|Sgt. Howie investigates, but will these salty sea dogs bite?
|Everyone's friendly on Summerisle!
|Rowan Morrison: flower of young girlhood
|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!
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."
"Well, yeah, hon, it's called 'The Wicker Man', not 'The Wicker Little Girl'..."
(penny in the air...)
"Oh, my GOD..."
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....