- in addition to the uncontrollable mutterings and intakes of breath during the exciting bits, she'll lean to and fro, urging people to the right corridor, curving her hands about and pointing, hissing, "No, you boob, THAT way, they hid the diamonds there!" So as Sergeant Howie hunched his way through the caves, young Rowan in tow, she said to me, with all the charming innocence of a child in line for Santa, "Oh, I hope that little girl will be okay!"
I looked at her in frank amazement. "You're kidding."

"No. What?"
"Well, yeah, hon, it's called 'The Wicker Man', not 'The Wicker Little Girl'..."
(penny in the air...)

"Oh, my GOD..."

(penny drops)

I damn near fell off the couch laughing.
The Wicker Man is one of those films you want to see twice, before and after you know the ending. Like The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind, the fun is in going back, seeing all the "clues" and finding a whole new level to enjoy. The people of Summerisle play Howie like a Pan-flute, as perfect and elaborate a con as The Sting's Henry Gondorf could ever pull off. And going back and watching the game unfold is literally like watching a new movie. The first time through you're watching Howie like a hawk, now you're watching the actions of the townspeople. There's also the fun of realizing that like any good con movie, there's the chance that it could have all gone pear-shaped at any moment. If Howie had an ounce less moral rectitude, he'd have burst into Willow's room, thrown her down on the bed, and the next scene would have been her, her Dad and Lord Summerisle around a table in the pub the next morning, face in hands, saying "Well, NOW what?"
There's not a duff performance in the film. Woodward shines as a man so devout he'd probably call Mel Gibson a Cafeteria Catholic, and probably spends his free time going through the Sears catalog drawing in more tasteful clothing on the models with a Flair pen. Christopher Lee has rarely had a chance to so visually enjoy a role; from the singing, the cross-dressing and the chance to wrap his lips around dialogue like "Do sit down; shocks are best absorbed with the knees bent", the smile plastered on his face for much of the film is not acting. And let's face it, any opportunity to watch Britt Ekland dry-hump her bedroom is enough entertainment for an evening on its own.

The narrative is carefully precise. Like Titanic, they tell you what's going to happen, then it happens. Howie researches the May Day practices, so when they occur, they make sense to the viewer, and there's less of a sense of having to understand what's happening, and get straight to the Why. You KNOW there's going to be a sacrifice, there's just one bit of information that's withheld. Much like in Sleuth (about which we have previously spoken), where you're CERTAIN it's this kind of story, until one bit of information is revealed, and you realize with whiplash-suddenness that it's the opposite.

Hot Fuzz does tip the cap to the quaint and slightly horrifying way that Northern English villages do things, but the Wicker Man analogues are much more prevalent in the brilliant Brit comedy series The League of Gentlemen. Not to be confused with the old caper flick or Alan Moore's "Extraordinary" version, this is the tale of the Northern town of Royston Vasey and its eccentric inhabitants, a group who give the Addams Family nightmares. Husband and Wife (and possibly brother and sister -- it's never confirmed) Edward and Tubbs Tattsyrup run the Local Shop "for Local people", and in direct homage to the film is their catch-phrase, when Tubbs would breathily ask "Did Tubbs do right?" to which Edward would answer "You did it BEAUtifully!"

The ending, as The Wife comments, is maddeningly ambiguous. You keep hoping for a shot of the next year's Harvest Queen, either surrounded by bushels of bounty or yet another barren year. But like all things open for interpretation, the debates over the success of the mad plan can be epic. 

Observant individuals may notice an utter paucity of mention of the recent remake of this film, starring the once and future Ghost Rider, Nicolas Cage. For reasons we should not have to relate, this is deliberate. To compare the two would be like comparing a surgeon's scalpel and a nickel-electroplated sledgehammer. Let's just leave it there.

Can’t you just leave a mint on my pillow, like the other quaint inns?
Sorry, Charlie, only The Salmon of Knowledge gets to be in The Wicker Man!

And so ends another Summerisle wienie roast for another year....


  1. I have seen both versions of this film. I love the story but both flicks are equally bizarre. It is a perfect movie for Halloween. I am a huge Christopher Lee fan!

  2. Hey, D.L., my hubby and I had no idea you were a WICKER MAN fan! Truly, you're quite the versatile fellow, as well as having excellent taste in scary movies! :-)

    To be fair, I can see how one could enjoy the remake in an MST3K kind of way, but the original is by far the only version we love enough to own. In any case, glad we agree that TWM is indeed a perfect movie for Halloween! Thanks for dropping by to join the conversation!

  3. I've seen the original 70s version of The Wicker Man, and I recall it as a disturbing film; the ending is quite sad and chilling. Thanks for your post and its interesting background info.

  4. GOM, I hear ya; when I first saw THE WICKER MAN, that shocking, heart-rending ending hit me like a pile-driver to the gut! Even all these years later, although I know the movie by heart, the ending still has an emotional impact on me. Despite that, I still enjoy its sly, dark humor. Glad you liked the post and the background details, GOM; many thanks!

  5. I LOVE Wicker Man. Vinnie, your short and cutting sentence about the remake is right on. P-U! The original cannot be topped. I only saw it for the first time a few years ago, and have watched it several times since. It is indeed a movie that needs to be re-viewed at least once. I did the same thing with Sixth Sense too, and only then did I notice the splashes of red that were a clue.

    Dorian, you did your usual great job with this movie -- your "stick up the butt" assessment gave me a good laugh. But the poor man's fate put the skids on those kind of feelings and gave me such an admiration for his faith right to the end. Christopher Lee was so good. The sight of those people smiling and singing at that horrifying death made me HOPE that Lee's character would be the selection for the next year. However, with all that went on at that island, it's doubtful he was anywhere close to a virgin male! LOL!

  6. Becky, we of Team Bartilucci thank you for your praise and your thoughtful feedback! I'm keeping this short because the surprise snowstorm here keeps making our power go kablooey, but while I enjoyed your wit (and the film's wit, for that matter), I still felt sorry for Sgt. Howie. He may have been rigid, but he certainly didn't deserve his fate. LOL over your parting line about Lord Summerisle probably not being a virgin male! :-) Thanks, dear friend, as always!

  7. Awesome post! One of the best ones I have ever read in blog land. Thanks for the link to it Dorian. The Wicker Man is one of my faves.

  8. Monty, we're honored and delighted that you enjoyed our WICKER MAN post! We of Team Bartilucci are always glad to find fellow TWM fans. Furthermore, Ingrid Pitt rules! Thanks!

  9. It's interesting that you include that CINEFANTASTIQUE cover from 1977, D&V, seeing as how (A) that was the first issue of the magazine I ever read, and (B) it's where I first heard about THE WICKER MAN.

    Of course later on I saw the movie (as well as now owning a copy of the Shaffer novel). I really can't think of anything I can add to either of your comments except to agree that it is a wholly underrated classic of modern horror cinema. I admit I wasn't aware that Eklund's singing in the movie was dubbed (although, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised) and, as much as I appreciate the fact that Eklund's (ahem) assets were probably responsible for her securing the Willow McGregor role, I can't help but ask myself now if there weren't any "home grown" actresses who could've filled the role (ahem) just as good.

    Along with my passion for character actors, I have a deep love for low-budget genre films that manage to work. The 1973 version of THE WICKER MAN stands out, for me, as a pristine example of how to make a horror film without having to rely on special effects or gratuitous gore. It rather puts me in mind of some of the better episodes of the old THRILLER television series (with Christopher Lee thrown in for good measure).

  10. Michael, I think it's so cool that the famous CINEFANTASTIQUE issue about THE WICKER MAN was essentially your introduction to the film! I'm also intrigued that you own a copy of the WICKER MAN novel. I'm told that Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy created the novel after the previously lost footage was found.

    Like you, I'm a fan of character actors, and it seemed to me they had some fine ones in TWM. The filmmakers probably went for Britt Ekland despite the need for body doubles and dubbed singing because she was a big name at the time, and the money people behind a film usually breathe easier if there's a good helping of famous names in the cast. But everyone did a great job, so I'd say it all worked out in the end. Of course, the saga behind the making of THE WICKER MAN would make for a fascinating movie in itself!

  11. A fun post to read, Dorian. You always make things fun around here. BUT - this movie is SO NOT for me. TOO intense.

    I'm an old lady with weak heart - HA!! My 'intense' days are all over, darling girl. :)

    Christopher Lee: hubba hubba. See? I'm old.

  12. Yvette, dear friend, I bet you've still got plenty of "intense" in you! :-) Still, I don't blame you for being reluctant to see THE WICKER MAN -- unlike many horror films, it's not dripping with blood and gore, BUT it's got the kind of scares that really give viewers an emotional workout!

    "Christopher Lee: hubba hubba. See? I'm old." No, you have excellent taste in horror icons! Christopher Lee can be quite the suave fellow onscreen. Great choice, Yvette! :-)

  13. Dorian and Vinnie, another stellar post from Team B! THE WICKER MAN was one of those movies that took me a few years to track down. When I was finally saw on tape (eek!) in the early 80s, I'm afraid my expectations were too high. I remember liking it, but not loving it. Certainly, the cast is first-rate, especially Chris Lee in a different role for him (and who could forget Britt's dance). I love your point that Howie would have been spared had he given in to the temptations. That's something I hadn't considered before...see, I always learn something new at TotED! I haven't seen the remake, though a friend thought it was surprisingly decent.

  14. Rick, thanks so much for your praise of our WICKER MAN post! True, perhaps THE WICKER MAN may not be for all tastes, but when you love it as much as Vinnie and I do, you're a fan for life! Team B. will have to respectfully agree to disagree with your friend who liked the Nicolas Cage remake better than we did. :-) Always happy to have you join the conversation, friend!

  15. Another exceptional post from Team B! I saw this film only once back when first released and admittedly did not appreciate the subtlety of it all. I do admire Shaffer's work having seen "Sleuth" even reading the play, and of course seeing "Frenzy" many times. He is a quick and witty writer. I do need to revisit this soon.


  16. Awesome post, Dorian! I have not yet seen the film, THE WICKER MAN. I will keep an eye out for it. Hopefully, it will be part of my Halloween list of favs. for next year.

  17. John, glad to have you joining in the WICKER MAN conversation! Sometimes I think the way Anthony Shaffer tells TWM's story is better appreciated by more mature movie fans with more patience and focus than younger gorehound types (no offense meant to the lovable gorehounds in my life! :-)) TWM is definitely the kind of cerebral horror film that many lovers of scary movies appreciate more as time goes by. If you find yourself with an opportunity to watch TWM again, I'll be most interested to hear your take on it! Thanks for dropping by with your kind praise and thoughtful musings, as always!

  18. Dawn, thanks so much for your nice compliments on Team Bartilucci's WICKER MAN post! If/when you have an opportunity to watch the film, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. Halloween may be over for now, but there's always a great time for a chilling thriller to keep things lively! :-) Feel free to join the conversation any time!

  19. Ooh, I get a knot in my stomach just thinking about "The Wicker Man", and you wrote an entire (and may I add wonderful) article about it - and then made me read it. You a witch or something?

  20. Caftan Woman, on behalf of Team Bartilucci, I'm honored and flattered by your kind praise -- many thanks indeed, my friend! No, I'm not a witch; I just know lots of colorful people. Glad you were brave and enjoyed the article! :-)

  21. The Wicker Man rocked and so did your review! It took me a bit to get caught up so I hope you'll forgive me.

    I actually didn't hate the remake but then again I'm intrigued by Nick Cage. I really have to give you a hand for your hard work on adding the trivia, spoilers and the bit of refresher at the end for those who haven't seen it in a bit. Love your snarky screen grabs Dorian.
    Another well written and entertaining review. Your biggest fan!

  22. Page, dear friend, it's a mutual admiration society here, as I'm YOUR biggest fan! :-) You'll always be the Queen of Witty Snark in our book. I also appreciate your taking the time to catch up with my WICKER MAN blog post, you being a busy gal and all. While we much prefer the original TWM, we support your intrigue for Nicolas Cage's version -- this is America, by golly, and you're free to like any version of TWM that floats your boat! :-) Beaucoup thanks for your kind praise, Page!

    P.S.: Just out of curiosity, were you ever able to catch up with MIRAGE? I ask only because I think you'd really enjoy it.