In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. One of our commentors pointed Chris toward the 1973 classic The Wicker Man; I was afraid it wouldn't be scary or gross enough, but noting Chris's extreme susceptibility to atmosphere, I figured it was worth a shot. We also watched highlights from the misogynistic 2006 blowfest remake (which I finally caved in and bought on DVD, in light of how often I've rented it to show off the mind-boggling awfulness). The original should be watched, re-watched, and committed to memory -- if you're a virgin, however, beware the major spoilers ahead:
The Wicker Man surprised me in a number of ways, both good and bad. For every immensely atmospherically tense moment, there's a completely inane, mood-breaking blunder. Each intelligent acting choice is matched with an utterly bewildering one. The plot is at once compelling and hugely hokey. But despite the contradictions, I found myself intrigued and even frightened.
Evidently eager to hide any early signs of high quality, the movie starts out nice and slow. The establishing shots, following a plane's journey to a northern Scottish isle in what feels like real time, are actually made jarring by the concurrent music. The two songs (a single song wouldn't be nearly expository enough) seem to go together only by force; it's as though we've been treated to random selections from the iTunes playlist of a college freshman who brings up Wicca in every conversation.
Then, just when the Celtic lullaby and lyrically absurd folk mash-up has lulled you into complacency, the movie kicks into high gear. Apprehension sets in immediately as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) emerges from his plane and is greeted by the residents of Summerisle with the rather benign disinterest that proves to be the story's greatest strength. While the remake (which I hesitate to mention, as it is best forgotten) expends Herculean efforts trying to make each moment scary and important, the original is smart enough to play most everything fairly lightly. The result is far more unnerving.
The island's population proves to be the most pleasantly unhelpful group of people on the planet. Even setting foot on land is something of a hassle. Stranded on his seaplane, the sergeant's repeated requests for a dingy to shore are met with friendly refrains of “afraid not.” His investigation's dark impetus – the disappearance of a young girl – does little more to pique interest. As a picture of the lost child is passed around, the locals generally react as though they're speaking to a toddler who has misplaced his imaginary friend. “That's nice, dear. Run along now.” That no one much cares about a disquieting crime is intensely disquieting.
Lest the audience become too invested, we're then offered some more incongruous music. After walking to the local pub to truly absurd accompaniment, Sergeant Howie is gifted with two full musical numbers. Their inclusion is baffling; perhaps the implied rehearsal period is meant to foreshadow how well the island dwellers had prepared for the officer's arrival? First, the bar patrons sing an exceptionally suggestive song about Willow, the inn owner's daughter who Britt Ekland portrays as thoroughly delighted by choral harassment from a crowd of old drunks. Later that night, she offers a little melodic naughtiness of her own, shedding her clothes and seducing Howie through a wall with a rump-shaking scene that would bring a tear to Sir Mix-A-Lot's eye.
With all that out of the way, the movie hits its stride. The sergeant's hunt, while short on relevant clues, exposes him to the libertine culture that has flourished among the residents. Nude dancing, frog licking, late-night graveyard romps, fertility rituals, and polytheism run rampant on the isle. Perhaps during the movie's initial release 35 years ago, it all seemed quite shocking, but today, Howie's frequent freakouts paint him as a bit of a prude. He is thrown into a frenzy by every practice and belief that deviates from his expectations, seemingly unable to let go of the hope that somewhere on this outcropping, Jesus is being worshiped with appropriate reverence and chastity.
As I said, it's all about tone here. Sure, these folks are unconventional by some standards, but to them, it's just business as usual. Nobody behaves as though they're breaking standards or stepping outside the lines, and indeed they react with a sort of pitying tolerance when their guest is forever unable to grasp their way of life. Rather than stomping around like the Cloverfield monster (I'm looking at you, Ellen Burstyn), they simply take a deep breath and explain yet again how they roll. The threat remains that this is a cult bent on ritually sacrificing a preteen, but it seems somewhat possible that this is a misunderstanding being driven into the ground by a closed-minded cop asshole on a power trip.
Or not. Christopher Lee's expository history lesson and dulcet baritone serenading aside, it becomes clear that the missing child does truly exist and is really going to be killed. In quick succession, we're treated to a burning hand, a parade, a bit of a drag show, a faux beheading, and an entire keg emptied onto the ground for our fallen homies. It's all fun and games until someone wants to murder a kid, however, and Sergeant Howie is there to save the day. His heroics are muffled only slightly by his ridiculous costume, as well as the several cuts back to the even more ridiculous man from whom he stole it.
Then, without warning, things get pretty anxious again. Turns out the islanders have themselves a little plan for Officer Buttinsky. Still grinning like sales associates at a JoAnn Fabrics, they calmly inform him how important it is that he die for the good of local agriculture. He's understandably perturbed by this suggestion, but his protests and duress go unheeded. It's a highly creepy moment, watching one man argue for his life while a mild-mannered horde politely soldiers on, barely hearing his pleas. Into the sacrificial wooden cage you go, friend! They're so confident in the efficacy of this choice that they join together in song (of course) as their unlucky guest meets a fiery fate. One wonders if, during his increasingly desperate appeals to the Lord, the sergeant began to regret not forming a better rapport with his hosts earlier. Maybe they would have felt worse about burning him alive if he hadn't been such a consistent choad for the past couple days.
Overall, this is one of those flawed diamonds of the cinema. It tackles some amazingly pertinent themes concerning religious and sexual freedom. (It's unclear why these concepts, which were what made the movie interesting in the first place, were entirely missing from the remake.) The early '70s wasn't a good time to make something that future generations would take seriously, so some leeway must be allowed. While there are plenty of sections in this film that induce unintentional laughter, it elicits enough genuine discomfort to make it worth viewing.