Arriving on the strange shores of Summerisle, director Robin Hardy shows that something is immediately afoot. What it is, that is anyone’s guess. There is something simply off about the men, women and children of this small island. Normal people do not act the way these inhabitants do, nor do they speak or conform to life as oddly as this. That is the beauty of The Wicker Man, which utilises this underlying fear rather immediately, and manages to stretch it through its running time with incredible effect. Edward Woodward plays the well-to-do copper, Sgt. Neil Howie. His questions lead to nowhere in particular, aside from annoyance, which slowly builds as anger, verbal mania and eventually his point of no return.
How this happens primarily boils down to the attitude Howie presents these townspeople. He is summoned to the island, and after futile questionings of local townsfolk regarding the whereabouts of a missing girl, frustrations turn into giddy irritancies. One particular resident not only has no idea but denies even the existence of such a missing person. It is here where the penny should drop, but Hardy muffles its impact with such delight. His craft is nothing flash, but a tremendously engaging technical piece that revels in the wit of its director and the keen presence of Woodward and horror veteran Christopher Lee.
With Hardy reserving his horror and twisted thriller elements for the final moments of the piece, it is up to Lee, Woodward and the rest of the cast to work through some heavy lifting. Not all of it comes together, some supporting performers are suffering the inevitable effects of having to deliver three lines of dialogue, having starred in nothing before or after their brief flutter with the spotlight. Nobody stands out as particularly good or bad in that regard, and it is a shame too. The Wicker Man wishes to base itself on a closely-knit community, but when its leader is the only man worth investing time in, the whole group spirit is lost. That tends to happen when you draw someone as charming and memorably crazed as Christopher Lee. A fine performance from him as ever, he applies himself to this role with great conviction, reminiscing of the days when Hammer Horror had served him so well.
He is fed quality line after quality line. Some are trinkets and criticisms of wider religion, with “…we confer upon you a rare gift, these days – a martyr’s death.” and their impact is not felt until after the credits have rolled and the screen fades to black. At first sight, The Wicker Man is a horror that is made with an earnest love of the genre, but peeling back the layers sees an understanding of how man is swayed by his religious convictions. Woodward presents the man with just and dearly held belief in God, where Lord Summerisle (Lee) represents that of a cult leader. Jared Leto, but without the flowing hair or pop band.
Still, reminiscence is not something on the mind of anyone else. As Woodward stumbles his way through a mystery, it is clear that the double-crosses and sudden reveals are of little importance. His fate is decided the very moment he steps onto this land. His attempts at leaving are thwarted, and he is led through a compelling piece of trickery because his morals tell him to continue on. To brave the storm, so to speak. The Wicker Man is a film that starts and ends with much the same meaning. It has no intention of throwing this leading character a bone, and as we watch on, seeing him sleepwalk toward his fate, it is rather sad. A proud, religious man comes face to face with the Devil, hellfire and all. What more can he do but damn them all, ask God for their forgiveness, and pray that these parthenogenic beings seek out a copy of The Bible?