A loose adaptation of Ritual (a David Pinner novel), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is a bizarre drama about pagan rituals. With a bittersweet melody and brooding suspense, Hardy tells an elusive story luring audiences into an illusionary world, hence, creating the ultimate illusion through this wonderful looking and starkly contrasting mystery.
When Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), little does he expect the absurdities he comes to see in this thwarting island. Ushered by Christian codes of conduct, Howie is a devotee of the Lord in all its forms and virtues. In contrast, the island of Summerisle has people stuck in pre-history appeasing Gods through ritualistic sacrifices in hope of proper harvest and harmony in their lives.
Sexual liberation at its peak, Summerisle folks treat the phallus as a regenerative force, fire as the proprietor of fertility, and sex as the symbol of sacredness. For a devoted Christian, this free lovism culture leaves Sgt. Howie in a state of incomprehensible shock. But he’s here to find the missing girl. When he goes about business, he’s much shaken to realize how none of the residents seem to acknowledge her existence let alone her disappearance. Resolute in his mission, Sgt. Howie pledges to unravel the mystery of this perplexing island and in doing so, he comes to terms with the bare realities and deceitful allegiances of this sinister island.
The Wicker Man is deceptively charming. It’s like those castles of illusions that appear blissful from the outside, but are terribly devastating from the inside. What helps the movie achieve this peripheral balminess, despite being mazy throughout, is the beautiful music. The celebratory tunes, most of the time bawdy, and the timely score keeps you expecting something warm, something feel good, but that never comes. By the end, the movie treads into tragedy. The finality of this bizarre film is all too cruel, nasty, yet ultimately true and an event that reflects the grim reality of what was once a common happening.
The king of this mystery of course is the climax. Chilling, almost nerve-wracking, it’s shocking and goads you to do something, to hope against hope for something supernatural to occur—and that is the highlight of the movie. For large portions, one is amazed at the scenes Sgt. Howie sees. The feeling is mutual as what seems normal for the isle is completely abnormal for others. Viewers would find the startling sexuality, the loose mannerisms of the natives, and the mysterious hue surrounding this island equally puzzling. But the tone makes you believe otherwise; believe that there’s a chink somewhere.
The performances of the actors here is another major plus. Edward Woodward as the staunch Christian is a fine performance, whilst the legendary Christopher Lee as Lord Isle steals the show. Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento as Willow and Miss Rose bring a sensual variation to this colorful tale and help garnish it with a dash of mystery and absurdity to make it seem sexually ripe, especially the part of Willow. As a running motif, sexuality here appears omnipresent and forms the base of this transcendental drama spiritualizing sex and presenting it in a holy, regenerative essence.
The Wicker Man mayn’t be as popular as other horror/mystery movies from the 60s and 70s like Suspiria (1977), The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) et al, but that has more to do with fate than quality sadly. Although, it’s not an outright horror, this movie has its own prescriptions of mystery, thrills, and suspense. It is a quality film with a seamless screenplay (Anthony Shaffer) and together with the music and the perfect direction of Robin Hardy, it’ll keeps you engaged and perplexed, but above all, the climax stands as something iconic, lasting, and utterly dismaying.