The Wicker Man
Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunter
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The slasher model had not quite made its presence known in the realm of modern horror films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a year away and Halloween was five off. So, horror was still on a religious kick, scaring people with the prospects of Satanic possession. The first major feature of this type was Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby leading the charge in 1968. It would be followed five years later by Best Picture nominee The Exorcist and three years further with The Omen.
Yet the idea of pagan religions wasn't as frequently used, but would get its own shot at the horror audience in 1973 with The Wicker Man, a cult classic (pardoning the pun) about a police officer who finds himself pursuing a missing girl on an island of ritual and mystery where he suspects murder, but finds something more diabolical. Edward Woodward takes on the mantle of the Catholic cop Sergeant Howie who find himself caught in a desperate and dangerous situation. When he arrives there and is told that no one has heard of this girl, he begins uncovering lies, fertility rituals and a childrens' education system devoted to teaching kids early about the necessity of sex and its impact on culture and nature. Despite being a rather forward decade for psycho-sexual and violent cinematic experiences, Wicker Man is still a bit too advanced for a society still locked in repressed religious belief. It's why films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, apart from being excellent films, managed to touch so evocatively the minds of millions of audiences. They weren't exactly prepared for what The Wicker Man would have to offer and may have been more offended than entertained.
The film isn't about its performances, which are notably lacking. It isn't about its scares and thrills, there aren't any. It's about the shock factor. It's about dealing both seriously and not-so-seriously about the lack of religious tolerance in society and doing so almost surreptitiously. Although this island community has its share of unusual and aberrant customs, it's the words of their Lord Summerisle, played acerbically by horror legend Christopher Lee, that seem to linger. In one scene where Sergeant Howie is questioning the fakeness of their religious pursuits, questioning the wisdom of the unusual concept of reproduction without sexual union, and asking him if the children have never learned of Jesus, he wittily responds "himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost..."
Yet, for all its forward thinking, The Wicker Man still focuses the audience squarely against the pagan cult and vilifies it in the final scenes as the crowd sings and raises praise to their gods as the wicker man himself burns away the offerings they have provided. However, I must give it credit for at least trying to go a different way with its concept, I just wish it hadn't been so effectively against religious tolerance.
September 6, 2010