The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy

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By Roderick Heath

The Wicker Man is the sort of horror film that people who don’t like horror films embrace, and that can make people like me who do like horror films distrust it on principle. Still, Robin Hardy’s first, infamously mistreated film has infiltrated pop culture so much that of late its influence has been popping up in places as diverse as Brit songstress Allison Goldfrapp’s album Seventh Tree; Neil LaBute’s craptacular remake, which is swiftly gathering Mommie Dearest-esque status as a high-class camp classic; being referenced in Eli Roth’s Hostel; and ticking off neo-pagans who don’t like the implication that they enjoy burning Edward Woodward every now and then. It’s become a part of the landscape, its eerie, lo-fi antigothic lending a much-needed hit of cool to Morris dancers everywhere.

The actual film deserves it reputation as one of the cleverest and most subtly potent genre works of its era. Intense in a muted and menacing fashion, sophisticated in its rhythmic structure and steadily building disquiet, The Wicker Man was designed by screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Hardy, fans of the Hammer horror films, as an homage and a retort to works like Terence Fisher’s early Dracula entries, with their conflict of ironclad morality and sensualised evil. Much like the old joke about the priest who, having preached a great argument for God in the first half of his sermon, offers up the devil’s side in the second half, The Wicker Man manages to be a work that both pantheists and Christian moralists can get behind, building to a finale almost unique in any cinematic work, let alone the horror genre.

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The Wicker Man is built around the traditional generic intrusion of a stranger of authority into a land of suspicious, superstitious yokels. Rather than bringing the clarity of enlightenment, however, Sergeant Howie (Woodward) offers arrogance and resentment, coming from a society that’s failing to meet his standards (his own junior officers make fun of him for keeping himself pure for his wedding day with his long-waiting girlfriend), and finding an island full of people who seem to be silently laughing at a joke he’s not in on. Summerisle, a privately owned island off the Scottish coast, is famous for its apples, and is generally off-limits to the outside world. The grandfather of its current owner, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), purchased the island as the ideal place to grow his hybrid fruit strains and introduced the islanders to pantheistic worship to revive their love of life after centuries of grinding poverty. Howie’s arrival to investigate is brought about by an anonymous letter reporting that a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), has disappeared and not been seen for months. And yet, even her mother (Irene Sunters) denies any knowledge of her.

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The more Howie digs, the more confused he becomes; when he finds the girl did exist and yet seems to have died, he exhumes her grave and discovers only a dead hare in her coffin. Gradually, he forms a dreadful theory; that Rowan will be sacrificed at the May Day festival to appease the gods that have withered the previous year’s harvest. The closer he comes to the momentous event, the more subtly strange the situation becomes, as apparently perfectly ordinary villagers dress up in playful animal costumes that somehow become starkly sinister. And, of course, he’s really being led up the garden path.

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Like Shaffer’s restlessly clever Sleuth and his script for Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), the narrative is a series of sliding screens that eventually unveil a vicious trap. Unlike either, however, it gains an uncommon resonance in pitting its iron-clad, moralistic, Christian antihero Howie against Summerisle and his pagan villagers in what initially seems like a broad hippie joke, but concludes as a grim ode to conflicting brands of religious extremism. In truth, Howie’s a bigot, not merely a zealot, quivering in outrage when confronted by anything that doesn’t adhere to his personal certainties. But he’s also a genuinely faithful man. Lord Summerisle seems fuelled by a real enthusiasm for the creed his grandfather considered a mere employee motivational tool, which lends the finale its great force. Lee, in one of his best, if most broad performances, presents a deft variation on his imperious, charismatic avatars of evil by presenting in Summerisle an avuncular, counterculture-inflected peer with the perfect pitch of indulgence and dismissal of a man of great intelligence, courtesy, and power—and one who’s also not afraid to dance dressed as a girl.

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The Wicker Man is fascinating for being one of the very few films to take a more than cursory glance at pre-Christian British society and the lingering echoes of it that still define the national culture, from hobby horses to maypole dancing, locating the darker culture that lies behind such prettified tourist board tropes. Hardy says he carried all 25 volumes of The Golden Bough on set with him, and Portree, the village on the Isle of Skye where they filmed, was itself the locale for a peculiar Highland Christian subsect. The film’s structure both captures the appeal of an earthier, life-loving, sexually celebratory religion, whilst also confirming the brutal totemic necessities of such codes which rendered the metaphorical comforts of Christianity preferable; in its way, the film is something of a case study in socioreligious historical shifts.

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Hardy’s direction, remarkably assured for a debut, conjures a unique atmosphere not simply by inverting standard genre elements, but also in terms of the way its scenes are constructed according to songs and dances, making it, in essence, a musical (the twist on the cutesy Brigadoon, 1954, is an irresistible analogy). The songs by psych-folk composer Paul Giovanni and the specially formed group Magnet enter and become propulsive forces within the narrative in a fashion that’s definitely musical-like, as in the “Gently Johnny” sequence in which Summerisle gives a young boy to the island’s designated goddess of love, Willow (Britt Ekland), to lose his virginity. Most striking is the famous “Willow’s Song,” in which Willow dances and sings within her bedroom, taunting a feverishly, painfully resisting Howie; she gyrates and performs in a fashion that’s not such a great distance from Fred Astaire’s hotel room ecstasies in Royal Wedding (1951). It’s appropriate enough, as the motifs of the culture Howie has found revolve around revelling acts of singing and dancing, including young boys around the may pole and virginal girls circling naked in a field of standing stones—sequences that echo the opening’s presentation of Howie, his girlfriend, and his congregation singing psalms in prim array.

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The film’s alchemy in turning paganism from obscure and stygian to festive and sunny, whilst still building relentlessly to its thuggish consummation, both subverts and confirms the Christian prejudice against it, a prejudice that is both returned and yet nullified by Summerisle. The lord dismisses the Judaic god as having “had his chance,” and yet also takes care to remind Howie that if he wishes to look at his death as a Christian, his fate will, if his creed is true, see him anointed as a martyr. Such engagement lends the finale more depth and force than a simple black joke, and Howie’s death shout of “Damn you!” before the fire consumes him echoes with haunting force. Neither religion is specifically validated; indeed, each is objectivised in a clash of impulses, one archetype grimly committed to murder in order to promote life, the other grimly committed to hardly living at all. It’s an interesting contrast to the (actually more violent and gruesome) conclusion of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), where the devout-in-his-own-fashion hero is burned by repressive forces; though Howie and Oliver Reed’s Grandier are separated by very different takes on their religious ideals, both are gruesomely consumed for attempting to stick to their private moral paths, very much a persistent theme of films of the era.

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A strong undercurrent of deadpan comedy inflects the film, from Diane Cilento’s hilarious performance as Miss Rose, the village schoolmistress, who offers chipper explanations of the symbolism of the may pole to her girl students; the jokey cameo by top Hammer temptress Ingrid Pit; and Lee’s sniffy conversation with Woodward, summarizing his grandfather as “incredulous of all human good.” Most vital of all is Woodward’s excellent central characterisation, swinging from vinegary self-satisfaction to self-brutalising sexual frustration to agonised final reckoning. That he delivers in the final scene is vital for the success of the film, and he does, dare I say it, with real flare. l

  • Rod spoke:
    14th/08/2009 to 11:23 am

    Very glad you got something out of this piece, Bill. I do think the film forces its audience to assume an ironic distance from Howie, but one can hardly call him a villain. His major mistake it to constantly assume his own superiority, both moral and in terms of authority, will get him through. But it surely is a test of faith, in the end, for him. It’s interesting that both the islanders and Howie are each, in their way, anachronisms – people who feel a need to maintain their creeds with rigor. The modern, outside world Howie leaves and which the Summerisle folk have rejected is presumably the same messy, neurotic, in-between world we live in. For both Howie and the islanders there’s an understanding for the price of the certainty their faiths give them; Howie gains righteousness and the strength of purpose of his faith; the islanders have their bucolic, rather un-neurotic lifestyle, but both faiths demand, and receive, finally, a punishing tribute.

  • bill r. spoke:
    14th/08/2009 to 8:20 am

    Well, you nailed it, especially in your approach to the religious themes of the film. Far too often, I’ve seen people claim that what’s so interesting about the film is that it makes you “root for the pagans” because Howie has a stick up his ass. Is that what the film is doing? Yes, if you’re a moron.
    Howie is a deeply flawed human being, but he’s also the only person trying to perform a moral good (finding out what happened to, and possibly saving the life of, Rowan Morrison). But a lot of people I’ve come across seem to regard him as the villain, because he’s not the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with.
    Your point about the film objectifying the two religions is right on target. And in fact this may be the first review of this film I’ve seen that really dug deep into what Hardy and Shaffer were up to. Well done.

  • A.Jaye spoke:
    25th/09/2009 to 9:56 am

    I agree with the observation that the film is unique in it’s exploration of faith clash. It seems all the more relevant now – taken to a wider contemporary sense of jihad and Islamophobia.
    As far as film itself goes – a horror movie with well placed incidental humour can be accused of being a work of inspiration. The film’s denouement solidifies it as a classic.
    Which is precisely why a movie star shouldn’t have starred in the remake.

  • Bob Wesbal spoke:
    21st/10/2009 to 9:53 pm

    That piece was so good a take on one of my pet movies — a real personal favorite — I dare not even link to my old “Film Threat” review of the DVD from many moons back. I do, however, feel a bit bad for anyone reading it who hasn’t seen it yet, though I understand that spoiler tags can be annoying.
    Anyhow, I’ve personally never really considered it a horror movie at all in the usual sense — I’m fairly easily scared and I don’t find it frightening at all. A bit creepy in one or two scenes (the “Hand of Glory” for sure, but that was softened by being used in the film’s publicity). I prefer the term “comparative religions thriller.”
    And the esteemed Bill R. is definitely right about the whole morale issue of who you should root for — if you really need to root for anyone (other than for Rowan, prior to the big reveal). The thing, Howie really is the hero of the tale, only he’s the tragic hero in that he’s sacrificing his life — and not just by dying prematurely but by not even being able to make love to his fiance — to further someone else’s religion, and it’s his zealotry/bigotry that got him there, but you don’t find that out until the end. I first saw it as a teen and I probably was rooting for the islanders a bit at first, though aware of some possible nastinesss. Still, I didn’t see the ending coming and when I did, I immediately realized I was reading it much too simply and that this was an extraordinarily good movie.
    And now a moment to further contemplate the inanity of the remake. You make a remake of “The Wicker Man” in 2006 and you throw out the religious conflict and replace it with some kind of bizarre notion of the battle of the sexes? Apparently Labute and his backers thought that religious zealotry and particularly Christian fundamentalism was just so 1973? Were they living in caves?…
    Or maybe Labute was so tired of being called “misogynist” all those years since “In the Company of Men” (which I think was about how, if you scratch a misogynist or any other kind of hater, you’ll find a misanthrope) he went a little crazy and made the most absolutely misogynist movie he could think of. I tend to think the M word gets thrown around too much (sexism is much more common but not precisely the same), but that was one movie that really earned it, on top of being hilariously bad.

  • Bob Westal spoke:
    21st/10/2009 to 9:57 pm

    Marilyn — your website insisted on turning the “t” in my last name into a “b” (I corrected it, like, three times.) Must be paranormal activity.

  • Bob Westal spoke:
    21st/10/2009 to 9:58 pm

    But not that time…:)

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/10/2009 to 2:45 am

    Bob Westal and/or Wesbal:
    Apart from certain current releases, we don’t do spoiler alerts. Otherwise there’s no point in discussing films in any depth.
    And it is a Horror film. Horror is a wider church than is generally conceded for people to whom it means constant axe-murders, and although it could be the most eccentrically shaped of the late ’60s-early ’70s British horror films, it has imagery and interests in common with many. It doesn’t become overtly horrific until the finale, but it still operates with many specific genre tropes: clash between Christianity and paganism, the intruder/outsider in a remote locale, a ritualised structure. The fight of the puritanical warrior with sensualist pagans is right out of the Hammer play-book, and other films that prefigure include Michael Reeves’ works and Eye of the Devil and, as I noted, The Devils (both are included in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Film); the slow burn in a beatific setting resmembles Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Obviously it’s a wilfully genre-bending and expanding exercise, and it does manage something quite rare, but that doesn’t remove it from the genre.
    As for LaBute and the remake, all I’ve dared watch of that is the YouTube highlights reel. Which, indeed, makes it look like a cracking good hunk of camp.

  • Bob Westal spoke:
    31st/10/2009 to 12:02 am

    Rod —
    Woops. Sorry I mistook you for Marilyn!

  • Robert spoke:
    12th/06/2015 to 6:43 am

    Reading this off your “conclave of haphazardly compiled pieces” over at TIR, just after the death of Christopher Lee. I knew your essay would be for me when you called me out in the first sentence, saying it’s “the sort of horror film that people who don’t like horror films embrace.” Horror is the broad genre I’ve least dug past the surface of, yet I can’t not watch this movie any time it’s on. That said, I’ve only recently seen it in its entirety, with the “dirty parts” left intact. As one who leans toward the kneejerk prudish, when left to my own sanctimonious devices, I have to say the movie (or the movie’s intended balance of “an earthier, life-loving, sexually celebratory religion” and “the brutal totemic necessities of such codes which rendered the metaphorical comforts of Christianity preferable”) benefits greatly from me, the viewer, seeing everything Howie sees – so that I get what he’s so mortified (!) by. And with my personal roots still firmly fed by a more-egalitarian-than-Howie, yet wholly Protestant faith, I’m equally put off by the movie’s stiff and stern characterization of Christianity and Lee’s consummately smiling ease with paganism – I’m effectively left hero-less throughout the proceedings but quasi-duty-bound to Howie. The tension this creates as I watch it is a secret thrill, as I watch the brand of religiosity I’ve tried to avoid association with get grilled unto well-done by the kind of debased and debunked, cultish religiosity I’ve heard all my life is tantamount to devil-worship. The truth is both men, who’ve been playing chicken the entire movie, never blink: neither one loses, so long as both stick to their religion’s mandate into the end credits.

    All this is to say, here on the day after the sad news, this is my favorite Lee performance, with a close second being his final scene in Horror of Dracula. I could watch on continuous loop the ultimate few moments – Cushing’s final curtain-lunging gambit followed by Lee’s all-out death scene. Lee makes Dracula’s death so believably painful, it forces you to accept the cutaways of low-budget burning appendages as real. That’s good acting. And he did that time and time again for a monumentally long time. He will be missed.

  • Roderick spoke:
    15th/06/2015 to 1:56 pm

    An excellent comment, Rob, and I’ll just let it stand without adding an extra two cents — but I did want to acknowledge it.

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