News Column

Fertility rites and wrongs

October 11, 2013


Oct. 11--The Wicker Man, cult classic, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 4 chiles

Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man has haunted my consciousness ever since I first saw it at some art house or university film festival a year or two after its release in 1973. The story of a British police officer who travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl is akin to John Fowles' novel The Magus and Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." Like The Magus, it takes place in a world that is at once erotic, surreal, and duplicitous. The Wicker Man's shocking conclusion recalls that of "The Lottery." It's the film's visual imagery that populates our dreams. There's the horrific final scene, framed in a sunset. And who can forget the strange eye on the dinghy that brings the police officer to the isle; the portrait of a face bearded in leaves that hangs outside The Green Man Inn (or the repugnant human manifestation inside); or the sight of a nude Britt Ekland twisting sensuously against the wall of her bedroom?

Truth be told, I don't remember if that nudity was included in the first version of the movie I saw. The Wicker Man, trimmed by film distributors and censors, has gone through a series of variously restored versions over the 40 years since its original release -- not to mention the embarrassing, even comic 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage. A 92-minute 35 mm print was recently discovered at the Harvard Film Archives, the result of a Facebook campaign conducted by Studiocanal, which holds the worldwide-distribution rights. Director Robin Hardy, now 84 years old, confirmed it as the version he had prepared for U.S. theatrical release. It has been digitally remastered and includes material not seen in its original release. This version of the film premiered in New York and Los Angeles in September.

Shaffer's story centers on police sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodard), who receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle regarding the disappearance of Rowan Morrison. The strangeness starts as soon as he lands his float plane off the harbor master's quarters. No one seems to want to bring him to shore in the dinghy with that strange eye. Once on land, no one can identify the young girl from the photo Howie has brought. But they know her mother. Howie visits Mrs. Morrison, whose sweet shop displays chocolate hares and cakes in the shape of prone children. The mother denies that the girl in the picture is her daughter. Howie is left alone with Mrs. Morrison's younger daughter and coaxes her into admitting that she knows Rowan. Rowan, she says, is a hare.

Howie checks into The Green Man, where he is disgusted by the bawdy song the clientele sings about the landlord's daughter, Willow (Ekland). He heads up to his room but not before going outside, where he finds multiple couples engaged in sex. Before climbing into bed, he kneels to pray, and we're shown a flashback of Howie conducting communion. The blood and body of Christ set us up for the blood and body that follows.

Howie's prayers don't allow him to rest easy. During a long musical sequence with ritualistic overtones, Willow calls to him from her adjoining room. Howie is tempted by her call and briefly opens the door between their rooms as if to go to her. He has second thoughts and slams it shut. He's teased by Willow the next morning for his self-righteous reluctance. His virginity, it turns out, matters.

On the way to visiting a local school, Howie finds a man leading a group of young boys in a very suggestive song around a maypole. Inside, the teacher and her female students are studying phallic symbols. They deny knowing Rowan. Yet there's one empty desk. Howie opens it and inside finds a beetle tied to a string circling a nail. "The little beetle goes round and round, always the same way, you see, until it ends up right up tight to the nail, poor old thing," one of the girls tells him. Howie is shocked at the girl's seeming indifference to the insect's situation. It's not until later that we realize the beetle's plight is Howie's. A visit to the local graveyard and an exhumation yield some ghastly surprises.

At the time of its release, it was easy to see The Wicker Man as a symbol of the struggles that had begun in the 1960s between the established authorities and the counterculture movement. The residents of Summerisle have apparently cast off any sense of Judeo-Christian morality and have opted for practicing rituals based on nature and seasonal cycles. Here Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee, encourages the local population in their pantheism, but without a convincing display of belief himself. Today, the movie seems a clash between cruel paganism and rigid Christianity. Much of the film's celebrated horror springs from this conflict. Though it's easy to sympathize with Howie at the film's gruesome end, it's also easy to fault him for his rigidity. His beliefs seem every bit as false as those of the pagans of Summerisle.

The Wicker Man, despite its horror, is something of a musical. The folk song that accompanies the film's opening scenes as well as those aired in The Green Man, gives it a suggestion of innocence (it also ties the film to the counterculture movement). Not until the flame-driven end, when the music becomes more ritualistic and sinister, does this innocence dissolve. Yet Summerisle's residents, as they seek to guarantee next year's harvest, are happy and celebratory. Even Rowan Morrison.


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