Month: February 2014

The Wicker Man (1973)

Theatrical poster for the film.

Director: Robin Hardy

Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer

Based on: Ritual by David Pinner

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eckland, Ingrid Pitt

Running Time: 88 minutes (Theatrical Cut), 94 minutes (Final Cut), 99 minutes (Director’s Cut), 101 minutes (VHS Cut)

Language: English

Year: 1973

Edward Woodward (right) as Sergeant Neil Howie questioning the islanders about the missing Rowan Morrison.

Geraldine Cowper as Rowan Morrison.

The Wicker Man follows a devoutly Christian policeman named Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward, famous at the time for his role in the British espionage series Callan) as he goes to a Scottish island  called Summerisle, famous for it’s fruit and vegetable exports, in order follow up on the report of a missing child named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). As he gets acquainted with the people, he discovers that they are followers a form of Celtic paganism and is appalled by their religious practices. This leads to confrontations with the island’s leader: the mysterious Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee, at the time mainly known for his role as Hammer Film Production’s Count Dracula) and to his suspicions that Rowan has been victim of human sacrifice.

At the time of this film’s release, it was butchered by the censor’s, resulting in the widely circulated 88-minute Theatrical Cut. Since then, it has been released on VHS for the most complete, yet rare 101-minute cut. A Director’s Cut, which is 99-minutes long has also been released on DVD in the United States, but on DVD and Blu Ray in the United Kingdom. The most recent release is the Final Cut, which is 94 minutes long and is considered by Robin Hardy and fans of the film as the definitive cut. I have only seen the Theatrical Cut and the Final Cut, and I also agree that the Final Cut is the superior version of the film. Hopefully I’ll get around to seeing he other versions of the film at some point! When released for the first time, the film was overlooked and not well-regarded, but it was later restored and re-released in 1979 and became a cult phenomenon. Christopher Lee, who has appeared in more films than any other actor in history, frequently refers to The Wicker Man as his greatest film and also describes his performance as Lord Summerisle as his greatest performance.

While you will very likely go into this film for Christopher Lee, you will come out wondering who gave the best performance in the film between he and Edward Woodward. It’s a joy seeing Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle play a game of cat and mouse with each other. To most people, Howie will come across as quite unlikable because of his visible disgust at the pagan practices of Summerisle’s inhabitants, but you can’t deny that Edward Woodward did a great job in the film. Christopher Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle  is very different from his performances as Dracula, Saruman, or Count Dooku. Summerisle is not openly a villain, and will come across to most viewers as more likable than the protagonist. The role of Summerisle was written specifically with Lee in mind, who was growing increasingly tired of playing Dracula for Hammer.

Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor (left) with Lindsay Kemp (right) playing Alder, her father.

The supporting cast is not to be overlooked either. You have Diane Cilento (at the time Mrs. Sean Connery) as the local schoolteacher, Miss Rose, Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor, the landlord’s daughter, and Ingrid Pitt in a small role as the local record keeper. Diane Cilento’s role as Miss Rose was a very interesting one. She spends a lot of the movie annoying Sergeant Howie and offending him with her teaching the children the sexual areas of their religion. She comes across almost as subtly menacing as Christopher Lee’s character. Ingrid Pitt had a very small role, but did good with what she had. The one everyone who sees this movie will remember is Britt Ekland (married for a time to Peter Sellers) as Willow, mainly due to her nude dancing in an attempt to seduce Sergeant Howie.

Christopher Lee (left) as Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward as Sergeant Neil Howie.

The film’s primary theme is the conflict between Christianity and paganism. Christianity being represented by Sergeant Howie, and Lord Summerisle representing paganism. Some people have viewed this movie as anti-Christianity, anti-paganism, or anti-religion in general but this has been denied by Robin Hardy. It isn’t hard to imagine how someone could come away with that point of view. Lord Summerisle, as mentioned earlier, comes across as much more likable than the Christian protagonist. Some people have even come to see Sergeant Howie as deserving his fate for his attitude towards the islanders, but this is somewhat hypocritical. Anyone from a Judeo-Christian nation like England or America (whether they were believers in Christianity or not) would be appalled by Summerisle’s religious practices. In his first night at the island, Sergeant Howie hears people publicly sing lustfully about Willow MacGregor and sees mourners weeping naked at the resting places of deceased relatives. Howie is even more shocked when he figures out that the children are being taught about phallic symbols and such things in the context of Summerisle’s neo-pagan religion. As a believer in Christianity, I would try to be nice to the people of Summerisle as possible but would have a hard time, especially when I discovered that it was open season for human sacrifice when the crops go bad! Some reviewers have noted that Sergeant Howie’s attitude towards the pagan religion of Summerisle is similar to that of the Christians who first came to the UK when it was ran by pagan societies like the Saxons and the Celts. The religious theme of the film seems to also extend to the “hip” vs. “square” (establishment vs. anti-establishment) conflicts that were going on in the 1960s and 1970s. Sergeant Howie is blatantly establishment, as we’ve…well…established…earlier.

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, praying to a pagan god, preparing to sacrifice Sergeant Howie within a wicker man.

Hopefully you’ve seen the movie before, because I’m gonna ruin it for you if you haven’t. In a shocking twist, Sergeant Howie discovers that his entire search for Rowan Morrison was a game being played on him by the villagers. After finding Rowan during Summerisle’s May Day celebration, apparently being prepared to be sacrificed, and “saves” her, Lord Summerisle announces to him, “The game is over.” The scene was so well-acted by Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, you could just feel Sergeant Howie’s heart sink into horror as he discovers his fate. Rowan Morrison was simply a decoy to get Howie to come in order to be sacrifices, as Lord Summerisle puts it, Howie is the “right kind of adult” to be sacrificed to Summerisle’s deities in order to bring the crops back. Their religion asked for a man who came to be sacrificed of his own free will, had the power of a king (represented the law), and was a virgin. This was easily one of the most shocking and brilliant twists I’ve seen in any film to date. Howie brings up a frightening point when he tells them that their crops won’t grow back, and he says that they might end up having to sacrifice Lord Summerisle (who seems to wet his pants when Howie points it out). Howie preaches to the people of Summerisle when he is thrown into the wicker man and tells them that God was the one who causes their crops to waste away, he spends his last moments tearfully praying and as his last words shouts, “Daniel!”, while the people jubilantly dance around the burning figure singing about spring. This death scene will leave any viewer with a very disturbed feeling in the pit of their stomach for days after watching.

Lord Summerisle showing Sergeant Howie his estate while discussing the history of the island.

One question I have always had after first seeing the movie is whether or not Lord Summerisle truly believes in the religion of the island. He explains that his grandfather, an Atheist scientist, came to the island and was attracted by it’s volcanic soil and he developed a strain of fruits to grow their and brought back the “old gods” to the people in order to get them to work for him. Summerisle explains, “What my grandfather began out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way – to reverence the music and the drama and the rituals of the old gods. To love nature and to fear it and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.” Howie appeals to Summerisle to tell the people that sacrificing him will not make crops grow and Summerisle simply says, “But I know they will!” When Howie says they would have to sacrifice “the king of Summerisle”, he gives a disturbed facial expression briefly before saying, “No they will not!” It’s interesting that you can either view Lord Summerisle as being a victim of being raised in a society where human sacrifice is the norm, or you could view him merely as a greedy man who is willing to kill to prosper. When they show Summerisle’s estate, you can clearly tell that he reaps the benefits of the fruit and vegetable exports of the island. Either way, Lord Summerisle is a terrifying character, along with the rest of the islanders. The people of Summerisle seem so normal and friendly, but they have no complaints about killing innocent people in order to appease their gods.

Should this be the point at which religious tolerance could justifiably be waved?

All in all, I strongly recommend viewing the film. While I don’t consider The Wicker Man a horror film, I will refer to it as such anyway when I state that it is probably my favorite horror film as of now. It’s truly unique in it’s message and atmosphere. Few horror films have tackled the topic of religion in such a brilliant way. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the remake! I would highly recommend investing in a Blu Ray player if you have not already and buying the Final Cut on Blu Ray, as I never realized how great of a film this was until I watched that version of it. Enjoy!

 

 

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The Hunt (2012)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg 

Screenplay: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Anika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm

Running Time: 115 minutes

Language: Danish

Year: 2012

This superb, Oscar nominated Danish film follows the story of Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a recently divorced kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town who is struggling to spend time with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). He has many friends in town, including Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who has a small daughter who goes to the school at which Lucas teaches named Klara (Anika Wedderkopp). Lucas frequently walks Klara to and from school and Klara seems to have a bit of a crush on Lucas. One day she kisses Lucas quickly while he is playing with the children and she gives him a heart, and after Lucas declines her romantic gesture in a polite manner, she tells the principal, Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas showed her his genitals. After these accusations become public, Lucas is shunned and persecuted by the town while even all of his closest friends turn against him, except for Bruun (Lars Ranthe). Marcus also comes to town to be with his father and also feels the effects of the hatred the town has for his father. Things only get worse for Lucas when more children come forward and claim that he molested them also.

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas in “The Hunt”.

I just watched this film last night because of my being converted into a Mads Mikkelsen fan after watching Hannibal last year. I was introduced to Mikkelsen through Casino Royale, like most English-speaking film-goers but this movie is where he really shows his acting chops. Mikkelsen has a very subtle acting style that is usually used to play mysterious villains, but it equally well with the character of Lucas, who is easy to identify with due to his normality. The most well-acted scene in the film has to be when Lucas goes to the local Christmas Eve church service and tearfully confronts Theo in front of everyone about his innocence. I frequently found myself enraged at how the townspeople instantaneously took the word of a child instead of a well-respected man in the community like Lucas.

Annika Wedderkopp as Klara in “The Hunt”.

Annika Wedderkopp, the young actress who plays Klara, also gave a great performance. While she did cause Lucas the trouble in the film, she never intended to cause any harm. She plays Klara as an innocent who is troubled by what is happening to Lucas. For a while in the film, she does not even know whether she was actually lying or not due to what people are saying. Her mother (played by Anne Louise Hassing), unable to accept the possibility that Klara told a fib, tells Klara that she most likely suppressed the memory of Lucas molesting her. The final scene between Lucas and Klara, which shows that they have left the past behind as much as possible, really tears at your heartstrings.

The supporting cast was not wasted at all. You could sympathize with Klara’s parents even though they were completely wrong in believing the accusations against Lucas. Unlike the children, they are not innocents and do not have an excuse for blindly believing the lies the children are telling. You can’t help but find them despicable despite them being so easy to identify with. If your child accused someone of molesting them, you would instinctively believe them. The headmistress of the school, Grethe, is the one I really couldn’t stand because of her naivety of believing the children at all times.

The film really makes you think about what would happen to you if you were placed in an unfortunate situation like that. Would your friends stand by you or would they turn on you and assume the worst? When the film first shows Lucas hanging out with his buddies after a hunting trip, laughing and drinking, you would assume that they would all stick together no matter what, but even Lucas’s “best friend”, Theo, turns on him and does not give him the benefit of the doubt when his daughter makes the accusations. If I were in Theo’s position, I would want to believe my daughter over my friend also, but the film shows how terribly dangerous it can be to blindly believe everything someone, even a small child, says.

The court of public opinion is a very dangerous place. Presumption of innocence might apply to the court of law, but it isn’t so in the court of public opinion. It makes me wonder if even you are considered innocent until proven otherwise in the court of law? Is the jury always unbiased in their decision making? Whenever Grethe hears Klara’s accusations, she instantly believes her with no evidence to support the claim. She tells Lucas, “I always believe the children!” Grethe’s blind faith in the children at the school could have easily proven fatal to Lucas. These children who make the accusations against Lucas are innocents and most likely do not realize that their actions are wrong. They all clearly love Lucas, as you see him playing with them in almost every scene in which he goes to the school. The movie almost seems to make the case that innocence can be dangerous. Klara tells her father that she never anticipated the consequences to the lie she told.

Mads Mikkelsen (right) as Lucas. Lasse Fogelstrøm (left) as his son Marcus.

Now, here be SPOILERS. By the end of the film Lucas is acquitted and all looks well. Lucas is happily dating his love-interest Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) and is finally able to see his son regularly. The townspeople are treating him normally too. They all go on a hunting trip after celebrating Marcus getting his hunting licence. While alone in the woods, Lucas is nearly shot in the head by an unknown shooter. This ending seems to show that Lucas’s life will never truly be back to normal and that the accusations made against him will forever cast a dark shadow upon his reputation. This reminds me of Arthur Leigh Allen, who was accused by author Robert Graysmith and several people of being the elusive Zodiac Killer when all evidence points toward his innocence. Many people still believe that Allen is the Zodiac Killer. The person who shot at Lucas (if it was intentional) symbolizes those who still believe that Lucas molested the children.

This film isn’t one for everyone. Many might think it is slow, but I was totally engrossed in the film and invested in the characters (especially Lucas and Klara, of course). Despite it not being extremely violent, it is still very disturbing because of how far the accusations and their impacts go. It is scary to think that this could happen to anyone! Mads Mikkelsen took his place as the lead actor and held onto every scene he was in. I really wish he was applicable for Best Actor, but at least the film has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. This is easily one of the best films of 2012.