Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Movie Review: The Wicker Man

The consummate cult horror film, The Wicker Man, deserves much of the adoration granted to it by the film press, modern day audiences, and influential critics. While it's not a great movie by any stretch, nor is it high art, in a genre too often characterized by formula and mediocrity, the picture shines. There are a few moments of over-theatrical camp and one or two weak actors, but its flaws can be easily overlooked by the intelligence of the script and the horrifying final scene. Though it has slightly dated over time: hairstyles, clothes, and culture have changed a little, the movie has retained much of its chilling power and its ability to hold the attention of the audience.

Heavily truncated to keep its length down and not promoted heavily at the time of release by a British film industry in chaos and in a country in severe economic turmoil, the film made not much of an impact at the time of release. A cleaned up version more faithful to the director's original intent was re-released five years later and made the film's reputation. The original negative was somehow lost over the years, though subsequent versions produced over the years have cleaned up the print substantially. Some early versions are very muddy and show significant image deterioration. The same unfortunate visual phenomenon was evident in the print of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, filmed about the same time as The Wicker Man and also hamstrung by budget restrictions, until happily a version put together from the original negatives made its way to home video.

Much of the picture focuses on the smug, self-righteous Christian police officer Sgt. Neil Howie and his search for a missing girl. The girl, Rowan Morrison, lives in a small island village miles from the mainland. After scouring the town for any and every trace of the girl, Howie gets a royal comeuppance at the film's conclusion. The final minutes reveal a particularly vicious criticism towards priggish intolerance and the frequent inability for those so devout in their own faith to respect other faith traditions. That underlying precept is probably the most important theme to be drawn from the film, since much of the on screen action is designed to build tension and mystery at the expense of making a statement. Some films deeply moralize. The Wicker Man eschews much of this, exploring instead the elaborate rituals and beliefs of ancient Paganism along with Sgt. Howie as he pieces together often baffling clues in an effort to make sense of the town's strange customs in a desperate effort to divine where the missing child could be located.

While the Pagan cultism practiced by the residents of a remote, tiny island off the coast of Scotland is at times ridiculous to behold, it is mostly historically factual, closely related to Celtic Paganism. What is never explained however, is why the residents were convinced to throw aside their Christian tradition and embrace a religion that had not been actively practiced in thousands of years. The point, I suppose, is not to question this too much since plot devices of this nature are the conceit upon which most horror is grounded. An interesting aside---though set in and about the first of May, it's easy to observe that primary filming transpired much later. The waning intensity of the sunlight and the behavior of the actors and actresses reveal that in reality shooting occurred in the frigid cold of late autumn and early winter.

Well worth a look, The Wicker Man might not be suitable for conservative Christians or those without a sense of irony or self-reflection. Those who have seen it will understand completely what I mean. Those who have not might wish to see for themselves.

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