Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

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