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, the prolific 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

Another film, which drew on the darker side of our (British) heritage, was The Wicker Man. Once again, paganism and human sacrifice are the order of the day.

The action takes place on a remote Scottish island, where a policeman (Edward Woodward) arrives by flying boat to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. From the very start, the tightnit community gangs up against the outsider, who not only pokes his nose in where it isn't wanted, but also turns out to be a Protestant prig - as comes to light when he books into the local pub. Who else would drop to his knees and pray for help in his winceyette pajamas, as the landlord's comely daughter, in the shape of Britt Ekland, rubs her naked body against the adjoining bedroom wall, slapping her pagan flesh and singing of all the things she'll give to him? But he prefers to sweat it out alone, and think of the blessed sacrament. This may save his virtue, but it doesn't save his life. Wherever his investigations lead, he is confronted with the old religion: corn dollies in the post office, jars of foreskins in the pharmacy and dancing around the maypole in the playground.

TEACHER: What does this ritual represent?
PUPIL: Please, miss, it represents the penis and the regenerative forces of nature.

How's that for a progressive history lesson? Too far advanced for our prim policeman, who is even further freaked by witnessing a frog being stuffed down a child's throat to take the soreness away. On his way to complain to the local laird, the rectum of this tight-assed cop shrinks even tighter at the sight of the bevy of virgins leaping over a bonfire. When he protests to the laird, played by Christopher Lee in long hair and purple corduroy suit with flairs, the latter very sensibly replies - 'Well, you can't jump over fire with your clothes on, can you?'

After a theological debate on the subject 'Does Paganism Pay?', Woodward hurries off through a garden of phallic topiary, waving a paper which authorises him to exhume a grave in which he expects to find the missing girl. He finds a corpse alright, but it is that of a hare. He's already been told that the spirits of the dead children enter the bodies of small mammals that gambol in the meadows, so he is not altogether surprised, even though he is miffed at being taken for a fool. Deciding to beat the devious islanders at their own game, he plays the fool himself, by dressing up as Punch during the May Day festivities. The entire population of one hundred and three don animal masks and follow the fool, the hobbyhorse and the man/woman up to the alter, where the missing girl waits to be sacrificed. This act, the pagans believe, will placate the Gods of Plenty who have been parsimonious with their gifts lately, as one disastrous apple harvest follows another. But in saving the girl, the cop reveals his identity and is quickly overpowered.

Now comes the big revelation. He has been set up. The girl's life was never in danger. She was simply used as bait to lure an outlander into the trap. Woodward turns out to be the one who would fulfill an old prophecy that only a man representing the Queen from across the water could appease the wrath of the Gods. Accordingly, he is stripped of his uniform and pushed into a gigantic wicker basket, in the shape of a man, perched on a hilltop. His cries mingle plaintively with the squarks of assorted poultry, doomed like himself to a good roasting. As the blood-red sun sets, the victim impotently rattles the bars of his wooden cage. A flaming torch sets the primitive giant alight. The Islanders link hands and dance around it, while the laird declaims: 'Death to you will bring rebirth to our crops'. But the barbecuing policeman, game to the last, shouts back amid roaring flames, 'If you kill me now, it is I who will live again, not your damned apples. For I believe in the life eternal. There is no Sun God! Killing me is not going to bring back your apples. Awake, you heathens (cough, cough), it is the Lord who has laid waste your orchards.'

By now the Wicker Man is a towering inferno. But, as the encircling Pagans chant 'Summer is a comin' in', the voice of the true believer is heard to shout, 'The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want', before his final cry is taken up by seagulls.

The sun sinks slowly in the west, yet again, and the credits begin to roll on one of the strangest films ever made on these shores. The fact that it is curiously moving is paradoxical. The photography is mundane, and the acting of the professionals only a cut above that of the islanders, which is understandably amateurish. The natives treat the whole thing like a game, which, of course it is. So that sort of works. And the island itself casts a spell of its own upon the proceedings. Lastly there is the performance of Edward Woodward as the duped policeman, which can only be described as dogged. It's as though he discovered one day one that he was mixed up with a potential disaster, but decided that come hell or high water he would give the part his best shot.

I don't know whether Anthony Shaffer was trying to write a horror movie or a black comedy. Either way, The Wicker Man is genuinely disturbing. We still don't know the truth about what happened in the Orkney Islands only a short time ago. The suspicion that it could actually happen makes The Wicker Man linger in the mind, long after more polished horror movies have faded from memory.

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.


see Tuna's comments (in yellow)
Tuna's 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.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.78:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette

  • The usual bios, trailers, tv ads, and a music video

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 automatically wonderful.

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.  

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.3 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics - or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ (Scoopy) to B+ (Tuna). Scoop's comments: if a film is your kind of film, there is no difference between a C+ and an A. In either case, the grade means you will like it a lot if it sounds like your kind of entertainment. This is Tuna's kind of film, and he loves it. Does it have mainstream appeal to the degree that anyone who sees it will love it, ala Casablanca or Raiders or Schindler's List? I don't know, but I doubt it. It drew no interest at all in its limited theatrical releases. It doesn't seem like the kind of film that will appeal to mainstream theatergoers. In fact, I wasn't that enthusiastic about it, and I like both horror films and mysteries. Of course, I don't much care for musicals, and this really has a lot of singing and dancing, most of it very bad performances of very cheesy music. However, you have to see it if you consider yourself a student and/or lover of films. "The Wicker Man" is truly unique, and has been whispered about for years. Christopher Lee talks about this as his greatest performance. You simply must see what everyone was talking about, and make up your own mind. I'll say this - I recommend it if you like movies, because I surely don't regret watching it, and neither will you. Whether you like it or not, it's quite an experience, and something to talk about.

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