The Wicker Man (1973) Movie Review
Called upon to investigate the disappearance of a young schoolgirl named Rowan Morrison, Sgt. Howie finds stubborn, tight-lipped resistance from the local islanders, who carry about their business unmindful of his single-minded detective work. More often than not, they treat him with bemused detachment, laughing into their drinks or simply ignoring him altogether as he marches through the rustic schoolyards, dingy inns, and lush green hills. The locations, filmed in the highlands of Scotland, possess the eerie, musty, ever-haunted quality of an Old Country worn down by time. If there is a central character in The Wicker Man, it's the timeless elements of rock and water, moss and faded wood that comprise the town squares. Sgt. Howie, a man from the city, is clearly out of his depth.
As his search progresses, he begins to piece together an elaborate mystery (that may be less complicated than he believes) where Rowan was brutally sacrificed by a fanatical cult led by the calm, elegant, progressive-thinking Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). "I think I could turn and live with animals," muses the vaguely sinister local politician. "They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God."
The Wicker Man sustains a mood of unspoken dread through Sgt. Howie's interactions with the tight-lipped, poker faced islanders, as well as the implied clues he reads between the lines as they evade his line of questions. There's also a charged eroticism that perhaps comes hand in hand with his deeply religious suppression of carnal desire. One of the more memorable sequences involves Sgt. Howie's inability to sleep as a lovely young barmaid, Willow (Britt Ekland), dances nude outside his door. Prim, straight-laced, and disciplined to a fault, Sgt. Howie proves unable to deal with the pressures of a free lovin' modern age. (It is worth pointing out that this is a horror film that often takes place during the light of day, where evil can lurk under a clear blue sky. There are no easy hiding places here.)
It's amusing to note that Christopher Lee cites The Wicker Man as the finest movie he ever made, especially considering he only shows up for two (memorable) scenes as Lord Summerisle. He's clearly the heavy, but handles the role with a particularly light touch, tossing off his sarcastic commentary with unflappable charm. Where else will you get the chance to see this wonderfully charismatic actor sway back and forth in a mad Celtic dance, his face ecstatic and mouth agape? The ever-charismatic Mr. Lee throws himself into the role with vigor, playing beautifully off of Edward Woodward's lean, humorless Sgt. Howie.
Anthony Shaffer's fatalistic screenplay slowly, resolutely builds to the cathartic moment where he is brought face to face with, what else, The Wicker Man of the title. His shriek into the bright shining day ("Christ! Christ! Oh, oh, Christ!") stands out as one of those indelible screen moments that linger, much like Donald Sutherland's final howl in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hey, it was the 70s, man. A bleak time for screen protagonists struggling to endure in a conspiratorial global environment.
The new Special Edition DVD includes the original cut and a restored 99-minute cut, with an enthralling commentary from Lee, Woodward, and director Robin Hardy. Highly recommended.