WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Let’s get the bad part out of the way. Nicolas Cage and the great Ellen Burstyn remade The Wicker Man in 2006 to devastating results. While the original holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the half-baked, pathetic remake maintains a strong 15% rating. If you ask me, that’s about fourteen percentages too generous. Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. OK, great.
The Wicker Man is shrouded in mystery. Different versions of the film have floated around for years, the holy grail of which being an apparently 102-minute version that’s been lost for decades. A 99-minute director’s cut is the version upon which I base this review and the current standard. Perhaps one day we’ll all get to see the original 102-minute version. Then again, maybe one day we’ll all meet on Summerisle and have an orgy in the park. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plot is simple and like any great story can be summed up in one sentence: A virgin police officer named Sergeant Howie travels to an island called Summerisle, populated by pagans, to investigate the kidnapping of a girl called Rowan. Weird ish goes down from the jump-off, when first no one on the island claims to have heard of Rowan, yet she has a mom, an empty grave, and a desk at the schoolhouse. Then, after being offended by all kinds of awesomely debauched pagan stuff—the aforementioned orgy in the park, the girl who must put a frog in her mouth, the umbilical cord on the tree—Sergeant Howie discovers a ritual human sacrifice is set to take place on May Day in order to bring back the island’s failed crops. After he’s presumably left the island, he dons a customary costume for the big day and (surprise!) it’s actually he who will burn in the wicker man on May Day.
This movie works for several reasons. The first is that it’s so straightforward. The viewer wonders, “No, this can’t be happening. Wait a tick, it is happening!” And then it happens. Bam! Roll credits. Its natural progression comes from writer Anthony Schaffer using as his source material the 1890 anthropological study by James Frazer called The Golden Bough. The annotated 1922 edition is worth picking up on Amazon. Within its hundreds of pages, Mr. Frazer describes the pagan rituals of tribes and communities from all over the planet, making his seminal work a grab-bag for weird human behavior. The point is, the rituals in The Wicker Man are real. Much like The Godfather is a compendium of mafia lore and stories, The Wicker Man is a smorgasbord of pagan fun. Oh, to go back to the days when people sang songs in circles on the solstice.