“Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.”
1973 saw the birth of the now cult British horror film The Wicker Man. Shot by director Robin Hardy on a budget of just £500,000 it tells the story of staunchly Christian Scottish police sergeant Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward. Howie is called to visit the remote (and thankfully fictional) Scottish island community of Summerisle where he must conduct an investigation into the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, who has been missing for several months.
On his first night, Sgt Howie visits the island’s sole pub where he’s treated to a gleefully bawdy song by the sexually charged patrons about the delightfully camp landlord, Mr MacGreagor’s daughter, Willow played by the beautiful Britt Ekland. Ekland was dubbed by Annie Ross due to her Swedish accent. Strangely though, her Polish co-star Ingrid Pitt was not dubbed and her native accent is clearly not Scottish. Shocked both by the islanders adoption of a seemingly pagan ideology and their bizarre displays of what he calls “public indecency” Sgt Howie seeks out the head of this small community, the charming and erudite Lord Summerisle, played to perfection with both gravitas and restrained relish by screen legend Sir Christopher Lee. Lee, for so long typecast by his Hammer Horror work would break free of the shackles of the inhuman monsters he’d played so well up to this point. Here he delivers a commanding performance in a career full of them and even Lee himself considered this one of his greatest roles and he graciously did it all for free.
The Summerisle Estate’s lush, verdant greenery was imported and the film gives the illusory appearance of being set on an island in the Mediterranean and belies the bleak reality of the actual shooting location in Dumfries & Galloway. This illusion is made all the more effective by the work of veteran cinematographer Harry Waxman who provides the film’s vibrant colour palette.
The Wicker Man is memorable for many things, none more so than composer Paul Giovanni’s unique and dreamily seductive music. The score and numerous folk songs are a significant factor in what makes the film so unique and the music almost becomes a character unto itself. The best of these songs has to be the hauntingly beautiful Willow’s Song where Sgt Howie’s commitment to maintaining his celibacy is tested to its limits when, having already heard Willow relieving a young islander of his virginity, she then she tries to seduce him. It’s a truly unique musical scene that on paper should have caused nothing more than laughs but the end result, with Ekland’s now famous nude dance, is beguilingly hypnotic.
“I hope you don’t think I can be made a fool of indefinitely.”
The Wicker Man was both misunderstood and badly handled by the studio heads at British Lion/EMI Films. The film was cut down from its original 99 minute version, now commonly known as the Director’s Cut, to the 87 minute theatrical cut which left out some important character exposition and also much if not all of Sgt Howie’s backstory. The film was a commercial failure upon its initial release. Rumours even persisted that EMI executive, Michael Deeley had outtakes from the film buried, which Deeley vehemently denies. Luckily American schlock legend Roger Corman had been sent the complete version for his consideration for US distribution and from that print, the current longer DVD and Blu Ray versions have been mastered. Of the three versions available I’d recommend the 94 minute Final Cut which strikes a perfect balance between the longest and shortest available versions of the film.
I first saw The Wicker Man about 15 years ago and upon first viewing didn’t really know what to make of it. After several additional viewings over the years I’ve grown to fully appreciate what a wonderful and unique film Hardy crafted. Based on very real Celt and Druid ritualistic belief systems the film avoids many of the more commonly seen fantastical tropes of the horror genre. It has an almost hokey and lighthearted feel in the first act at least but is also permeated by an unfamiliar and very unique spiritualism and sexuality that marks it out as being unlike any other film of its kind.
The film’s depiction of horror is that of a man who feels protected by his own righteous beliefs but who is caught in a trap that he can’t even see, set by a people whose beliefs are so far removed from his own as to be utterly repellent to him and therefore impossible for him to understand. The clues he’s looking for are right there in front of him but his disgust at the heathen rituals the islanders seem to practice blinds him to the true game at play here, a game where he is nothing but a helpless pawn hamstrung by the unwavering certainty that his belief system is right. The Wicker Man calls into question the validity of religion and may cause viewers to question their own belief system whilst at the same time not damning or mocking them. The community on Summerisle even respect Sgt Howie’s Christianity, indeed it’s a big part of why he’s there.
I’ll not spoil the film’s now famous finale. Those who’ve seen The Wicker Man will know it to be one of the most shocking yet strangely satisfying endings in all of film. If upon your first viewing you don’t see the clues (I didn’t), then repeat viewings are rewarded as you look at the film from a different point of view and see what Sgt Howie did not.
“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”
Is the horror at the heart of The Wicker Man the barbaric sacrificial beliefs held by this remote island community that one innocent person’s death will renew their failing crops or is the truly horrifying thing the possibility that they may actually be right? What is certain is that The Wicker Man is a true one of a kind, a horror film unlike any other in what is today an overstuffed genre. Even categorising The Wicker Man as a horror film seems ill fitting as it certainly wouldn’t satisfy those horror fans raised on a diet of blood and gore and is a very non-conformist entry into the genre.
When critiquing any film it’s helpful to draw comparisons to similar films but here any form of comparative analysis is rendered moot as The Wicker Man truly is unlike any other film. Part melodrama, part investigative thriller, part musical even, but with a chilling conclusion that clearly marks it out as a film made to get under the skin of it’s audience yet all the while imbued with a strangely mythical beauty. Heed the words of Lord Summerisle and be sure to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man, just make sure it’s not the Nicolas Cage 2006 remake because that’s a different sort of horror altogether!
Film ‘89 Verdict – 9/10