With the recent passing of the great Christopher Lee, I took some time to revisit some of my favorites from his filmography that I have on my shelves, much as I’m sure many of you Fellow Fans did. Horror of Dracula, The House That Dripped Blood, The Face of Fu Manchu, Theater of Death, The Horror Express, The Oblong Box, The Skull…I even watched Raw Meat just for his cameo, with that witty exchange between he and Donald Pleasance. Of course, I also viewed several of his other Dracula films, as well as a few flicks that weren’t of the horror genre; the man was certainly prolific.
I saved one particular film for last, however; one in which Lee portrayed what he himself often said was his favorite of all of his many, many roles.
Of course, most of you Fellow Fans know the role I’m referring to is the paradoxical Lord Summerisle from the 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man. After enjoying this multi-layered film once again, I realized “Hey! I’ve never reviewed this great flick!” Thus, I’ll remedy that oversight right now, if you good folks will indulge me…
Police receive a letter from an isolated island off the coast of Scotland about a young girl who has gone missing. Sergeant Howie is a clean-cut, morally upright (perhaps even a bit rigid) police officer, dispatched to the remote locale to investigate the matter. From the outset, things are definitely off-kilter in the eyes of the policeman; he’s met at the harbor by a commission of townsfolk whom, while very friendly, seem to know nothing of the matter.
What’s more, their behavior is very suspicious…they seem adamant that the inspector is wasting his time, and they’re obviously very anxious for him to leave. That same steadfast adherence to duty I mentioned earlier of course keeps Howie on the job, even more determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. He finds the rest of the town as odd (and offensive to his pious sensibilities) as the “welcoming committee”; from lewd songs in the pub to bizarre and dated celebrations to free-range sex in the meadows, we watch as his patience is worn to nothing as his morality is assaulted at every turn. Even the lord of the isle, the well-spoken and rather jovial Lord Summerisle, is no exception; despite his charming and easy personality, the arguably blasphemous and inflammatory comments he makes rattles the police officer to his core. As he dredges up strange evidence despite the frivolous, irreverent attitudes of the locals, Sgt. Howie comes to the disturbing realization that the little missing girl may not be missing after all, but her intended fate may much more sinister…and final.
This film is a both an allegory for the times in which it was made, and an indictment of religion itself on several levels. The concept and dialogue are in many ways way ahead of their time; I’m certain that even today, over forty years later, folks with strong religious convictions would find the film offensive.
Classified by many as more of a “weird mystery” rather than a horror film, I think some people don’t see the forest for the trees with this one; though some perceive the obvious A-to-B connection of sharing in the terror of the protagonist as the instrument of the “horror” poorly-done because of difficulty in relating to Howie’s character (more on that in a minute), they miss out on what this film does so well: turning values on their ear. We come to the island of Summerisle and find a happy-go-lucky, friendly bunch o’ folks, but they have a lot of habits and customs that we just can’t get behind…on the other hand, we have the dashing, heroic Sgt. Howie, bold and fervent in his own morality and beliefs that early on we relate to…but as the film goes on, we watch his strict adherence to his own religious stances begin to make him as off-putting as the more jovial residents, and often more so. In truth, he comes off rather douche-baggy with his intolerance, and that same close-mindedness blinds him to things that we the audience see closing in slowly and irrevocably around him. I personally found this kind of twist on the norm quite effective; although it’s not an in-your-face horror story, the machinations and manipulation the antagonists use upon the unwitting police officer is chilling, made all the more so by the blind conviction to ancient, somewhat barbaric rituals.
The performances are excellent; Edward Woodward presents us with a Sgt. Howie that we easily believe in and sympathize with…to a point. Crossing that line, we still feel his righteous angst as he struggles to do what he believes is right. Christopher Lee as Summerisle seems to be having the time of his life; it’s definitely a departure from the black-clad, stern and serious roles we’re all used to seeing him play, and he shows his skills with some of the best lines in the film. Roll in Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt, along with the lovely Britt Ekland and a supporting cast that all exude an underlying sense of danger beneath their friendliness, and the film becomes one that’s easy to get absorbed in. The settings are lovely and beautifully shot, and the colorful meadows and vales of the island are well-juxtaposed with the ancient buildings and rituals to form an appealing visual fest that still leaves you with that sense of foreboding. I have to mention the music, as it’s a large part of the film; it’s very folksy, with some of the songs being actual ditties from ancient pagan times, and this music, like the rest of the film, masks a malevolent undertone with it’s bright, bouncy rhythms.
I’m a huge fan of this film, friends…it’s one of those that I feel compelled to revisit at least once a year. While it’s not a bloody hackfest or jump-scare ridden ghost story, it has a certain vibe to it that’s indescribable; couple that with the subject matter and the underlying pretense I’ve mentioned, and it becomes something more than just a cultish little flick to me. I know it has it’s detractors (and I’m sure the hunk-of-ass remake with Nick Cage didn’t help matters), and I respect everyone’s individual take on any film; art is so subjective, after all…but I know that there’s an audience out there amongst you Fellow Fans that will enjoy The Wicker Man as much as I.
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