Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Wicker Man (Final Cut)

At least, I hope this is the final cut it's been advertised as being. Robin Hardy is about eighty-four years old now; he's got to have better things to do with his remaining than getting a movie he did half a lifetime ago a few inches closer to juuust right!

I jest somewhat, as there are a lot of people fairly invested in this picture, although it's maybe not one that the general public knows of as a classic. The horror fans know, though - they were up in arms about the Nic Cage/Neil LaBute remake a few years ago, and when Hardy came to Fantasia with his sequel The Wicker Tree (and the then-current director's cut of The Wicker Man) a couple of years ago, the guy was treated as a rock star; everyone was excited about Robin Hardy and the Wicker Movies , while I was in the "eh, whatever you say" category, happy I wouldn't have to fight a crowd to see Birthright (which was amazing).

It deserves it, although I don't know if every film that references British pre-Christian culture necessarily needs to be compared to it. I remember people bringing it up in reference to Kill List and even A Lonely Place to Die, which seems to be going a little far. Maybe it isn't - it wouldn't shock me if Ben Wheatley and even Julian & William Gilbey had it in mind - but it strikes me as too rich a source of material to belong to one movie this way.

Finally seeing it does shift my curiosity about the remake. That interest comes in large part from how infamously insane it's said to be, and is only piqued from remembering an interview where someone asked Cage what he thought about being part of such a masterpiece of unintentional comedy only to have him respond not with regret about how it turned out and was received, but something along the lines of "really? people think that happens by accident?" (I love Nicolas Cage, I really do.) But after watching this, I really have a hard time conceiving of how you Americanize it. As I say in the review, this thing is very English/British, while America just doesn't have this barely buried pagan background to tap into, unless you're going to say these guys brought it over from the UK or rejigger it to involve the native people, and I don't know if that quite works. For all that it sounds like a disaster, I have to wonder just what kind of disaster it was.

So, that's that. One fun bit of trivia was that the print that filled in a few gaps and apparently provided the template for how Hardy saw the movie was found in the Harvard Film Archive, and while I think the big screen at the Coolidge was a great place to see it, a part of me would have loved to see its local premiere be at the HFA as a way of touting their importance, even if it would feel hilariously incongruous.

The Wicker Man (1973)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 November 2013 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (@fter Midnite/Restoration tour, DCP)

Not long into The Wicker Man, I found myself thinking that this was quite possibly the most English movie I would ever see; that it was shot and perhaps set in Scotland doesn't do much to change that opinion. It's not the England (or Britain) of London and the cities, but the rural part where the old-ways aren't nearly so buried as they are in town. That's the basic set-up of a good many fine horror movies, even if it usually applies to a small group of people rather than a place.

That place is an island community in the Northwest, isolated enough that police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) must arrive by seaplane. He has received word of a missing girl, but when he arrives, nobody will admit to ever having heard of her, including her mother (Irene Sunters). Not that the locals make it easy for him; Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) is the only authority anyone on the island seems to recognize. By the time Howie does find evidence of the missing girl's existence, it seems very likely that her disappearance is tied to the pagan beliefs practiced widely and openly there, which may demand a sacrifice to fight the poor harvest.

Howie is a resolutely Christian man, and presenting him as the anomaly (as 2013's restored "Final Cut" does) is a big part of what makes The Wicker Man such a fascinating piece of work. Even as the audience knows Howie is investigating something strange and sinister, and stands a good chance of sharing his religious views, his aggression compared to the singing, down-to-earth, cheerful islanders puts the two opposing schools on a surprisingly level field, especially when his abstract beliefs seem less directly useful than their focused ones. If he were agnostic or atheist, it might be different, a story about rationality versus superstition; instead, it's a man trying to deal with people he simply can't understand. Howie is a good man, and his difficulties dealing with people who have beliefs different from his own are something that may strike the audience close to home. It's a stranger-in-a-strange-land story where one often feels sympathetic for Howie trying to do an important job amid people who are weird at best and obstructionist at worst, but also an uptight prig who needs to loosen up some.

Full review at EFC.

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