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The Wicker Man (1973)
One of the truly classic horror-thrillers of the 20th Century was most definitely The Wicker Man. Now, with Anchor Bay's Limited Edition DVD (packaged in an attractive wooden box), you can enjoy the near-complete 99 minute version of the typically cut-to-ribbons suspense masterpiece. It is this very special extended edit that I'm reviewing here.
Inspector Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian police officer in Scotland, is tipped by an anonymous letter that Rowan Morrison, a young girl in the private island of Summerisle, has gone missing. Howie goes to investigate. When he arrives, he discovers that not one person there knows who Rowan is, not even her supposed mother. Furthermore, some of the practices of the island's inhabitants range from curious to downright blasphemous - these are certainly not good Christians. In fact, they are Pagans, living in harmony under the direction of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Naturally, this puts up a bevy of new questions for Howie, and he gets caught up in the proverbial swirl of enigmas.
As it is with many good mysteries, the eventual conclusion is great, but the fun is really about the journey. The deeper Howie plunges into the riddles of Summerisle, the more bizarre things get, and every answer he gets comes with a gaggle of new questions attached. The film's tone matches this... it starts out feeling like a light if utterly unique conundrum and then it slowly and imperceptibly begins to become more and more important - more desperate - until the climax, where you can cut the foreboding with a knife. Certainly, this is one of the better-paced suspense films I have ever seen. It really hooks you in early, innocently, and by the time things get heavy, it's become as much your labyrinth of riddles as it has Howie's. That's the mark of a good mystery flick.
Matching the crackerjack direction are excellent performances from Woodward and Lee. Indeed, one cannot mention one without the other, as their characters and their struggles are symbolic, a yin-yang of Christianity vs. Paganism. Thus, the two performances must be disparate in their natures - and they are. Woodward's Sgt. Howie is determined, forceful, but also a man of some humility (born of his religious beliefs). He is driven by emotion. Lee, whose deep voice is often used for more overtly evil characters, here gets to take a different path. His Lord Summerisle, with a stylish Mod hairdo, is placid, even philosophical. He is also a man who scoffs at such puerile concepts as "decency." He is probably also emotionally driven, though he hides it under a veil of tranquil logic. Neither character is portrayed as absolutely right in their creed, and the power of each performance leads you to question the fervor of both belief systems.
For the guys out there, there's copious female nudity. Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland (plus Ekland's butt double) show skin, there's a brief orgy sequence, and a scene involving some ladies trying to conceive asexually by jumping nude over a fire -- one of them Pagan thangs, I reckon. In any case, it's quite titillating, but then again, I'm male. Women -- well they get to see Lee dressed as a woman.
The Wicker Man would probably be a perfect film if it weren't for two highly annoying elements. First, Ekland couldn't manage a convincing Scottish burr, so one had to be dubbed in for her, quite obviously. Second, there's a LOT of songs in this film and very few of them are any good at all. One particular ditty which I have since excised from my cranium is particularly cringe-worthy. You'll know it when you hear it -- it's played a couple times.
From the time Howie lands on the island to the shocking final moments, The Wicker Man is truly twisted excellence. If you don't have a copy of your own, be sure to buy the Anchor Bay DVD with the extended cut. Every extra second is worth it in this tight thriller.