The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man ★★★★

Symbolic figure of the law finds himself trapped in pre-symbolic space forced to face his own unconscious fantasy in its inverted, disavowed dimension.

The Wicker man is a crazy movie. It's the bizarrely hypersexualized society of Zardoz and the disturbing cult sensibilities of Rosemary's Baby infused with some of the philosophy of The Fountain and all mixed together with an essentially 70's hippy vibe. I can easily understand how the Nic Cage adaptation got it wrong, since there's a delicate balance between the unsettling oddities of this 1973 original and the laughable oddities of the 2006 remake. The tone is a difficult thing to carry when you have things like graves marked "protected by the ejaculation of serpents" and Christopher Lee dancing around in a purple dress.

The Wicker Man succeeds in delivering this tricky atmosphere through its cinematography. There's a precise use of close ups to bring focus to out of place elements (the eye on the dinghy) and to indicate the citizens' sinister intentions without giving anything away (Sergeant Howie's first conversation with the townsfolk). There's also a careful use of dutch angles to highlight truly unsettling moments (the "Landlord's Daughter" song) as well as an abundant use of low angles (the May Day ceremony).

The editing also functions to bring a disquieting atmosphere to the film. An early dream-like orgy sequence is step-printed to jar the audience out of its secure sense of reality (a technique often used by Wong Kar-Wai for a slightly inverted effect) and briefly freeze-frames to make the audience feel as trapped as Howie. The final May Day ceremony is also ominously crosscut with shots of the setting sun, threateningly reminding of the cult's intentions.

Ultimately The Wicker Man didn't hit me at a gut, emotional level. I was never genuinely frightened of the cult members, but I was always fascinated by them and maybe that's the point. This isn't a horror movie like Halloween or The Exorcist: its cult is frightening and gets under your skin because you can see their point. You see that Sergeant Howie is the only unhappy person on the island, and you begin to think that maybe, just maybe there's some truth to their insanity.

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