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There is a lot this film does well. The directing and cinematography are generally good and make the most of some beautiful scenery. I like the folksy soundtrack. Christopher Reeve is impeccable. Despite playing up neo-paganism for weirdness and menace, it is strangely more respectful and well researched than most films that touch on it. And with all the kooky shenanigans going on, it never bores. Yet for all that, I was never afraid for the protagonist.
Partly it's Pop-Cultural Osmosis, the ending was the first thing I knew about it. More than that, the weirdness and implausibility went beyond anything I could take seriously; it feels like a British sitcom with no laugh track. But above all, I could not sympathise with Sergeant Howie. Considering he is trying to save a child from being burned alive, that is quite an achievement.
The problem is that he acts less like a Police Constable and more like a Catholic Inquisitor. As an outsider coming to an island community, he should know that winning the locals' trust would be his first duty; yet he openly despises their customs and antagonises them from the start. He invokes not the law or his office, but Christianity, and seems to think Britain is a theocracy. In the climax, during which I could not help but laugh, he sounds just as nutty as the pagans, but less musical. I could only think that the police force will be better off without someone so unprofessional. The ending may make some sense of all this, but this does not lessen the other plot holes. (How did they know who would come? How do they expect to get away with it?)
On the cultists' side, the film draws from genuine paganism, but seems to rely on the audience's ignorance sometimes. I know enough about neo-pagans and the Hebrides to know the premise is nonsense. Communities of the Highlands and Islands hold strongly to many strange customs and beliefs, but always in a Christian framework. A realistic thriller could be made about a minister abusing his power and the parishioners closing ranks against outside investigation. This film is the equivalent of warning against Liechtenstein's influence in world politics.
Hot Fuzz did a comedic homage to this film that is intentionally funnier, and often scarier.
Look, I'm a simple gay, and there are certain boxes that a movie can tick for me. If you are a bit odd like me, and you favor movies involving cults, music, mysteries, and brilliant plot twists, you should definitely put The Wicker Man on your list. It's both subtle and over-the-top, funny and frightening, reverent and sacrilegious.
Try to find the longest version you can, as the studio hated it when the creators first screened it for them, so there were some pretty major cuts. Unfortunately the original version of the film is likely lost forever, but fans and people involved in the making of it have managed to cobble together a pretty definitive version at about 102 minutes.
Keep an open mind, avoid getting spoiled, and you'll have a good time with this story!
This isn't the sort of horror that relies on a slasher villain with near-invincibility or supernatural forces. The horror comes from the uneasiness that the viewers feel as Sergeant Howie goes through the island trying to figure out what is going on. The people seem normal enough but they also give the impression that they're hiding something, waiting for the right time to spring a trap on the hapless hero. The horror comes from the idea that the viewers know something is wrong, but can't quite put their finger on it yet.
The Wicker Man is a fascinating piece of work that not only keeps a suspenseful atmosphere, but is also quite the feast for eyes while maintaining its mood. The beauty of the landscape helps emphasize the growing uneasiness that there is something wrong. The festival thrown by the people is rich in color and full of happiness, yet it also causes uneasiness because it seems that everyone is just a little too happy and that the climax of the festival will get ugly. This is a movie that should definitely be checked out; it is a horror film, but one of a different kind.
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