Thanks in part to a gorgeous digital restoration, Robin Hardy’s darkly comic The Wicker Man, currently screening in a “final cut” in select theaters on both coasts, feels like a lucid dream. The 1973 film is tinged with lasciviousness and pervaded by jangly folk music, and its tone fluctuates madly, veering from the hysterical to the horrifying, from the fermata of promiscuous harmonies to the howls of a man wreathed in flames. Trying to get a grasp on the film’s sense of normality, of realism, is like trying to squeeze a flopping fish. The dichotomy of modernity and tradition transects the film; restored to the original look of glorious 35mm, it feels perversely modern and timeless. Like a passage from the Bible, or a 14th-century oil painting, The Wicker Man is at once epochal, rooted in a specific time (the wake of the summer of love) and place (a Scottish island village), and somehow transcendent of reality. You slowly sink into its bizarre charm, and by the time its sinister epiphanies begin to proliferate, you’re too deep to get out.
Edward Woodward is Sergeant Neil Howie, an uptight Christian who’s intolerant and ignorant while preaching morals—“a privileged fool,” you could say. After receiving a letter that claims a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has disappeared on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, he takes off in a sea plane, by himself, set on finding her. When Howie arrives, he wastes no time in flashing his credentials, telling everyone he’s there on police business and threatening to lock up anyone and everyone who may interfere with his investigation. His first interaction with the locals sets the tone for his brief stay: He passes a photo of Rowan to a group of fisherman who don’t lack for plaid or facial hair, and the camera slowly strolls along the line as the picture is passed from calloused hand to calloused hand. No one has ever heard of the girl, and Howie, they say, should mind his own business.
Howie speaks with exact and exacting articulation, throwing insults like daggers at islanders, to whom he refers in variations of heathen, barbarian, savage, animal. Everyone keeps a stoic face, everything matter-of-fact and axiomatic, as Howie learns of the island’s pagan ways. Locals break into song and dance, using forks and guitars and mandolins and anything else they can find to create joyously licentious hymns. Hardy has a knack for absurd, dry humor, and scenes of Howie having syncopated back-and-forths with the locals play like vintage Monty Python skits: Every scene presents some strange cultural norm that Howie doesn’t understand, and ends with stoic explanations from the locals, like a pagan version of sighing “duh,” and Howie’s little fits of anger. Scenes of children singing about men planting seeds in women while dancing around a maypole, as the song leader makes carefully choreographed hand motions, are hilarious because of how befuddled Howie gets when he can’t wrap his mind around someone else’s beliefs, and how earnestly aloof the locals are when they try to explain their religion.
Howie meets his foil in Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in the most quietly insidious role—and sporting the most ridiculous hairdo—of his voluminous career). During their first meeting, Howie exclaims, “Those girls are naked!” pointing at a group of students jumping over a fire pit while singing; “Naturally,” Lee responds. “It’s much too dangerous jumping over fire with their clothes on.” Throughout Lee’s 250-plus film roles, he’s rarely displayed subtlety; his shtick was always been a menacing hyper-articulation, even in the case of his dialogue-less role in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. But here, going against Woodward’s stern sergeant, so unflinching in his religious conviction, Lee has to underplay the role, as two hyperbolic characters would be overkill. The nonchalance of his response insinuates confidence, knowing something we don’t, some sinister inside joke. The final revelation, Howie’s appointment with the Wicker Man, feels wickedly profound because of Lee’s constant calmness. You don’t ever really trust him, and whether Summerisle is manipulating the locals, feeding them religious hooey in order to remain Lord, is debatable. His plaid sports jacket and toxic-yellow turtleneck are so epochal of the early ’70s, they become the proverbial sore thumb on an island that seems stuck in the 15th century. If Howie is a true devout Christian, is Summeraisle a true devout religious leader? Or is he a sly performer?
More than ever, The Wicker Man looks soft and faded, hallucinatory and ephemeral, as if shown through a proto-Instagram filter. Howie’s strange, surreal descent into Technicolor hell couldn’t work any other way: Every composition has the quirky precision of a postcard, the compositions are refined and deliberate, and Hardy layers his shots with Kubrikian dexterity; flamboyant characters are captured by fleeting, flamboyant camerawork. The contrast of Woodward’s veracious insults and the locals’ genial tolerance is roll-on-the-sticky-theater-floor funny the first time you see it, but once the denouement arrives, and the day’s dying breath gives way to a bleeding sky, and the camera is sucked up into the fervor of the setting sun, accompanied by howls and singing, all of the joy, the fun, the humor of the proceeding 80 minutes become retrospectively horrifying. Like the locals warning Howie that he doesn’t belong there, that he won’t enjoy participating in their rituals and that he should leave, Hardy plays fair. He doesn’t cheat us, doesn’t manipulate us or throw in improbably twists to guise lazy writing. The Wicker Man demands an assiduous eye, a sense of humor, and trust—and, of course, in the end you get burned, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Greg Cwik can be found on Twitter.