Saturday, May 27, 2006

Happy Birthday, Lord Summerisle

Christopher Lee, probably the last great living horror movie icon, celebrates his 84th birthday today (May 27). And there's no better way to celebrate the man's golden years than by watching one of his greatest efforts.

For years, Lee has professed his ferocious, passionate devotion and fondness for The Wicker Man, a 1973 film in which the actor lends his singular presence in a small but pivotal role (it's out on Anchor Bay DVD). In a lot of ways, it's easy to see why.

Broad and literal horror films like the output of Hammer Studios defined the genre in the early seventies. The Wicker Man presented a scenario that was the polar opposite, giving Lee the opportunity to play a charming, almost jaunty character that effectively subverted his traditional screen persona, all in the service of a leisurely but still uneasy mystery framework. I don't know if I'd call it "'The Citizen Kane' of Horror Films," as one overzealous Cinefantastique critic enthused, but this subtle and offbeat little film manages to cast a unique spell that transcends easy pigeonholes.

It's essentially a single-minded mystery in which Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a mainland policeman, investigates the disappearance of a young woman from Summerisle, a small Scottish island. Howie very quickly discovers that the island's residents are practicing pagans, and that the young woman's disappearance is not what it seems.

Anthony Shaffer's screenplay pivots on one particular twist, the type of classic denouement that episodic TV like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (to say nothing of modern equivalents like The Sixth Sense and the cult television hit, Lost)used vigorously. A lot of films and TV shows that spring this type of twist on you grow instantly stale once they yield their secret. But The Wicker Man's shelf life remains solid even when the final revelation rears its head.

Without hurling any spoilers out there, suffice it to say Shaffer's screenplay and Robin Hardy's restrained, almost deceptively prosaic directorial hand gradually lay out an atmosphere of mounting unease that works, even when you know what's coming around the corner.

The residents of Summerisle seem like the kind of laid-back rural types that exist in every country's backwoods, frozen in time and lazily welcoming. But as one's presence in their midst increases, their weirdness unpeels like skin from an onion. And in classic 70's fashion, Howie--a devout Christian--finds his own faith put up against that of these smiling-but-still-unsettling heathens.

Woodward (best known as TV's Equalizer) plays Howie with equal parts outraged inflexibility and sympathetic vulnerability--he's an unlikely yet believeable focal point for the viewer. And despite it's one-note Big Twist Ending, The Wicker Man's screenplay works on several different levels--it's a meditation on the futility and the destructive capability of sexual abstinence, a none-too-subtle dissection of Christianity, a symbolic portrayal of man's need for order in an orderless world, a solid labyrinthian mystery, and a gradual Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoid thriller. This was my third go-around with The Wicker Man, and it still works on me.
Then there's Lee, never better. Most of his great roles were nourished by his glowering charisma and intensity: here, he's the most relaxed of souls, running his island with a mellow good humor that utterly camouflages his intentions (to Howie, at least). He's funny as hell, and never topples into tongue-in-cheekdom, even when he's running around in crude drag like Gertrude the Clown in the final twenty minutes. Now, THAT'S some kind of horror icon.


Vince said...

Showing your impeccable taste again, I see. The Wicker Man is easily one of Lee's best, along with 1968's The Devil Rides Out. A Wicker Man remake is due out later this year, with Lee's role played by Ellen Burstyn. Lee himself was trying to mount a competing remake, but I don't think it came together, alas.

Sarah said...

The Wicker Man! I'd forgotten it... I think you should hold a viewing - I'll bring Adam. Start 'em young, sez me.

(Waving meekly from I-never-email Land)