Scene Is Believing: The Wicker Man

the wicker man

“Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples?”

People call The Wicker Man a horror movie,” Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) says, “but it isn’t really, it’s far more subtle and sophisticated than that. Horror is about decay; The Wicker Man is about an opposition of values, the struggle to achieve spiritual growth. Without doubt, it is the finest film I’ve ever been involved in.”

It is that for certain. It is also a most perplexing film to categorise – there’s a vague sense of dread throughout, as the Islanders deny the existence of Rowan Morrison, the schoolgirl who austere, mainland Christian police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has been lured to locate; but the melody overlaying the harmony (as director Robin Hardy thinks of it as a musical) is one of dark comedy at Howie’s expense.

Howie seems to derive no joy or comfort from his faith as his investigation deepens, other than an assurance that the pagans (“Heathens,” Lord Summerisle corrects him) are surely going to Hell, whereas he is not. All around him, the Islanders laugh and joke, through music, ribald song – and sex. Sex is everywhere – it’s like a summer camp for Pan’s People and Radio 1 D.J’s. Throughout Howie’s blustering with Lord Summerisle, his eyes are transfixed on the naked young women leaping across flames in a stone circle during their “divinity lesson”.

In fact, an inflexible cop in a seemingly idyllic, rural “utopia” calls to mind Howie as a Nicholas Angel from Hot Fuzz – dispatched to Summerisle for making his fellow local plods look bad. But I digress.

Although Howie has been drawn here for a deadly and horrific purpose to be revealed later, he is given every chance to escape his fate. At the Inn, his room adjoins Willow’s, the landlord’s daughter (Britt Ekland). As he says his prayers and pulls the covers up tight like a frightened little boy, she softly sings to the musicians erotic folk song below – stretched naked, she thumps her hands rhythmically against their adjoining wall. Up she gets, weaving around the room, crooning and slapping the walls, then her (body double!) behind:

Heigh ho / I am here / Am I not young and fair? / please come say, how do? / The things I’ll show to you / Would you have a wondrous sight..?”

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Howie rises from the bed in a cold sweat, somehow managing not to put a hole in the wall as he stretches his sweaty palms and ear to it. At one point he grasps the (door!) knob, before slamming it firmly shut as Willow skips across on the other side.  He is wracked with temptation, but resists, and therein lies his downfall.

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The fool on the hill

Even up to the point of no return, Howie could have escaped his fate, were he of weaker disposition. The comic mood is carried on, right up to his capture and dread realisation of what the Islanders have in store. Anthony Schaffer’s script is masterful at playing with mood, toying with us up to and beyond this point. On one level I can imagine Howie dashing around the village Benny Hill style, disturbing the schoolmistress bathing in her tin bath, inviting his gaze (Howie turning wide-eyed to camera). Another temptation and get out clause for the virginal, devout sacrifice to be.

On the cliff face, at the near climax of the May day celebration, Rowan finally appears, in sacrifical white dress and flowery garland, hands bound. Howie casts off his Fool’s disguise to rescue her, but is lead into a trap by the duplicitous minx. Subdued and dragged off to replace her in the Wicker Man, he pleads, not quite believing what they intend for him. Finally , he yells that it is God, the one TRUE God, who has withered their crops, never intended for this climate, as punishment for their prideful, heathen ways. He calls out Lord Summerisle:

“Don’t you understand? If your crops fail this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice? And next year, no-one less than the King of Summerisle himself will do!”

Howie’s words seem to strike home – Summerisle and his ancestors have successfully indoctrinated the Islanders in pagan practises, but we are left unsure if he himself fully believes. As the flames lick around a howling, hymn singing Howie, and the Wicker Man collapses right on cue in front of the setting sun and jolly, singing Islanders, we reflect more somberly on what misguided wickedness lies in the hearts of men and women, enacted, not in the shadows, but in the clear-eyed, cold light of day…


Originally posted 2013-10-13 10:28:41. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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