The Wicker Man (1973) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
Two thumbs up. Tuna recommends it across the board. Scoopy says you need to read the summary to see if it is your kind of film, but if it is, you will simply adore it as a treasured film, unlike any other you have seen.
Scoopy's comments in white: (Lots and lots of spoilers)
The Wicker Man is a genuinely unique cult film. In fact, it is a "cult film" in more ways than one, since it not only has attracted a cult of followers but is also about a cult! The classic definition of a cult film is one that does not appeal to many people, but those people who like it adore it. This genuinely odd film certainly fits the bill, and its appeal as such was further magnified by three decades during which it achieved legendary status because it was widely unavailable in any form, and almost never seen in its full original length.
Christopher Lee mentions in the documentary on Disc 1 that this film has been chosen as one of the top 100 British films of all time, but news of it seems to have missed me. I never heard of it until the day I ordered it, and I only ordered it because the video store guy told me I should!
I'm still not sure if the versions newly available on DVD are the most widely discussed ones. The most reliable sources claim that the longest version of this film runs 102 minutes, and the "extended" version on the DVD runs 99 minutes. The original American cut of the film was reputed to be 87 minutes, and the shorter version on the DVD is 88 minutes. (There is a link in the "critics" box which discusses the various versions at length). I don't know if these slight discrepancies represent bad accounting practices or slightly different versions. What is clear is that there are two versions on the two-disk DVD, as well as a documentary entitled "The Wicker Man Enigma" which delves into the history of the project, and reactions to it. The 11 minutes of extra footage were taken from the only known existing positive of that print. The negative seems to be lost to the ages, now part of the M3 highway, according to one story promulgated on the documentary.
Producing the longer version on the DVD was a complicated process. They couldn't just use the one existing print, because the quality was poor, so they used the short version as much as possible, then cut in the missing footage from the long version. The result is a very noticeable change in quality when the missing footage appears on screen, but I guess you'll still like that better than not seeing it at all.
There are many factors which make the film odd and unforgettable.
1. It juxtaposes pagan religion with Christianity in ways that are not always sympathetic to the Christian point of view. There are plenty of moments where the film ridicules Christianity without intending any dramatic irony.
2. It doesn't just talk about people practicing naked pagan rites. It actually shows them and explains them in some depth.
3. The mythical island cult was created from a hodge-podge of various authentic pre-Christian beliefs, mostly from the British Isles. The music does not consist of authentic Celtic folk tunes, but another hodge-podge of pseudo-folk tunes, some of which used actual folk ballads as the basis, some of which did not. The tunes and harmonies generally sound like John Denver and Joan Baez with a vaguely Celtic flavor, as befits a score of pseudo-Celtic folk music written by an American who couldn't read a word of music, and who declared that he wanted to create music that sounded "cheesy"! In some cases, early 70's cheese did prevail, but some of the cheesy songs were turned into passable pseudo-Celtic sounds by unusual arrangements and harmonies created by the film's young musical arranger, Gary Carpenter. Here is Carpenter's account of the process.
4. Throughout the film, the cult members are portrayed as healthy, affable people, their rites basically celebratory, not threatening. Although their rites are profoundly shocking to the good Christian inspector from the mainland, his reactions are subjective. To an objective viewer, the islanders seem like harmless hippies through most of the movie.
5. Although the islanders are generally charming and don't threaten the inspector, all of their responses are opaque and completely non-responsive. They speak in riddles and outright lies, yet seem to speak as one voice, which frustrates the inspector completely.
6. There is a great deal of nudity. Based on this fact alone, the film would be considered an exploitation film in most eras.
7. There is more singing and dancing in this suspense film than there is in some musicals. In fact, the director says that "musical" is the correct genre.
8. Britt Ekland, an actress as unmotivated as she was untalented, was unable to produce any lines appropriate for her character, and all of her dialogue and singing was post-dubbed in the editing room. Every word of dialogue, every note of song! You never hear her actual voice at any time during the film! In her naked dance, you don't see her buns either! Britt did the dance, and moved her lips as if singing, but no Britt was heard and the only Britt seen was her face and breasts. The singing voice belongs to an anonymous dubber (not sure if its the same one who did her speaking voice), and the rear nudes were a body double. According to the documentary, they decided not to use Britt's rear end or anything that exposed her lower abdomen. (Britt was pregnant when the film was shot.) They shot Britt's scenes, rushed her into her limo, then rushed the body double immediately onto the same set in the same light with the camera unmoved!
9. The screenwriter is the experienced Anthony Schaffer, whose specialty was screen adaptations of mystery novels by Agatha Christie, and who wrote both the original play and the screen version of "Sleuth". Shaffer's twin brother, Peter, was even more renowned in literary circles, having written both Amadeus and Equus.
10. On the other hand, the director wasn't really a director at all, but an inexperienced amateur, a virtual unknown who had not previously directed a film, and who would go on to direct only one more, and that a unimpressive exploitation film 13 years later.
|11. Christopher Lee,
Hammer star with the deep hypnotic voice, considered
this his best performance. Perhaps it is. One thing is certain. It is
not characteristic of his career. The character is genial, debonair,
and sings in a robust bass voice. To top off the characterization, Lee
wears a very silly blond/gray wig of long curly hair, making
him look in some scenes like a thinner version of one of Benny Hill's female
impersonations ... except for his other scenes in a long black
wig, in which he looks like a pre-surgery Cher!
12. The ending is truly chilling. The combination of the visually terrifying Wicker Man itself, the suffering inspector, and the happily singing and smiling villagers, is something you will not soon forget. In certain ways it reminded me of a scene in Trey Parker's "Cannibal: The Musical", when the townspeople all sang merrily, held hands, and gazed lovingly at one another on Alfred Packer's hanging day. "Hang the bastard, hang 'im high", sang all the merry townsfolk in trey's imagination, and the beaus asked their belles the musical question, "won't you come to a hangin' with me?"
Those factors add up to one truly odd film. The basic shell of the film is a missing persons mystery, but that "mystery" is a simplistic plot which is transparent to everyone but the inspector. Rather than summarize the film for you, I will defer to the esteemed film director, Ken Russell, who wrote a thorough synopsis in his book, Fire Over England: The New British Cinema Comes Under Friendly Fire.
WARNING: Mr Russell's summary (following, in green box) contains a complete spoiler for the entire "surprise" ending
I don't know if it matters whether Shaffer was trying to write a black comedy or a horror movie, or even a mystery. My guess is none of the three, and all of them. It is also a melodrama and a musical. That's how odd the film is. I think they were creating a work of imagination based upon the types of pre-Christian cults that are said to exist in remote places in the Isles, and how these cults might interface with the Christian, bureaucratic world. If it has elements of mysticism, black comedy, and horror, I believe that's just where his imagination led him, not part of a pre-determined design. You could just as easily call the film a musical as any other genre.
It isn't a good mystery at all, especially when you consider it was written by a specialist in the genre. If you are in to mystery stories, you know that there are certain rules the author has to follow to hold your attention:
1. He must keep the logic internally consistent and complete. All of the mysteries must be explicable by factors introduced in the story.
2. The solution must not be evident.
3. The solution must follow the natural laws of the universe and reasonable probablilty. You aren't allowed to solve the mystery by an explanation outside of human experience. If it's a missing persons case, for example, the missing person cannot turn out to have been abducted by aliens, or assumed into heaven by God, or struck by a missing piece of Skylab.
4. You can't introduce the murderer on page 399 of a 400 page book. Of course the audience can't solve the murder if they've never met the character!
There are other rules, but those cover the major bases. This movie follows all except number #2. Unfortunately, if you are into mysteries, you will solve the case about five minutes into the long version of the film. The inspector was summoned by an anonymous tip from the island, but when he gets there, nobody comes forward to offer him any assistance. What happened to the tipster? She is no more forthcoming than anyone else. Furthermore, the letter containing the tip was addressed specifically to him, not to a generic police precinct, despite the fact that he knows nobody on the island. Needless to say, the case he has been summoned to investigate doesn't exist at all. You can reason that the entire purpose of the tip was to get the inspector on the island. (Although you're not sure exactly why until the end). By the way, this plot flaw is corrected in the shorter version, which starts with his arrival on the island.
|One thing I liked very
much about the film was that the villagers actually gave the inspector
a choice, although that is not stated explicitly, and is implied only
tacitly by the script. You have to use your head.
Although he was lured there to fulfill their prophecy, the barmaid did try to seduce him, and not half-heartedly. If he had taken her up on the offer and lost his virginity, he would have been an unacceptable sacrifice, and would have avoided his grisly fate. He perished because his mind was closed. Or, to say it another way, he was fucked by his failure to get fucked.
As Oscar Wilde might have said to him, the only thing worse than getting fucked is not getting fucked.
comments in yellow:
Imagine a Stephan King story, but more joyful, better lit, and with three women naked, including brief exposure from Lorraine Peters in a dark scene sitting naked on a gravestone, Ingrid Pitt naked in the bath, and a very lengthy scene of Britt Ekland parading around nude. You even see a lot of what is between her legs from the rear as she dances.
The Wicker Man is about a Scottish police sergeant who goes to the small island Summerisle in response to an anonymous tip that a girl has disappeared. As he investigates, he finds that the entire island practices "the old" religion, and everything he sees goes against his staunch Christian grain. What he doesn't find is any help in locating the missing girl. As I am going to give this a resounding thumb way up, I don't want to write a spoiler.
|You should know that I
was genetically predisposed to love this film. I have long thought
that western man was more likely to screw his way to enlightenment
than by depriving himself in some Eastern ascetic religion like
Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. That means I related to
the story on a spiritual level. I always love films that are long on
interesting culture and beautiful foreign settings, and the Scottish
settings here were wonderful. Not only that, but one of the Tuna
Truisms is that any film with a naked Britt Ekland is
The film once won a Saturn as best horror film, beating out Halloween and Magic that particular year. The DVD release is impressive, as it marks the first time the director's cut has ever been available, and is packaged in a fantastic wooden box with the US theatrical version also included. Some of the Ekland images are from the added footage.
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