Sep 5, 2013

The Wicker Man (1973)




Probably most favorably described by Film magazine Cinefantastique as being “The Citizen Kane of horror movies,” The Wicker Man (1973) directed by British screenwriter/director Robin Hardy (The Fantasist, The Wicker Tree) is certainly deserving out its reputation as not only one of the best and most imaginatively idiosyncratic 'horror' films ever made, but also one of the best British films ever made period. A sort of thematically and aesthetically audacious anti-Hammer horror flick in its featuring of Hammer icons Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt but focusing on themes of old school Celtic paganism as opposed to the sterile old Semite religion of Christianity, The Wicker Man essentially created a new spiritual and cultural cinematic universe as a work that most specifically focuses on pagan sacrifice to the sun-god in a menacing yet mystifying manner that does not resort to Judeo-Christian finger-pointing and pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo of the conspicuously contrived New-Age sort. Adapted from the little known David Pinner novel Ritual (1967), which was originally intended as a film treatment for an unrealized work directed by Michael Winner (but was ultimately turned into a novel when Winner declined), The Wicker Man eventually began to evolve into a film when screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (who previously penned Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972)) and actor Christopher Lee paid Pinner £15,000 (a little over $23,400) for the rights to the novel. Dropping virtually all of the comedic nuances of Pinner’s novel, Shaffer ultimately only used Ritual as a loose basis for the script for The Wicker Man and only came to find the major theme of the film when he “finally hit upon the abstract concept of sacrifice,” which eventually ripened into the iconic wooden ‘wicker man’ statue, hence the film’s title. Spawned from a single sentence in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico aka Commentaries on the Gallic War regarding his account of Celtic pagan Druids using towering wicker human-shaped statues for the purpose of human sacrifice by burning it in effigy, the wicker man became arguably the most important ingredient in The Wicker Man, but luckily screenwriter Shaffer, who was ironically Jewish (or not ironic considering the less than flattering depiction of self-flagellating Christ worship in the film), became obsessed with all things Euro-pagan and did meticulous research for the film, utilizing the groundbreaking work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890) by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer as one of his most imperative frames of references. With the reasonably objective research and screenplay by Shaffer, director Robin Hardy was able to assemble one of the most hypnotic, culturally keen, and aesthetically pleasing pieces of celluloid heathenism ever made via The Wicker Man, a celestial and naturally kaleidoscopic cinematic work that manages to cinematically reintroduce the religion of the old Occidental world through the much maligned and oftentimes awfully artless horror genre. Probably the only film to make neo-paganism seem rather romantic and not the simply the delusional make-believe hobby of morbidly obese fanboy degenerates with bad skin who mistake their lack of self-control in regard to eating and sexual fetishism as a religion, The Wicker Man also happens to be the best film ever made about an unwitting fool who is chosen to be king for a day. 




 Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is a stoic and deeply religious middle-aged Christian who views everything in the world through a narrow Christ lens. When Howie receives an anonymous letter requesting that he go to the Scottish island Summerisle—a remote and quaint but wild and wonderfully scenic Scottish Hebridean island best known for its production of fruit despite its dead volcanic soil—to research the mysterious disappearance of a 12-year-old girl named Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), who apparently disappeared a couple months ago, the lone and seemingly rather lonely cop personally flies there, not realizing that anti-Christ horndog heathenism awaits him there. Upon arriving on the island, Howie instantly realizes there is something off-putting and innately alien about the Summerisle residents, especially considering that no one, not even the girl’s own culinary artist mother, seems interested in answering his questions and finding little Rowan Morrison. When taking residence in a bar/inn aptly titled The Green Man Inn run by an exceedingly effete fellow named Alder MacGregor (mime/actor Lindsay Kemp) and his voluptuous and beauteous nymphet daughter Willow (Swedish actress Britt Ekland), he learns that the funny folks of Summerisle do not just enjoy getting drunk and jolly like the average Scotsman, but also having mass orgies in graveyards and grinding their genitals against tombstones. On his first night in the inn, Howie has a rather hard time controlling himself as wanton Willow attempts to seduce him with an orgasmic song and sensuality, but being a man who should have lost his virginity decades ago, he manages to maintain his cool and save his seed. The next day, Howie walks in on the local school teacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) stating to her preteen girl class regarding the maypole, “The phallic symbol. That is correct. It is the image of the penis, which is venerated in religions such as ours, as symbolizing the generative force in nature.” Naturally, Howie finally realizes that Summerisle is a proudly 'perverse', penis-worshiping pagan island where Christianity has been discarded like a putrid pair of feces-stained underwear, fresh young girls dance unclad around phallic poles for fertility rituals whilst dreaming of spawning sons and daughters, and graveyards feature dried up umbilical cords hanging from trees and headstones are inscribed with such salacious prayers as “protected by the ejaculation of serpents.” After discovering a tree (navel skin and all) where Rowan Morrison’s corpse is ostensibly buried, Howie pays a visit to a certain Laird (aka Lord) Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who has apparently been expecting the humorless cop. Seemingly holding nothing back, Lord Summerisle tells Howie about the history of the island and how his spiritually progressive Victorian scientist grandfather not only developed new strains of fruit that could survive and thrive in Scotland’s brutal climate and volcanic soil, but also introduced the local peasant populous to the old Celtic gods, which the conservative cop finds rather unsettling, but at least the lord grants him the authority to exhume Rowan Morrison's grave. Instead of finding a preteen female corpse, however, Howie is agitated to find a gutted bunny rabbit, which he takes by Lord Summerisle's estate and flings at the neo-Victorian pagan gentleman, accusing him of murdering Rowan Morrison in some bizarre pagan sacrifice. 




 After researching some documents and photographs regarding the previous year’s harvest and learning the crops—the only source of the island’s income—had failed, Howie comes to the natural conclusion that Rowan Morrison is very likely still alive and that the pagan islanders plan to sacrifice her at the annual May Day celebrations so as to ensure a fruitful harvest for the following year. While Howie plans to leave on May Day so he can get more cops and bust the heathens of Summerisle, someone has sabotaged his plane, which fails to take off, so being forced to stay on the island with time of the essence, he decides to look for Rowan Morrison all by his lonesome. After knocking innkeeper MacGregor unconscious and stealing his costume, Howie goes incognito by dressing as “Punch”, a central character in the May Day festival. Howie joins up with the rest of the islanders, who are also in costume, and manages to pass off the charade of portraying Punch, even becoming involved in eroticized but ultimately benign sacrifices to pagan gods, but he makes the fatal mistake of blowing his cover when Rowan Morrison is revealed tied to a pole. Quite the dashing hero with a softspot for virginal preteens, Howie knocks out one of the islanders and manages to free Rowan, but she leads him into a well orchestrated trap by taking him through a cave where Lord Summerisle and his merry minions are waiting for him on the other side. Lord Summerisle reveals to Howie that he, being a virginal man who came of his own free will with the authority of the king as a representative of the law, is merely a specially picked pawn in a pagan game and that the entire story of Rowan Morrison being missing was merely a pretense to get him to come to the island. While Howie was right that the Lord Summerisle and his Celtic compatriots were planning to make a human sacrifice for May Day in the hope that the coming year’s harvest would be a success, it is he and not Rowan Morrison that will be sacrificed to the sun in a scenario where the “hunter is hunted.” As Miss Rose tells the petrified officer, “You are the fool, Mr. Howie…Punch, one of the great fool-victims of history. For you have accepted the role of king for a day. And who but a fool would do that? But you will be revered and anointed as a king.” Since Howie ostensibly came of his own free will, is a mature virgin, and has “the power of a king - representing the law,” he apparently makes for a distinctly outstanding sacrificial offering to the gods and the best spiritual hope Summerisle has for having a fruitful harvest. Howie essentially tells the Summerisle residents that they are madly superstitious and the crops merely failed because they were not meant to grow on such a cold and infertile island, but they pay him no mind, strip off his clothes, cover him in a special monk-like ceremonial robe, and march him up a cliff with his hands behind his back where the wicker man stands. Totally petrified by the mammoth wicker statue standing before him, which also has various farm animals imprisoned in it, Howie is carried up and locked in the wicker man, where he will ultimately have the rare and dignified honor of dying a ‘martyrs death.’ After setting the statue ablaze, the pagans sing the medieval English folk-song “Sumer Is Icumen In” while Howie denounces them by self-righteously proclaiming that the Christian god has punished them for the past failed harvest due to the pagan faith and innately deceitful ways. As the wicker man burns, Howie recites “Psalm 23” from the Old Testament and prays to God to not forget him and to save a place for him in heaven. As the wicker man crumbles in flames, taking Howie with it, the final shot of The Wicker Man zooms into the sun that looks over the pagan people as the true harvester of all people and all life. In the end, the pagan cycle of death and rebirth is complete.




 Made in the wake of the the popular hippie and counter-culture movements of the late-1960s where certain ‘enlightened’ individuals hanged up their rosaries and crucifixes and traded them in for New Age mumbo jumbo, including warped and water downed ‘feel good’ forms of neo-paganism and so-called ‘eclectic paganism,’ The Wicker Man is assuredly a spiritual slap in the face to posturing occultnik dilettantes and smug bourgeois bookstore witches who thought that by adopting minor elements and rituals of the ancient, more sex and nature friendly religions and disregarding the more unflattering elements of said religions that they could rationalize their self-absorbed hedonism and seem totally cool, chic, and enlightened while doing it. In a reasonably objective manner, The Wicker Man portrays the good, the bad, and the ugly of Celtic paganism without resorting to hocus pocus puffery, ridiculous romanticism, cliché Christian condemnation, or plastic parody, and for that reason alone, the film deserves a special place in cinema history. The only film ever made that is part folk musical, part Celtic völkisch flick, part celluloid ‘game’ and pseudo-murder mystery, part pagan parable, and part high-class intellectual horror show, The Wicker Man is nothing short of an ideally idiosyncratic cinema masterpiece that makes for a ‘magical’ marriage between arthouse and mainstream cinema. 



 Rather unfortunately and cinematically sacrilegiously, a feminist-fueled American remake of The Wicker Man starring Nicholas Cage was released in 2006, but thankfully even the most bottom of the barrel rabble among horror fans found the film to be nothing short of a patently pointless celluloid abortion. Undoubtedly, even more aesthetically tragic, The Wicker Man director Robin Hardly somewhat recently released a so called “spiritual sequel” entitled The Wicker Tree (2011) that I would even go as far as arguing is worse than the patently pathetic 2006 remake. At best, The Wicker Tree seems like a philistine-friendly parody of the original The Wicker Man directed by a man trying to cash in on the legacy of an unrivaled cinematic masterpiece he directed almost four decades earlier. Based on director Hardy’s own 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ: On May Day, The Wicker Tree depicts the ‘absurdity’ that occurs when a group of god-bothering redneck Texan Christian fundamentalists led by a revolting pop singer make the unwitting mistake of travelling to Scotland and attempting to convert heathens who worship the goddess Sulis. While centering on the theme of a metaphysical/physical clash between nature-worshipping paganism and nature-cuckolding Christianity like The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree shamelessly wallows in cheap and tasteless sex, embarrassing pseudo-kosher comic relief, superficial and superlatively soulless social commentary, and an absolutely asinine aesthetic package that is a total insult to the original 1973 film. Apparently when discussing the mixed reviews The Wicker Tree received, director Hardy attempted to defend the film by stating, “The New York Times’s reviewer said it wasn't as gritty as the original Wicker Man, but it's a thousand times better than the remake. I was quite happy with that,” but when asked whether he preferred the original 1973 or the “spiritual sequel,” the only thing he could say was, “No, I really don't.” Of course, Hardy is not fooling anyone, not even himself.  To further taint the legacy of The Wicker Man, Hardy is working on a third film entitled The Wrath of the Gods (2015), which will act as the concluding chapter of a totally pointless ‘The Wicker Man Trilogy.’ Apparently a ‘romantic black comedy” based on Twilight of the Gods aka Götterdämmerung, the final part of Richard Wagner's four cycle epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen aka The Ring of the Nibelung where “the gods get their comeuppance,” The Wrath of the Gods will be primarily set in the Shetland Islands (though originally set in Iceland) and focus on Norse mythology. While I cannot say anything good about the 2006 remake nor the 2011 ‘spiritual sequel,’ the neofolk outfit Nature And Organisation led by British musician Michael Cashmore did an excellent cover (featuring Scottish singer Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade on vocals) of the song “Willow's Song” featured in The Wicker Man written by Paul Giovanni (and sung by Annie Ross) for their album Beauty Reaps The Blood Of Solitude (1994), renaming the song simply, “Wicker Man Song.” While “Willow's Song” is undoubtedly my favorite song from The Wicker Man, American composer Paul Giovanni, who died from AIDS-related causes in 1990 at the mere age of 57, did an exquisite job with the entire soundtrack, thereupon adding an extra layer to the film's foreboding folkish atmosphere. 




 Only vaguely a horror flick (and almost insulting and certainly misleading to describe it as such!), The Wicker Man is nothing short of an amazingly thrilling and titillating piece of celluloid spiritual atavism featuring a charmingly curious esoteric realm that seems like a utopia to some viewers and an unhinged nightmare to others. Despites it Semitic screenwriter, The Wicker Man is as unflinchingly Northern European as films come and a piece of (for some perturbing) purity that reminds one how the world has decidedly degenerated since the abandoning of native paganism, adopting the Judaic desert religion of Christianity, and starting a worldwide campaign against nature. Featuring a practical execution of ideas not unlike those espoused by back-to-nature groups like the German Wandervogel groups, whose ideas were inevitably adopted by the National Socialists in various forms, The Wicker Man is probably most ‘horrifying’ today in that it makes spiritual blasphemy and sacrificing a virginal Christian cop once a year a small price to pay for living in a truly organic folk community with natural values as opposed to living in the culturally/racially mongrelized and spiritually sick ‘multicultural’ mainstream where sex and life are meaningless, everything has a price but no value, and an innate and all-encompassing ugliness pervades every aspect of life.  A film where not only the protagonist, but also the viewer, is made a fool and king for a day via a mystifying metaphysical murder located on a breathtaking and beautiful island paradise populated by beauteous yet brutal people, The Wicker Man is the closest thing ever made to a Celtic pagan spiritual journey in celluloid form. On top of that, The Wicker Man is also the only film that has the grand distinction of featuring Sir Christopher Lee as a megalomaniac cult leader in völkisch drag in a role, performance, and film that the actor himself would declare the best of his career, which, I, for one, concur with as both a hater of Hammer horror and The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–2003), but also as a fan of both horror and arthouse cinema.  Indeed, The Wicker Man is probably the only quasi-musical ever made where one does not feel like they have been raped by a gang of rabid trannies after watching it, but more importantly, it is also one of the most chillingly charming and wickedly bewitching depictions of celluloid blasphemy and spiritual cuckoldry ever made.



-Ty E

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