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The Wicker Man (1973)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A provocative and bizarre mystery thriller, The Wicker Man leaves behind many memorable images. In the Scottish highlands, communities are stretched thinly and quite isolated (especially in the Western islands). When Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is given cause to visit remote Summerisle, he has to fly himself out there. Notified of the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), by an anonymous letter, Howie will be one of the few outsiders allowed to visit this closed society. Thus, it's not unexpected that the Harbor-master (Russell Waters) and his cronies deny all knowledge of Rowan, when questioned.

Since the missive that brought him to Summerisle came from May Morrison (Irene Sunters), Howie expects a bit more co-operation when he enters her post office. However, she confounds him by denying all knowledge of Rowan and pointing to her only daughter, Myrtle (Jennifer Martin), in the next room. Thoroughly confused by this turn of events, Howie surmises that everyone is in fact lying to him and that Rowan really is missing (perhaps as a candidate for sacrifice). Even more disturbing to his devout Christian beliefs are the pagan rituals that lay heavy on the island. At the local pub, where he's taken a room, Howie finds the unbridled sexuality and mysticism all far too disturbing.

Unfortunately the night brings scant relief, since the landlord's daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) sleeps next door and has lusty desires that demand satisfaction. Despite himself, Howie is almost lured into an act of total depravity (to him), only saved by his puritanical backbone. Now appalled and suspicious of Summerisle, a land where his god has no power, Howie manages to prove that Rowan exists by bursting into the school. The only problem is that the school mistress Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) calmly agrees with him, then states that Rowan is actually dead (and regenerated). It's all too much for poor Howie, burdened with a dilemma which can only be relieved by Lord Sommerisle (Christopher Lee).

Watching The Wicker Man is a truly strange and unsettling experience, powerfully evoking the multiple-deity societies which existed in the pre-history of mankind. For a "modern" policeman like Howie, it's impossible to penetrate the images of unsaved savages to discern the cohesive strengths of the community. The inhabitants of Summerisle are happy to cavort naked through the trees, close to nature and in line with the gods which rule their lives, far removed from Howie's constricted religion. The tone of this society is exceedingly well developed, full of deep erotic undertones and apposite background props. Through this depth, the characters and their story are never less than convincing.

Woodward is great as the manipulated lawman, with his reactions and thoughts anticipated at every turn. Up against a people who seem determined to block him, except for civilised Lee, his mounting frustration is well handled by the intelligent script. Building strongly to a harrowing finale, there are elements and observations in The Wicker Man which deserve deeper thought. The only downsides are the average direction and photography, together with a score which is both over-the-top and just right. The Wicker Man is charged with sensuality and obfuscation, so weird and chilling that it very nearly creates its own personal genre.

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