by Severin Noakes (August 8, 2016)
The Wicker Man is the greatest film ever made. So great, in fact, its now infamous 2006 remake/carbuncle starring Nicolas Cage could only ever hope to materialise into what might be the most nauseatingly awful film of all time. And it did. It was during a turbulent period of unemployment a couple of years ago when I finally got around to watching the original flick. Looking back, I’m embarrassed that as an aspiring filmmaker and assiduous cinefile it had taken me so long to crack into the thing. But it did, and I’ll have to live with that. Having long been privy to the film’s status as a cardinal piece of cult cinema and of its notorious final scene, I thought: What’s the point? If this flick is held in such high regard then its best aspects have undoubtedly been appropriated by a plethora of other filmmakers and the original will likely come off as archaic and, worst of all, boring. I thought I’d get absolutely nothing from it save for a little escapism. But subsequently, what I found was that when you have no job, the weather is shit, and your flatmates are out of town, the possibility of even a minor wink of escapism can be incredibly alluring. So, I watched The Wicker Man.
The film tells the story of Sergeant Howie, a God-fearing police officer who travels from mainland Scotland to the tiny island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl. Upon his arrival the very existence of the girl is denied by its inhabitants and Howie realises he’s found himself in a land populated exclusively by neo-pagans. From there the film blossoms into a virtual war of the gods as the pious protagonist is pitted against the island’s occupants and their eccentric pagan leader Lord Summerisle, all the while attempting to solve the mystery of what happened to little Rowan Morrison.
As a filmmaker, you can do anything you like in the first twenty minutes of a film. Show the audience where you have the power to take them and how you’d like to take them there. What happens around the twenty minute mark in The Wicker Man is quite possibly my favourite moment in all of cinema. Sergeant Howie leaves a local pub after a literal song and dance about all the carnal things the locals want to do with the landlord’s daughter (who’s present for the performance and doesn’t seem at all bothered). He escapes this calamity, heads outside, and while walking through a field he comes across an orgy. It’s not so much what’s happening that really staggers me, but rather in how it’s presented. As Howie moves through the field a strobe light pans behind him and time slows down. The Sergeant locks eyes with one of the women, the frame freezes and a musical note of the score sustains before continuing with the melody as the frame returns to course. That right there is cinema. It’s everything. On seeing it for the first time I felt as if I’d been born again, that everything I’d been told about how you’re supposed to make a film was bullshit and that an entire new world had opened up for me. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with or have an aversion to arthouse or experimental cinema — quite the contrary. It’s just that what I do love about cinema as a medium is its potential for inclusiveness and accessibility. And when a film can somehow coalesce both art and accessibility I can’t help but be impressed — it always seems to be such an elusive plane. I can say in truth that the entire film is as absorbing and fascinating as that one scene. Moreover, that’s basically what this film is — a mélange of perfect scenes. I hesitate to spoil anything major for people who are yet to see the film so for me this is very much an exercise in restraint.
The Wicker Man is an example of a film that truly defies categorisation. Famously hailed by Cinefantastique as “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”, i’d assert that the film is anything but. To categorise it so simplistically is unfair and incorrect, even if prefaced with the much coveted “Citizen Kane of”. This is a “horror film” set during the day. In good weather. In lush scenery. With humble folk songs and nursery rhymes sung by the cast throughout the film. More Country Calendar than Rosemary’s Baby. I don’t like to use the word “deliberate” in connection with how the film eschews horror conventions in a very inverse fashion because that somehow implies an anarchic rejection toward the formalities of the genre. That doesn’t appear to be on the minds of the filmmakers at all. It’s this way simply because it’s necessary for the unique narrative to be presented as such (which really is the best reason for any decision in a film) and in doing so, it makes the film very much an island.
Like all great cult flicks The Wicker Man has tremendous rewatch value. I watched it nine times the first week I saw it (unemployment will do that to you), opening up its pores and exploring the many nuances which make it such an enduring piece of cinema. Its utter lack of pretension being one particularly sturdy limb from which its endurance stems. However bizarre the film is at surface level, no scene or moment comes off as feeling indulgent or superfluous. It never outstays its welcome. Moments that would come off as ostentatious in other films seem to be perfectly comfortable in the world of The Wicker Man, which is entirely unaware of its own mastery.
The film had an incredibly troubled pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution. Ouch. None of the department heads got along, not with each other, not with the director. Additionally, the distributors had absolutely no idea how to market it — who can blame them, really? After all, the best way I could describe this film is by calling it a police procedural-mystery-black comedy-horror-cum-quasi musical. What the distributors did do, at the behest of its director Robin Hardy and stars Edward Woodward and Sir Christopher Lee, was mangle and brutalise the original cut, snuffing out some twenty minutes of footage and slapping it on as a B picture to Nicolas Roeg’s almost equally brilliant film of the same year Don’t Look Now (strangely, the cover art for contemporary releases of each of these films feature images that spoil their iconic final scenes). One can actually imagine this as film Roeg could have directed himself in some other version of history. Among other sacrilegious pursuits the film stock was stored incorrectly and handled poorly. But interestingly, it was this entire troubled cycle that gave birth to the many happy accidents in the film which homogenise so seamlessly with its carefully constructed idiosyncrasies that it’s actually hard to believe this wasn’t all part of a master plan. A favourite of these accidents being a graveyard scene where Sergeant Howie finds a navel string hung on a tree. The damaged film cycles through a range of bizarre colour balances as the Sergeant processes what it is he’s seeing. It’s all just so wonderfully odd and it allows the film to transcend the merely off-kilter and settle onto a plane all its own. The brutalisation that the film suffered resulted in three cuts being available, the closest version to the director’s vision clocks in at around 93 minutes and it’s essential you see this cut as it is by far superior to the others. Wonderfully bookended by two religious observances, the inclusion of Sergeant Howie’s first night on the island in full, and lacking the unnecessary exposition of policework away from Summerisle. You’ll definitely be able to find this director’s cut version online.
In the 43 years since its release there have been numerous essays and analyses written about the film, some pertinent, some far reaching. There are writings which interpret the film as a piece of feminist cinema, as in Gail Ashurst’s essay ‘The Game’s Over’. Breaking The Spell Of Summerisle: Feminist Discourse and The Wicker Man, and also as a send up of Britain’s then declining agricultural economy in Belle Doyle’s essay ‘Here On Official Business’: Production, Patriarchy and the Hazards of Policing a Pre-Industrial Utopia and it is absolutely appropriate to view the film through these lenses. It’s all there. The most palpable lens through which one can view The Wicker Man however is that of Christianity’s erosion as a bedrock in contemporary society and the threat of what could ultimately fill the vacuum when we abandon our traditional structures of power. We see this in how truly powerless Sergeant Howie is in the presence of a community in which his purpose is moot. He’s abrasive, a brute, and basically a prick to everyone. Which is quite hilarious. Until it isn’t. Lord Summerisle is a wonderfully fun and charming foil to Howie’s stiff copper, a learned man who respectfully welcomes the Sergeant onto the land of which he is lord. Which again is funny until it isn’t. The moral perspective of the film is somewhat elusive at first as there are no cut and dry “good” or “bad” characters. Sergeant Howie is the protagonist, sure, but we spend most of the film hating him. He’s fun to watch, and the performance by Woodward is fantastic, but you can’t help but dislike the guy. He spends the entirety of the film berating the residents of Summerisle, who are actually all really lovely. He slanders their way of life at every chance he gets and believes wholeheartedly that as a man of God he is better than them. Yet, despite his awfulness, the joke that’s being played on him by the residents is nothing short of horrible. And in the end, yeah, we get a pretty good sense of who’s right and who’s wrong.
For two years I’ve been trying to accurately pin down just what it is that makes me keep coming back to this film. There has to be something as it’s left a pretty permanent brand on me as a filmgoer. I feel it’s too broad to say I like “everything” about it, but when I mull it over that’s the absolute truth. It’s lightning in a bottle. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see another film that resonates with me as much as this. But then why exactly did it resonate with me? I don’t necessarily identify with the characters as you might with a film that’s more akin to your own personal experiences. There’s nothing about the story that speaks to me intimately as a human being and I don’t think I find a sort of comfort in it that you might otherwise find in your favourite film. The best assumption I can make is that it’s because I absolutely love cinema. And for me, this is the most pure example of it. I’m often guilty of having a love for films which aren’t necessarily good. I’m a massive apologist for filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn for example, filmmakers that are enamoured with the bells and whistles of the medium, at times to the detriment of coherent or meaningful storytelling. So it gives me great pleasure in recommending this film knowing that not only does it have those whistles and those bells but that it also has enough meat on its bones to warrant someone who could care squat about editing, framing, music and all that stuff, to watch and enjoy it. Not only does it do everything, it does everything right. What’s on display is a cracking thriller with a towering rewatch value, a film that can be enjoyed by someone with a mere passing interest in cinema. But if you’re an aspiring filmmaker like myself, The Wicker Man is essential viewing. It will provide you with an abundant fount of mad inspiration. It will then shatter your ego absolutely. You will be confronted with the power of cinema as a medium and you will be attacked with the very real notion that no matter how confident you think you are in your own ability, you’re never going to make anything as good as The Wicker Man.