Will your moviegoing life be incomplete if you never see Christopher Lee, dolled up in whiteface, long black tresses and a satiny dress, capering over the Highlands at the head of a neo-Druidic May Day parade?
Or never observe Britt Ekland attempt to stop the show by bumping and grinding her naked rump at the camera?
Or never savor dialogue as portentously fruity as "Welcome, fool, you have come of your own free will to the appointed place."
if the answer is yes, by all means make a beeline to "The Wicker Man," a hard-luck British occult thriller that has arrived on rather short notice at the K-B Cerberus and Studio. Made in 1973 but never widely released, this undernourished, overheated turkey has acquired a spotty cult reputation after a troubled distribution history. The last production of the defunct British Lion Studio, "The Wicker Man" has been acquired by a small, enterprising New Orleans company, Abraxas Film, which hopes to demonstrate that lucrative minor markets exist for features given up as bad investments by the majors. It's a commendable plan, and "The Wicker Man" seems to be justifying their faith, but it would certainly be easier to drum up enthusiasm if the movie weren't so ridiculous.
A creaky suspense melodrama with trivial allegorical pretensions and gauche erotic trimmings, "The Wicker Man" was written by Anthony Shaffer, the celebrated author of "Sleuth," with some measure of assistance from his twin brouther Peter, the celebrated quthor of "Equus" (which revealed a similar fondness for glorifying primitive thought processes) and the current Amadeus."
Peter Shaffer evidently did much of the research into the pagan religious traditions that are reputed to survive on verdant bu sinister Summerisle, the fanciful setting of "The Wicker Man," which was shot all over Scotland.
Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), a stiff-necked constable from the mainland, arrives in Summerisle by seaplant to investigate an anonymous report of a missing child. The inhabitants respond to his questions with evasive, misleading replies. His suspicions aroused, Howie lingers and discovers to his pious shock that the community has abandoned Christianity and reverted to a frankly carnal and perhaps sacrificial paganism. He fears that the missing child may be earmarked as a human sacrifice on May Day, the upcoming big holiday.
Several factors conspire to minimize the creepy aspects of this situation and reduce "The Wicker Man" to fitful campy chuckles: Every place Howie goes he's tormented by bawdy balladeers and come-hither glaces (especially from barmaid Ekland, who appears to be the official breaker-inner of Summerisle's laddies).
Christopher Lee enters as Lord Summerisle, whose sporty outfit and wavy toupee look irresistibly silly. You expect Lee to begin reading the part of Algernon Moncrieff. Instead, he openly acknowledges the hedonistic state of the island culture, reveals that the original Lord Summerisle (Grandpa) was responsible for restoring paganism and professes no concern at Howie's threats to expose the nasty shenanigans when he returns to the mainland.
It appears that the premise would be much better suited to the purposes of sex farce than horror melodrama. Moreover, there's a conspicuous lack of suspense about Howie's investigation. He has no confederates on the island, no one to turn to. It's not like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in which several characters were allied against a menacing community, and some doubt existed about who would be snatched and under what circumstances. The isolated Howie can either become a pagan convert or a victim. Shaffer leaves himself no room for clever manuevering.
What accounts for the curious appeal of such a pretentiously amateurish scare movie? Surely not the raggedy direction of Robin Hardy, obviously struggling with his first feature.It must be the softcore sex, the illusion that Summerisle is an out-of-the-way paradise where you can get all the action you crave. The Christian-pagan conflict provides the fundamental sex fantasy with allegorical camouflage as hilarious as Christopher Lee in May Day drag.