Starring: Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Ingrid Pitt, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilentro
Directed by: Robin Hardy
Thriller, fantasy or musical. art house film or horror flick... undisputed cult classic. Call it what you will, there's no doubt that The Wicker Man is a truly great film. In the words of director Robin Hardy, 'there has never been a film like this' - and there probably never will.
But before we go any further, I must raise two points. First of all: have you seen this film? If not, read no further. Go and buy the DVD watch it, then come back.
Well, read on if you have to, but don't be cross with me for giving away the plot.
Secondly, due to the way in which the original film has been diced and spliced over the years, there are several versions kicking around. This review is based on the 'director's cut', which is available on DVD, along with the shorter theatrical release and a whole host of extras (including a highly hilarious interview with Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy c. 1974. Check out the half asleep beardy bloke interviewing them - you just don't get telly like that these days. thank God.)
Phew, that's got that out the way. So what about film then? Read on.
From the start, The Wicker Man flouts every convention. Meet Sergeant Neil Howie, played (brilliantly) by Edward Woodward: a policeman with a neat hair-do, clipped Scots accent and no visible sense of humour whatsoever. A devout Christian opposed to singing, dancing and frivolity, he's a virgin who adheres to a strict code of Presbyterian morality, a stickler for rules and regulations and he really seems a bit of a dull stick. Folks, he's our hero.
Sent an anonymous letter concerning the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, he flies out to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate. And as the opening credits roll, we find ourselves confused. Hang on, we think, this is an early '70s horror film, isn't it? Starring Count and Countess Dracula themselves, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, no less. So where are the gloomy castles, the dark twisted forests and dripping fangs? Instead of the usual Technicolor trappings of terror, we're greeted by a beautiful panorama of the west coast of Scotland, accompanied by Godspell style folk music that's about as menacing as the theme tune to Neighbours. Huh?
Howie lands on Summerisle to find himself confronted by a cast of deliberately obtuse comedy villagers, who cheerily deny all knowledge of Rowan, whilst winking knowingly at each other like naughty schoolboys. How can anything sinister possibly be afoot here, we wonder? Surely these jolly island japesters are merely playing a colossal time-wasting joke on the uptight sergeant from the mainland?
Lulled into a false sense of security, we take the initial hints about the island's pagan culture to be nothing more than quaint, old fashioned touches: the sign for the Green Man inn is jovial and smiling, the islanders' names - Willow, Myrtle, Rowan, May - are charming. Chocolate March hares in the village shop? Yummy! What's the problem?
As night falls, however, and Howie finds himself stranded at the inn, things become a little more odd. Why is there no fresh fruit or veg on an island renowned for its produce? And what exactly is in the water here? Bawdy pub sing-a-longs are one thing, but mass outdoor orgies are another - this is North West Scotland in April for Chrissakes! Hell, even the snails are at it...
Howie retires to his room in disgust, only to witness from his window a shadowy figure (who later transpires to be Lord Summerisle, the island's patriarch) offer up a young boy to be deflowered by the landlord's daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland with her voice dubbed over). This scene was deleted from the original cut of the movie, which is a shame, as it's key to our understanding of the character of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in one of his best roles ever). How significant is it that our first glimpse of this debonair yet dangerous master should catch him pulling the strings of the islanders like a bekilted puppet master, high-handedly deciding what's best for them then setting up situations in order to enact his wishes? Very significant.
The next day dawns and our suspicions are confirmed: the islanders are all pagans. Well, there's nothing wrong with that, is there? It's just a bit of harmless fun. The rites we see are pretty and even a bit sniggersomely twee: pregnant women dancing barefoot through orchards of blossom trees, nubile young girls jumping naked through a fire on a lawn surrounded by penis shaped topiary, small 1970s boys prancing round a maypole (okay, so maybe there is something kinda wrong about that.). Certainly the silver-tongued Lord Summerisle, with his tweedy jackets and bouffant hair-do, makes paganism seem like a natural, inoffensive, peaceable practice, and, irritated by Howie's narrow-minded intolerance, we tend to agree with him.
Oh how wrong we are.
Gradually, the sinister touches accrue and a darker side to the island begins to reveal itself, a cruel streak lying beneath the tree hugging hippy shit. The local apothecary has foreskins pickled in a jar; Rowan's sister Myrtle must swallow a frog to cure her sore throat; tied to a tree over Rowan's grave is her bloodied naval skin, hanging like a piece of cured biltong. Nice.
Yup, we are coming to agree with Howie that the islanders are in fact all stark staring bonkers. Because, tiresome stick in the mud that he is, we actually find ourselves beginning to sympathise with the hapless sergeant as, faced with a brick wall of misleading lies, frustrating obfuscations and contradictions, deliberate misunderstandings and downright blethering havers from the islanders, he attempts to piece together the puzzle of Rowan's disappearance.
And, as he struggles to resist the lure of the lovely Willow, we even come to admire him. Deliberately, the landlord's daughter tempts him to succumb to her charms in a subtle and beautifully erotic seduction scene that's rather spoilt by the presence of the most rubbish body double in Christendom - or indeed in Pagandom, if such a word exists (which it doesn't, according to Word's spellchecker). No wonder Ekland flipped when she saw the final cut.
However, the scene allows us to see another side to Howie: that beneath the religious fanatic lies a real man with powerful desires that he struggles to repress. Whilst we pity him for allowing himself to be so tortured, we also admire his strength of mind - this is no shallow puritanical hypocrite who caves in at the first whiff of temptation but a man with nerves of steel, incredible self-restraint and a faith that he will not relinquish easily.
And he's not stupid either. Having established that Rowan Morrison is not in fact dead, Howie comes to the awful realisation that she is to be sacrificed on May Day, in order to appease the old gods and ensure a fruitful harvest. 'Surely even these people can't be that mad,' he cries in horror, at the same time realising that yes, they probably can.
And so we approach the climax of the film through a disconcerting mix of comedy and dread: comedy engendered by Howie's Keystone Cops style search for Rowan, to a background of wacca-wacca guitars that wouldn't sound out of place in an episode of Starsky and Hutch, and dread as creepy masked islanders pop up behind hedges and around doorways, eventually forming a stately May Day procession, accompanied by a dirge-like tune and led by Lord Summerisle, who, sporting a yellow dress and long black Morticia Addams wig, doesn't seem in the slightest bit comical, but rather is imposing, lordly and awfully sinister.
As the sun goes behind a cloud and the islanders approach a druidic stone circle we can no longer kid ourselves that this is all a joke and all will end well. And so the terrible truth is revealed: yes, there is to be a human sacrifice, but it isn't going to be Rowan Morrison. Instead it will be the man of law who comes bearing the king's authority, the Christian virgin who willingly delivers himself into the hands of the islanders, dressed in the costume of the fool: Sergeant Neil Howie.
And so the poor uptight sergeant is transformed into a Christ-like martyr figure. Barefoot and robed in white, he is washed and anointed and prepared for sacrifice: the willing king-like virgin fool.
The engine of his sacrifice, the Wicker Man of the title, is one of the most powerful and blood-chilling images I've ever seen on screen. We witness Howie's horror-stricken reaction (and believe me Edward Woodward looks genuinely terrified - small wonder, as he is, after all, going to enclosed in this contraption and set on fire) before we see the Wicker Man itself, and like him we are horrified by the scale, the immensity of this faceless, frightening symbol of the islanders' delusions. I've seen this film on several occasions and it never fails to bring me out in goosebumps.
As the flames begin the flicker, Howie the martyr, imploring the islanders who know not what they do to 'think about what you're doing', becomes Howie the terrible prophet of doom, raining down curses on the impassive islanders. But all in vain, and as his agonising death cries ring out above the jolly strains of 'Summer is a-coming in', we are witness to one of the most perfect shots in cinema history as the burning head of the Wicker Man tumbles sideways to reveal a glowing orange sun just dipping down to reach the horizon. The End. You can start breathing again now.
The Wicker Man is a film based on irony: Sergeant Howie may be the fool, but far from underestimating him and treating him as such, the islanders rely on him to work out Rowan's fate in order to seal his own. Like the beetle he finds tied to a nail in Rowan's empty desk at the school, slowly winding itself closer to death, he moves inexorably and unwittingly towards his fate. 'I hope you don't think that I can be made a fool of indefinitely' he rages at Lord Summerisle. Oh no, his days are definitely numbered.
Contrary to the usual trajectory of horror films, Howie is not blind to the potential danger of his position. A deeply spiritual man, he sees the perils posed by a godless society who adhere to the laws of a cruel and careless nature. Instead, ironically, it is we, the audience, who close our eyes, seeing the sergeant's intolerant attitude as an over-reaction; in effect, we become complicit with the islanders' crime.
Yet it is in his narrow-mindedness that Howie's only blind spot lies: he cannot see how, as a good Christian man, he can possibly play a part in pagan plans of the islanders. 'You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice' he's told. Ironic, as he's about to become one.
But perhaps the most ironic thing of all is the origin of the islanders' pagan beliefs, which are founded not on custom but on expediency, introduced by the first Lord Summerisle in the 19th century as a way of keeping the people happy and hard working as they tended his crops. Because, would you believe it, the legendary fruitfulness of the island is due not to the unusual clemency of nature but to artificial strains engineered by the pioneering Victorian Huxley-ite. Sergeant Howie sees life in stark black and white - good vs. evil, Christianity vs. paganism, natural vs. unnatural - but on Summerisle, oppositions become confused as the old gods of nature are evoked to bless unnatural, modern, manipulated crops.
There is no good and evil here, the islanders are simply doing what they must to survive - and none more so than the present Lord Summerisle. Does he truly believe all this pagan nonsense? He claims he does, but it's got himself into a bit of a bind. The harvest has failed, and according to the religion his grandfather has foisted on the people, the gods must be appeased. Perhaps it is he who really understands the true nature of sacrifice, offering up Howie to save his own skin. In another film, the people might have turned on him and let Howie go free. But this is not another film, this is The Wicker Man.
And the final irony? That we almost never got to see this film. Famously 'cursed' since its inception, the cast and crew suffered terribly filming a movie set in spring in the rain, snow, sleet and freezing cold of a Scottish winter. Once completed, the makers of the film, British Lion Pictures, were taken over and the new management hated The Wicker Man (that and another British Lion production, Nicholas Roeg's seminal horror film Don't Look Now - shows what they knew really, doesn't it). 'They sliced the picture up like salami' Robin Hardy claims, and the missing cuts were thought to be lost for good, buried beneath the M4 of all places, although some have been reinstated in the director's cut of the film.
Groundbreaking and utterly unpredictable, beautiful yet chilling, the film represented a major departure from the time-honoured British horror tradition. What's more, it has stood the test of time, retaining its power to shock and mesmerise, to entice and repel, to confound all expectations and linger in the mind for weeks. Looked at objectively, it ought to be ridiculous, and yet it never is. Timeless and compelling, long may The Wicker Man continue to haunt our darkest dreams.
The Wicker Man Tour 2005
My trip round the sites of the film in Dumfries and Galloway.
BBC's Wicker Man page
History of the making of the film and its subsequent transformation into cult classic.
various versions of The Wicker Man
Indepth info on the different versions of the film, plus cast, plot and a cool photo gallery.
Wicker Man location guide
Plan your tour of Scotland around the film's locations.
The Wicker Man 2006
Read my review of the somewhat sorry remake.
The Wicker Tree
Read my review of Robin Hardy's woeful 2010 sequel.