Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stranger in Paradise: A Look at The Wicker Man (1973)

A few years back when I was a wee high school senior, I became fixated with a certain television special ranking the "100 Scariest Movie Moments of All Time." Combining my love of lists and my masochistic relationship with the horror genre, this special--which first aired on the days leading up to Halloween 2004--fascinated and terrified me in equal amounts. I think what made this list so unique for me (apart from the incredibly creepy music they used in it) was the choice of movies they featured. Some were classics I had seen many times, but some I had never even heard of and seeing their "scariest scenes" isolated and out of context in marathon form was like running the horror movie gauntlet. And the thing was about five hours long in total stretched over a period of days so you can imagine. I would watch the installments in the hours before bedtime (of course) and then be unable to sleep. I became so jittery I developed an irrational fear of my friend's bathroom (her father kept a radio in a linen closet and accidentally left it on one night, tuned into a talk radio station so while using the toilet, I heard a man's voice speaking softly in the linen closet and it knocked me sideways). The List made me aware of many cool, creepy movies I later sought out, watched in full, and enjoyed very much. But there were five movies included on the it that I vowed never to see because the snippets they showed freaked me out so much. The original version of The Wicker Man was one of these five.

I know I haven't properly begun and I'm already getting tangential, but it feels wrong for me to talk about this movie without mentioning The List. And what better way to ring in the New Year than to try and overcome old fears and insecurities?

The Wicker Man is one of the most popular cult movies of all time. Nevertheless, I am going to summarize it without spoiling the ending.

The Wicker Man opens with the arrival of police officer, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) on a remote Scottish island governed by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee—big surprise). He’s come to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, from the isolated village (which takes up pretty much the entire island). He’s received an anonymous letter about the vanished girl and a photo of her which he whips out of his pocket with such authority, you’d think it was his badge. However, when he arrives and starts asking questions, he’s hard pressed to find anybody who recognizes Rowan, let alone who knows what happened to her. Half the people in town don’t even think she exists. Even her unfazed mother ignores his inquiries. The more Howie investigates, the clearer it becomes that he’s stumbled into a very unusual community. The people of the island practice paganism, dedicated to worshipping ancient gods and goddesses of nature and free from the traditional morality of Judeo-Christian religions. Orgies take place in public parks, adolescent girls dance naked around bonfires, and teachers speak candidly about fertility and reincarnation. And then there’s that young woman who bangs on his bedroom wall at night, singing about how much she wants to sleep with him. All this is very offensive to the staunchly Christian, still virginal Howie. Soon he’s sure that Rowan is in great danger, if she isn’t already dead.

The Wicker Man is a horror movie, but there are no jump-out-of-your-seat moments, no clear antagonists, no jet streams of split-pea soup or buckets of corn syrup, no cheap special effects etc. Instead there’s a creeping kind of horror at work here. The kind that crawls all over your skin, gets inside your head, and stays there for a week. I saw this three days ago, but every night since, it’s been the first thing I thought of after I shut the light off. It’s a movie about belief and what belief does to people. Something I loved about it was that there were no clearly marked signs declaring who was GOOD and who was EVIL. On the one hand, Summerisle looks idyllic. I found the idea of teachers being allowed to discuss sex in school in a calm, reasonable way to a classroom of attentive, equally calm students so refreshing. The townspeople understand their beliefs and defend them with pride and even practicality. When Howie complains to Lord Summerisle about the naked girls around the bonfire, Summerisle plainly replies (quite rightly) that it would be dangerous to dance around a bonfire with one’s clothes on. But on the flip side of this idyllic life lies something dark and sinister: sweetshops that sell people made out of chocolate, a woman breastfeeding in a graveyard, a bit of meat hanging in a tree, the cheery, smiling attitudes that answer Howie’s questions about death and murder. On top of that, Howie acts so self-righteous and judgmental throughout the film, even going so far as to call the villagers mad to their faces, your fear for him builds early and grows as the movie progresses until you’re screaming “don’t hassle the locals, you tactless fool!” The overall tone of the movie is intensely eerie, filmed in that grainy, almost-documentary style that was so prevalent in 70’s horror cinema and remains effective today. I didn’t think consciously about the acting or direction or technical aspects of the movie at first because it’s so engrossing, which goes to show how good the acting and direction are. And it’s a musical too. The characters break out into song (Celtic folk songs) at every turn and a haunting score by Paul Giovanni contributes to the aforementioned eeriness.

Set up as a confrontation between opposing religions, the movie doesn't pat anyone's back. Instead it shows how all-consuming belief can be and raises the question of why people turn to religion to explain the unknown. As is often the case with good movies of this nature, no answers are provided, only more questions. The movie becomes doubly disturbing when you realize that everything that happens in the movie can actually happen. And probably has. It feels very real. It isn’t for everybody—after all, it took me five years to say the title without feeling sick—but if you like horror movies that make you think, you’re in for a good one here.

Now on to those other four....


  1. 每一粒厄運的種子,卻包孕著未來豐盛的果實........................................

  2. Each grain of misfortune's seed, actually Bao Yun future sumptuous fruit ........................................