November 25, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Human Sacrifice Via Corn Rigs, Barley Rigs and Burstyn Wigs

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.


Unknown said...

I haven't watched the original (and have, sadly, seen most of the remake) but knowing that the Son of Sam killer was a Wicker Man-lover made it so much more creepy to me, so I have stayed away. Thanks to Mr. Kelly for taking this bullet.

Clifton Smith said...

If this review had been twice as long, I'd happily have kept reading if you went on to explain this: "It tackles some amazingly pertinent themes concerning religious and sexual freedom."

I watched this maybe two years ago and, when done, I mentally deemed it a "favorite" for its spot-on criticisms of, uh...mindless adherence to religious dogma? The question mark is there because I no longer remember exactly what it was that the movie seemed then to do so well. I was hoping for a reminder of what I liked so much about it.

Also, we know that Neil LaBute isn't incompetent. I haven't seen the remake, but am willing, for now, to trust others when they tell me of its awfulness. That DVD must contain commentary or interviews of LaBute where he attempts to explain what went wrong and he must explain how the project got twisted from his able hands. Right?

LaBute's In the Company of Men was, to me, a pretty horrific, "atmospheric" horror movie. His Lecteresque protagonist precisely hacks up his victims' psyches in a way that was viscerally as unpleasant for me to view as any slasher movie I've ever seen.

The last thing I want to mention, in case no one else noticed, is this.

Anonymous said...

Great review, Chris.

God, I didn't realise that that totally misogynistic 2006 version was directed by Neil LaBute.

I was like, "Ha, ha, ha - another Neil LaBute joke. Oh. Nope, that is actually directed by Neil LaBute."

What is that guy's damage?

Tom said...

Just for you, clifton, I'll go ahead and watch the commentary on that DVD and let you know what he has to say for himself. (Found this today too, which might make your day.)

The "Cowboys For Christ" movie is dead in the water right now; I wanted to write about it for AMC recently but couldn't even find anyone to interview about it. I hope they figure out some way to save it...

It seems like a miracle to me that the original Wicker Man is as good as it is. I was impressed by Chris's articulation of why it works, there really is something about a pack of incredibly benign, opaque antagonists that really gets under your skin as you watch. And the more the hero bitches and bloviates, the more you think that he deserves whatever's coming to him. Like Rosemary's Baby, the last ten minutes of the movie is so silly it shouldn't work, but the rest of the film has laid all the track and you just sit there grimacing while your brain spasms in dread.

John Peacock said...

Have you seen the longer cut? It begins on the mainland (unnecessary, I think), but also includes a number of other scenes which add a lot to the film - for example Howie spends two nights on the island (or three days), which adds to the mythic resonance, and build-up of his sexual tension (the Willow's Song sequence). On the first night, it's an island boy who's introduced to sex by Willow. I think my ideal version would be somewhere between the two - beginning like the cinema version, but with the extra island scenes extant.

I like the fact that I can list all the stranger qualities of the film, ending with "... and it's a musical". The only other work I can think of that I can do that with is Gravity's Rainbow.

Nathan Rosen said...

The Wicker Man is a wonderful movie, but in my eyes it barely even qualifies as horror. Instead, I see it as a cautionary tale of what can happen to holier-than-thou assholes who don't mind their own business. Summerisle looks like a pleasant place to live, I love the music, and I'm sure the produce is delicious when the gods are pleased.

Did Howie deserve his ultimate fate? No, perhaps not. But did he have it coming to him, which is a completely different notion? He most certainly did.

Anonymous said...

I rather liked the movie, but I saw the ending coming a mile away, because I've read of the Wicker Man sacrificial rite in several other places (the earliest I recall is it being used by The Horned King's war band in the first of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain novels), so I knew that the victim of that rite was supposed to be not a young, virginal girl but the king, or a proxy for the king. From there, it was pretty obvious who the proxy would be -- and I couldn't sympathize or identify with the supposed protagonist, not only because he was such a self-righteous conservative Christian prig, but because he was so unforgivably ignorant of his own culture's religious and mythological history.

It didn't hurt my enjoyment any that Britt Ekland's strip-tease is one of the sexiest things I've ever seen in a mainstream film....