The Wicker Man (April 4/02)
This legendary cult film has received an almost absurd amount of accolades and kudos from fans of the horror genre, with noted genre magazine Cinefantastique going so far as to call it the "Citizen Kane of horror movies." The unfortunate reality is, however, that The Wicker Man is a sporadically entertaining yet entirely overrated piece of work.
As the film opens, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has just arrived at a desolate island - where he has been assigned the case of a local girl that's gone missing. His investigation initially seems to be going nowhere, with the locals adamant that they've never seen the girl before. But as he begins to dig deeper, Howie soon finds that everything isn't quite as peachy keen as the townspeople would have him believe. Turns out this tight-knit society practices Paganism - complete with ritual sacrifices. Not surprisingly, the actions of the island's citizens shocks and disturbs devout Christian Howie; they tend to frolic naked and utilize bizarre medical treatments (a frog is placed in the mouth of a sore throat sufferer, for example). Christopher Lee eventually pops up as Lord Summerisle, the enigmatic leader of the town.
The Wicker Man seems to be a meandering and aimless flick for the first 45 minutes or so, but as the movie progresses, it becomes fairly clear that it has a few tricks up its sleeve. When Woodward's Howie initially arrives on the island, the film throws one supposedly appalling sight after the other (watch as Woodward is seduced by the local temptress! Gasp as he witnesses dozens of couples having sex in the open! Chuckle as he discovers the blasphemous lecture being given to schoolchildren! Etc, etc, etc). But finally, somewhere around the time that Lee's character is introduced, we begin to discover that the film had its reasons for showing us all that seemingly irrelevant stuff. Twist endings don't get much better than this.
Oddly enough, though, the film's been hailed as a landmark horror film - except that it isn't terribly horrific. The conclusion will likely raise a few eyebrows, but there's nothing here that's going to prevent the viewer from getting a good night's sleep. And as good as that denouement is, it's obscured by Woodward's hysterical (literally) performance and his refusal to do anything proactive - ie he allows what happens to him to happen to him.
The Wicker Man has a few good ideas and a great final act, but everything that comes before it is essentially disposable. Repeated viewings probably improve the film, but first impressions are everything.