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Movies Johnny Eatman Review by
Rbadac

The Wicker Man
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SHOULD YOU?
TIP JAR
THE WICKER MAN
MOVIE REVIEW
THE WICKER MAN - 1973
British Lion Films
Rated: USA: R

The following review of THE WICKERMAN was written December 4, 2000 at alt.books.ghost-fiction. The author rbadac (Real name: Johnny Eatman) was a literate and enjoyable voice in the horror genre and on the Internet. Due to the Internet as it was in the year 2000, many people had come to know rbadac as a friend even though they had never met him in person. He was intelligent, witty, and funny. This posthumous reposting of his review is done not only to honor his memory, but so others may remember him.

You are missed, rbad.

!!!WARNING!!!
THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD


THE WICKER MAN
Review by Rbadac

Whether cult status has any respectability at all in itself is a question I hasten to avoid; my catalog of secret shameful activities includes a few items befitting the term, and I am therefore mindful to be indulgent of the practice, in theory at least, if not in all its manifestations. In film, cultism tends to involve the appreciation of certain works that are more distinctive in their parts than in their sum - a standard that can embrace anything from the intermittently endearing to the irredeemably trashy - and which usually flies in the face of accepted critical opinion. Thus even a cineaste who knows better might be surprised at home one evening in his or her knickers, with a mouthful of Raisinets and a videotape of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or LIQUID SKY or REANIMATOR humming away in the VCR, displaying a mortified expression having no regard to one's choice of lounging wear.

I confess to being an unabashed member of the Wicker Man cult, if only because I find myself watching it at least once a year whether I need to or not, a practice I reserve for a handful of movies that, otherwise unrelated, have become part of my private culture of entertainment. I am happy to report that THE WICKER MAN (British Lion; 1973) does possess parts which justify it on some weird plane that is sufficient to its fans, yet, amusingly, do not confute the arguments of its detractors, and nevertheless achieves a very satisfying whole for those who like that sort of thing. How's that for an appraisal?

Edward Woodward turns in a superb performance as Sgt. Howie, the strait - laced constable investigating the disappearance of a young girl on the extremely insular island of Summerisle; given every opportunity to broaden his worldview, he valiantly resists all attempts by exterior agents to breech the bulwarks of his faith, and emerges as a fascinating character and counterpoint to the pagan shenanigans of Summerisle's inhabitants. Indeed, because of his stalwart portrayal, it is possible to sympathize with both sides of the basic conflict, which makes THE WICKER MAN an enjoyable duality similar to films like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Little touches, such as Howie's displeasure with a "Jesus Saves" message in the form of graffiti which he orders to be washed off (after which he and the camera walk right past an adjacent message just as large which says, "Jesus Lives") help to create a picture of an individual in singular conflict with the very ideas he clings to despite any evidence to the contrary. Sgt. Howie alone makes the film, and Woodward makes Sgt. Howie, but there is even more to come.

Summerisle is famous primarily for its apples, but other than this whimsical bit of information (forbidden fruit = main export), nothing is known on the mainland about its people, who resist visitors and keep their own curious counsel. Howie finds them to be a shockingly amoral bunch - having it off in the village green and adjoining graveyard (he sees one girl, naked, on the tombstone of a deceased lover, mourning him and straddling it in the same fashion as do the others their living lovers), still dancing around phallic maypoles, or singing ribald songs about the landlord's daughter, an activity which Willow, the daughter herself (Britt Ekland, back when she was beautiful) openly condones in practice; and young naked girls jumping through bonfires to be impregnated by an unorthodox God - when they appear to hinder Howie's search for the supposedly-missing Rowan Morrison (whose photograph at the previous year's harvest celebration is also missing from its accustomed place with the others on the Green Man pub's wall), he must appeal to the highest authority on the island, the cavalier and mysterious Lord Summerisle himself (Christopher Lee).

Lord Summerisle, surely one of the best things Lee ever did after Dracula, couldn't care less whether Sgt. Howie is outraged or not, and appears bemused by the constable's insistence on opening the grave where Rowan is said to be buried. He has, in fact, more important things on his mind: the upcoming May Day festival, something the Summerisle residents take quite seriously.

Though there is a real Summerisle, the film was not shot there, but in various locations in Scotland, primarily Newton Stewart on the Cree River in southwest Scotland. The production thanks in the opening credits to "Lord Summerisle and the people of his island" is spurious, done to add authenticity, but the Celtic mythology and May Day rites are drawn from real sources. Years previous, while in Padstow, Cornwall, director Robin Hardy was privileged to observe firsthand some of that town's May Day festivities, and drew both from them and their reticence toward outsiders much of the character of his fictional Summerisle.

Elements of actual folklore used are the Hobby Horse, the man-dressed- as-a-woman Teaser (or Queen or Moll), the Fool or Jester, the "Morisco" dance-pageant in general (from its originally supposed Moorish origin, now disputed), the sword dance, the use of the hare as a transmigrative soul, the Hand of Glory, and others, including the Wicker Man himself, a favorite method of the Celts, according to Julius Caesar, of sacrificing Roman prisoners. The animal-masked children who badger Sgt. Howie while he is making a desperate house-to-house search for Rowan Morrison are responsible for some of the creepiest moments in the film; children are used to great advantage in this respect. May Morrison's other daughter Myrtle paints pictures of hares and calmly pronounces to Sgt. Howie that Rowan has become one; later, in a scene at the school, another girl explains the cruel drama taking place inside the empty desk that likely belongs to Rowan Morrison - a beetle tied to a thread which is slowly winding itself round a nail. A more trenchant symbol of Sgt. Howie's quest could hardly be conceived.

There is, however, the awkward matter of the film's music (yes, the major problem with making THE WICKER MAN a musical is that it already *is* one - a bad one), and here I quail in horror, for it is here that this curate's egg gets really rotten.

Paul Giovanni was commissioned to provide the numbers, performed by him and by the group Lodestone, renamed Magnet in some credits and assembled specifically for this film, which are intended to suggest folk tunes. Musically they're not bad, but when the sung lyrics are added they plunge in quality and become uniquely cringeworthy. The "major seventh meets Rod McKuen imitating Robert Burns" compositional approach (although Giovanni really did try to use traditional songs as the basis for the film's, the hypnotic effect they may have had in the Seventies is sadly dated now) is enough to make anyone paddle that crippled seaplane all the way back to the mainland, and to hell with Rowan Morrison - even after repeated viewings there are some songs I simply cannot stand to hear: I could certainly do without "Corn Rigs" intruding in the opening credits and elsewhere, a truly insipid piece of crap, which actually *is* a genuine Robert Burns lyric; "The Maypole Song" is more nerve-wracking than "Dem Bones" and "100 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall" combined; "Gently Johnny," sung by Giovanni while Ekland is initiating a lucky young lad into the mysteries of sex, though musically quite pretty, is laugh-out-loud bad, the kind of song you're compelled to make up dirtier (and better) lyrics to, even if it too has its genesis in genuine old ballads; and Ekland's own wistfully dirty ditty, "Heigh Ho," sung during her naked fertility dance and wall-slapping attempt to seduce Sgt. Howie (the closest Howie ever comes to shedding his inhibitions - egad, he could have gone ahead and committed *that* sin and been sorry for it *later*, the poor dumb schmuck) is, in this context, embarrassingly inappropriate, Ekland's performance of it Amateur Hour all the way - though, with the feature of Ekland's nude body to distract one, it passes relatively painlessly.

"Take The Flame Inside You," sung while the little girls are hopping over the fire "skyclad" (they're actually wearing sheer body stockings, as I've determined from examining it in some detail), is one of the only tunes I actually like - it has a haunting quality about it, and trespasses the least upon lame pop modes or squirrelly faux-traditional approximations. The two bawdy ballads, "The Landlord's Daughter" and the "Tinker's Song" that Lee sings (it's called, I'm told, "The Ram of Derby" - the tinker cannot mend the lady's kettle because "... there have so many nails been drove, mine own could not take hold...") are good for cheap laughs and manage to sound stylistically authentic, and "Summer is icumen in" at the finale will just have to be forgiven, I suppose. All that said, the way the songs are presented, instrumentally simple and seemingly without beginnings or ends but interwoven with the film's action, is actually quite successful, and avoids the jarring abruptness of most intentional musicals.

The screenplay, by Anthony Shaffer (of SLEUTH fame, another of my personal favorite films that snobby critics seem to enjoy ragging, also the scripter of Hitchcock's *Frenzy*, and twin brother to Peter "Equus" Shaffer) is literate and effective. Director Robin Hardy co-wrote with him a very readable novelization (THE WICKER MAN, stateside by Crown Publishers; New York, 1978 - most good public libraries have it). The cinematography is adroitly done and attractive, the casting an interesting/amusing/sinister lot of Scottish-accented character actors and locals they picked up along the way.

The Wicker man  Britt Ekland naked
THE SCENE THAT ROD STEWART TRIED TO CENSOR

Plagued in its release career by near-Kafkaesque problems with multiple distributor buyouts, chopped- up prints which rearranged sequences and removed as much as 20 minutes of its 102 minute running time, the destruction of its original negative (necessitating a near-futile hunt for a complete print, of which exactly *one* was found to exist, in the hands of Roger Corman in America - his recommendations had been partially responsible for the cut versions, but he happened to have the original lying around intact!), and an inordinate number of people who simply didn't want to help it along, and refused to aid anyone who did (including Rod Stewart, who reportedly offered six figures to purchase and destroy the film to protect his then-sweetie Britt Ekland from being flaunted before the movie-going public spanking her own ass), THE WICKER MAN is nowadays usually available at most tape rental outlets on the Magnum Entertainment video label which, at 101 minutes (Christopher Lee has said that the first shooting script-length draft, the best version in his opinion, lost an *additional* 20 or 25 minutes or so no one will ever see due to the first editor at British Lion actively hating the film and conveniently "losing" parts he didn't care for), is more or less as complete as it is likely ever to be though not without a couple of "jumps" (Howie berating Rowan's mother near the end has lost some lines of dialogue), and may have a laserdisc or DVD incarnation of which I am unaware.

Go rent it and watch it, it's great. If you like that sort of thing, that is.

rbadac

Special thanks to Deja.com for supplying an easily searchable list of alt. boards on the net.

Thanks also to Rhys at the John Pelan Message Board (mastersofterror.cjb.net) for turning me on to Deja.com in the first place.
A memorial anthology of Johnny Eatman's fiction and usenet letters and reviews is currently being considered. You can show your support at the John Pelan Message Board.

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This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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