The Wicker Man (1973)
Directed by Robin Hardy

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a rigidly religious Scottish policeman, receives information that a young girl has disappeared from her home on the remote Summerisle. When he flies there to investigate, Howie discovers the locals less than cooperative and begins to suspect a conspiracy. Pursuing his inquiry further, he learns that the islanders have abandoned Christianity and resurrected their old pagan religion.

Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man is a strange, powerful, and genuinely remarkable movie.

Although the film revolves around Howie's search for the missing girl and his gradual uncovering of the religious practices of the islanders, it is far more engaging and inventive than a simple mystery movie. By skillfully combining evocative aural, visual, and narrative elements, Hardy is not only able to draw the viewer into the world he has crafted but also causes him to feel a surprisingly disturbing sense of dread.

The film is not visually distinctive, but the director's depictions of Summerisle, with its quaint houses and lovely countryside, are pleasant and enjoyable and convey to the viewer a sense of the simple and charming life of the place. At the same time, the insular nature of the island's society, its hostility towards Howie, and his toward it, are frequently given visible expression. The director is, consequently, not only able to arouse curiosity about the answers to the mystery of the girl's disappearance but also allows the viewer to engage with the islanders and to be intoxicated with their joyous way of life, which he contrasts with Howie's bigoted, cruel religion and uncouth, obnoxious behavior.

In fact, although Howie is the film's central character, and the events depicted are shown from his perspective, the audience is not made to sympathize with him, but with the inhabitants of Summerisle. Fortunately, the director's portrayals of the island's society and its unique customs are consistently engaging and do allow the viewer to involve himself with its members. Although the scenario depicted, the revivification of pagan traditions on a remote Scottish isle, is wildly improbable, Hardy manages to endow it with a captivating believability. He roots his neo-paganism in British folk customs so that the religion he depicts is grounded in actual traditions rather than simply being a mere concocted fantasy fatuously claiming to represent the practices of an earlier time.

The film's ability to draw the viewer into this world is considerably enhanced by the pleasant and enjoyable songs that are performed over its course. Paul Giovanni, who composed the music, and who can be found performing a song in a scene set in the village pub, really has given the film a wonderful aural flare. His songs are inspired by the sounds and themes of British folk music and lend not only an authenticity to the world of Summerisle but manifest the vibrancy and joyfulness of its inhabitants.

What is more, The Wicker Man is enlivened with a variety of charmingly quirky elements, such as the scene in which the innkeeper's daughter (Brit Ekland) sings and dances naked in her room, squirming lasciviously and passionately pounding on the walls, so that she drives Howie, who is staying in the adjacent room, into a frenzy of lust and guilt. At another point, having sent a youth up to the same woman's room, so that she can initiate him into the mysteries of physical delectation, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) recites poetry while watching over two snails writhing in their hermaphroditic, carnal embrace.

Despite its frequent light-hearted quirkiness, The Wicker Man also evokes profound feelings of dread and anxiety. As the film progresses, the viewer becomes increasingly aware that something is amiss and that the mystery Howie is investigating is, perhaps, both different from what he believes it to be and far more sinister than he suspects. This growing awareness gives the movie a potently sinister quality which engenders an ever increasing sense of apprehension. Such feelings of tension effectively engage the viewer with the film and make watching it an enthralling experience.

Furthermore, the director's kindly portrayal of Summerisle throughout much of The Wicker Man brings into sharp contrast the horrors revealed at the movie's end. By delighting the viewer with a vision of an almost idyllic society with a wonderful religion, beautiful attitudes, and a vibrant appreciation of life, Hardy is better able to shock the viewer when he shows that society's darker qualities. Instead of depicting a miserable world of evil men, whose wicked actions would hardly astonish us, he shows us an enchanting society of people joyously appreciative of life and then terrifies us by surprising us with the horrors that lie just beneath the surface of that society. Oddly, however, despite the dreadful events with which the film concludes, the viewer may yet feel sympathy for the people of Summerisle. Somehow, we do not inevitably condemn them for their actions, but feel that, perhaps, such disturbing actions were done from necessity. We understand their motives, and, while appalled, we feel their elation. The ambivalent emotions evoked are remarkably powerful and make the film both effective and memorable.

Finally, I should add that the quality of the acting is generally good. Woodward's performance is a delight, as is Christopher Lee's as the eccentric and articulate Lord Summerisle. Several non-professional actors appear in the film and also give good performances, enhancing the movie's authenticity rather than providing it with moments of awkwardness, as is often the case when such persons are so employed. Ekland's performance is perhaps the movie's weakest, but she does supply the director with her beauty and sexuality, and such qualities, rather than her acting skills, are central to her role.

The Wicker Man is a skillfully made film. It is consistently engaging, frequently delightful, and, ultimately, truly horrific.

Review by Keith Allen

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