Art Boy and I had a discussion long ago about the 1973 horror classic "The Wicker Man." He was interested in watching it. I had never heard of it, but protested, "Is it about someone getting burned to death in a giant basket? Why on earth would you want to watch that?" He was then annoyed with me for guessing the "surprise" ending. To my mind, this is not particularly surprising; why else would you build a wicker man, if not to put someone in it and light them on fire? I mean, honestly. Anyway, the very idea just chilled my blood, especially knowing that's the end of the movie. I disliked the notion of sitting there waiting and dreading, and then it happens, and you go home feeling sort of nasty. (This is why I also refuse to watch "Open Water," and why I was disappointed by "The Blair Witch Project.")
But that conversation was something like four years ago, and he's had plenty of time to wear me down, so this weekend into the DVD player it went. And much to my surprise, I absolutely loved it. It would probably achieve the original intended effect if you did not know what a wicker man was and did not know the ending (I can't imagine I've wrecked it for anyone this many years later; and anyway, the DVD cover and tacky animated menu give it away). But still, watching it unfold makes for a nice and weird little mystery. Devout Sgt. Howie (Ed Woodward) arrives at a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The locals are both unhelpful and extremely unsettling to him, with their bawdy pub songs and pagan practices and pickled rabbits (sorry, hares) in jars on counters. They're led by Christopher Lee, who brushes off Howie's concerns about the local children leaping naked over bonfires with "Well, naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on." I was already in love with the movie by this point, but Lee's serene dementia just nailed it for me. He's charming, deranged and utterly placid about it -- sort of like a pagan Willy Wonka.
The atmosphere piles up with a series of unsettling images: a sweet-faced woman slicing a baby-shaped cake; a man in a fish mask; a coffin containing a dead rabbit; a second coffin sliding from a baker's oven with a man-sized pastry inside. And then, of course, you have Britt Ekland's famous naked dance, which is actually remarkably seductive, even to a heterosexual lady viewer. Plus there are songs, some pretty and some bawdy. This movie really has everything. The ending is profoundly unsettling, no matter how many times you have clicked through the tacky animated DVD menu. But it gives you that October chill really nicely.
We enjoyed the accompanying documentary, "The Wicker Man Enigma," quite a bit. Christopher Lee describes having been approached for the project and told what the title was. "Does it have anything to do with Druids and human sacrifice?" he recalls asking. The producer replied, "I hate you." For this reason, I am adding Mr. Lee to the list of gentlemen who may come to the house and carry me off if they wish. (Although I do not want to either injure Mr. Lee or discomfit Mrs. Lee, so I understand if he must regretfully decline.)