THE WICKER MAN (1973)
You’re out for a drive in the country and fancying a spot of lunch you stop at the next quaint hamlet and step inside the local tavern. You’re greeted by stony silence though and a troupe of slowly turning heads. Cautiously ordering lunch you start to get the impression that you’re not welcome in this particular watering hole. By the time you finish eating its clear that you’re not welcome in the village full stop, and as you hastily make your way back to your car you vow never to stop in St. Nowheresville ever again.
It's a simmering belief that country folk have an inbuilt hatred of outsiders, and while the chances of you leaving the aforementioned pub with a pitchfork in your back are unlikely there remains an unease when visiting apparently idyllic, out-of-the-way places. Fear of the unknown, fear of those different from us, fear of those who we suspect may be living by outdated and sinister codes of moral ethics.
In movie terms it’s a sentiment that is ripe for scare mongering and has proved to be a wonderful milieu from which to frighten an audience, utilised in such films as Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Whiskey Mountain (1977), Southern Comfort (1981), Hunter’s Blood (1986), Wrong Turn (2003). Away from the backwoods of the American countryside, the undoubted king of the unwelcome visitor picture is the 1973 classic The Wicker Man, not only for its authentically chilling portrait of the concept but also for its bold climax which turns the whole notion on its head; here is an unwanted visitor who, much to his horror, was actually wanted all along.
Based on the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinter, the film’s outsider is Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary. Within his jurisdiction is the island of Summerisle and when Howie receives an anonymous letter from one of the islanders informing him that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing he’s forced to pay the island a visit. Howie quickly finds that the local islanders are less than helpful when it comes to his investigations into the girl’s disappearance and as his investigation stumbles down an increasing number of dead ends Howie begins to suspect there is more going on in Summerisle than he suspected.
The effect achieved by director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer in telling their story is subtle. The island is a half step removed from the normality of life, just a small fraction beyond what most would consider regular living. The village and island look pleasant enough, picture-postcard scenery, and the humbleness of country ways. But something is askew, a knowledge about Summerisle that only the locals are privy to and outsiders should not concern themselves with.
The fact that Howie seems incredibly uptight before he even steps foot on Summerisle makes his arrival all the more tense, and it doesn’t take him long to realise that Summerisle is for islanders only. During his first night on the island he stumbles upon acts of debauchery that are entirely out of place with life on the mainland, or at least Howie’s view of life on the mainland. He wears his religious beliefs on his sleeve but the fragilities they bring adorn the entire rest of his being, and what he finds on Summerisle, even in the early moments of his time there, only highlight them.
Whether we share Howie’s religious point of view is by the by. Thirty-five years after the film’s release his staunch belief in Christianity is probably shared by far less people than it was in 1973, but the safety of a missing young girl transcends any religion; it’s a cause any viewer can get on board with. The islanders skirting of the subject and general lack of concern is at first an annoyance, but quickly becomes something much more ominous, behaviour that ranges from full denial to outright lies. Howie’s investigations are backdropped by the everyday happenings of life on Summerisle, ordinary to the islanders but peculiar and creepy to Howie and the viewer, May-Pole dancing, improper school room teachings, a disturbingly antiquated local chemist. The fact that each of these instances appear perfectly normal behaviour to everyone but Sergeant Howie makes his isolation even more severe. It’s an ambience that gradually but steadily more from a playful annoyance to something much more threatening.
For a man so used to having his authority respected Howie is almost at a loss as to how to proceed with his enquiries. A progress becomes increasingly more difficult to come by, you plead with Howie to get a bit more rough and ready with the Summerisle residents, but the Sergeant sticks solidly to his lawful principles much to our dismay and growing fear. Hardy leaves us by Howie’s side for the duration of the film, offering us no respite. We’re with him as he pieces together the clues and finally takes to searching the island house by house for the missing girl. The closer he gets to finding her though the more apprehensive we become about his and our presence amongst the island community. He has already been warned by Christopher Lee’s career best Lord Summerisle, the islander’s community leader, that he should not remain on the island for fear of being upset by their May-Day celebrations. Worryingly it’s a warning Howie doesn’t heed.
As the pace of things quickens and the film’s conclusion trots in to view Howie finds himself in the centre of Summerisle’s Pagan festivities. He’s solved the mystery; the missing Rowan is to be sacrificed at the climax of the day’s celebrations. Hardy builds the climax masterfully through the extraordinary town parade and celebrations, until finally Howie discovers the girl. Breaking from his disguise as the town fool he grabs Rowan and after seventy tense minutes we breathe a sigh of relief.
But relief is short lived and as Rowan runs straight into the arms of the Pagan chief Lord Summerisle, a horrible realisation dawns. Howie stands dumb-founded, and we dissolve into our armchairs as the chilling realisation as to what exactly has been occurring since he arrived on the island becomes clear. The islanders true aim was to lure Howie to his death, an elaborate act that the whole island community is in on. There isn’t one sane person left to come to Howie’s rescue. Both he and the viewer are caught, totally at the mercy of this fanatical community. One of the greatest endings in all of horror cinema follows as Howie is led over the brow of the cliff top to be greeted by the giant wicker statue in which he will be burnt alive; ‘Oh God, oh Jesus Christ’.
Even as the wicker man’s head crumbles into the flames we still hold a glimmer of hope that Howie will find a way to escape. How can Hardy and Shaffer kill off the one character that we stood firm with, our hero? It remains one of the most disturbing ends to a horror movie, contrasted by a backdrop of cheery locals, singing and swaying merrily as they watch Howie roast. Lord Summerisle tells all at the movies conclusion explaining to Howie that the whole affair was masterminded solely to have him sacrificed to appease the gods and ensure a bumper harvest crop. The utter conviction that all the islanders show in committing murder is terrifying and it makes Howie’s pleading at the finale all the more hopeless, his cries falling on deaf ears. The whole island, every last one of them, believes to their very soul that what they are doing is necessary and just. It is an incredibly frightening concept, steeped in the “old ways” of doing things that you suspect might have been all to prevalent in Britain’s bygone eras. And maybe, just maybe, there exists still the odd village or hamlet who are in need of their own sacrifice driven harvest.
The script might have made for a fairly bland melodrama if director Robin Hardy hadn’t given The Wicker Man such unmistakable qualities. The sound, look and feel of the film are entirely unique. Playing up the notion of isolated British ruralness and imbuing the movie with a heavy sense of a bygone British age, Hardy utilised superbly the music of Paul Giovanni. The folk music sounds with elements of old nursery rhymes invokes a strong feeling of history and all the earthy, pagan lore that comes with it. The unknown and potential savage nature of these long-gone ways of living is unsettling, despite the sheen of cosiness.
Hardy builds the atmosphere right up to the climatic parade. A surreal sight shot expertly, the costumes and masks worm by the islanders are nightmare inducing, the hobby horse in particular a menacing combination of sight and sound. At the head of the parade is Lord Summerisle, flowing robes and a wig in place dancing around with fervour. Its completely unsettling in its bizarreness, even more so as we know hidden amongst all the whirling locals and strange costumes hides Howie, our only hope at escape.
Hardy also cast his film superbly. The part of Lord Summerisle was written specifically for Christopher Lee by writer Anthony Shaffer. Lee was so taken with the part he offered to forgo payment for his work so that Shaffer and Hardy would have more budget to work with. It was a great choice by Lee, Lord Summerisle being arguably the greatest part in a long and stunning career. His towering presence and deep baritone voice are excellent tools for crafting the part, and make the sight of Summerisle in drag at the movie’s climax all the more paradoxically powerful. Edward Woodward also found the role of a lifetime with Sergeant Howie. Handling the Scottish accent flawlessly, Woodward creates a character so believably uptight you never once question the Sergeant’s fervent beliefs or moral centre. Here is a man who still carries his virginity along with the sort of moral code that today seems almost antiquated. But despite the dangers of making Howie so austere he might become one dimensional, Woodward expertly moulds a performance of great depth. We see Howie as an internally conflicted man, fighting to hold onto his reverence and morals in an environment at once familiar and foreign to him. Elsewhere, Britt Ekland is convincingly provocative as the daughter of the landlord of the Green Man Inn, and the numerous locals of Dumfries and Galloway where the film was shot who stepped in as Summerisle locals work very well despite their lack of training.
When The Wicker Man first went into production it was under the studio guidance of British Lion Films. During filming however British Lion Films was brought out by EMI. The new studio heads were not happy with the movie, to the point where new studio executive Michael Deeley told Christopher Lee it was ‘One of the ten worst films he had ever seen...’. Seeking to make as much money from the film’s distribution as possible the new studio took the most lucrative deal that was offered to them, rather than the offer that would make the most artistic sense. Those involved with making the film felt that the best distributor would have been horror and pulp cinema expert Roger Corman, but the studio went with a better offer from an alternative distributor, who insisted that the movie be re-cut to reduce its running time considerably.
As a result, the released picture was eighty-seven minutes long and missing a number of key scenes. The film was eventually released as a chilling double bill with Don’t Look Now (1973), even though the era of double-billing movies had passed. Christopher Lee, despite being appalled at the ‘butchering’ of the movie and the shoddy distribution, sought to earn the movie a much wider audience than the poor distribution and advertising campaign was garnering. He took part in significant marketing campaign touring the film and even contacted many of the film critics he knew offering to pay for their tickets if they would go and review the picture. Out of sheer respect for the actor the critics went to the film, paying for their own tickets. The movie thus began to receive the marvellous reviews it deserved, gradually building a reputation as one of the finest British horror films.
A directors cut of the movie was released on DVD in 2001 that increased the film’s running time from eighty-seven to ninety-nine minutes. This partial restoration was achieved by borrowing a 1-inch telecine transfer of the movie that, rather ironically, distributor Roger Corman had saved from his initial offer to distribute the movie. Corman had not retained a copy of the full cut of the movie. The original negatives and outtakes for the movie were rather controversially lost; allegedly, when the part of Shepperton Studios that housed the footage was demolished to make way for the new M3 motorway, refuse and waste from the studio’s vaults were disposed of. It was believed that amongst the items thrown away were the twenty to thirty cans of original Wicker Man footage.
A further campaign to fully restore the film started in 2012 and eventually resulted in the discover of ninety-two minute 35mm print at the Harvard Film Archive. It contained what was later referred to as a “middle version” of the film, edited together by Hardy in 1973 but never released. This new version was used to create the ninety-one minute The Wicker Man: The Final Cut released to blu-ray in 2013.
An ill-conceived remake was shot in 2006, The Wicker Man (2006). Set this time in the United States, we follow Nicholas Cage’s former State Trooper as he sets off for a strange island community after receiving a letter from his former fiancée who appears to have mislaid her daughter. The only joy for fans of the original came from spotting tributes to the 1973 classic in the form of infamous lines re-used, not so subtle character names, and visual nods. The remake retains none of the originals subtle menace or colloquial creepiness, choosing to present the islanders as cliched caricatures from the moment Cage steps onto their island.
There are no religious connotations, none of the classic music, and the end result is cheap and unintentionally funny as we watch Cage endlessly running around the island in an ever-more confused muddle. The only plus point is that director Neil LaBute retained the downbeat climax, finally killing the hapless Cage in an even grander Wicker Man. Even here though, in a post Hostel (2005) Hollywood, the director felt the need to have Cage’s head stuffed in a container of bees and both his legs graphically snapped in two with a large wooden hammer before stuffing him atop the bonfire.
In May 2006 Robin Hardy released a novel entitled Cowboys for Christ. A re-imagining of The Wicker Man, it followed two young Americans on an ill-fated trip to Tressock, Scotland. The book was said to be the second part of a trilogy of tales and was slated to be filmed in 2008, with Christopher Lee once again taking the role of the head of the Pagan community; however, budget problems stalled the project. The project was picked up again a couple of years later. Entitled The Wicker Tree (2011) Hardy was once again behind the camera, and even managed to convince an aging Lee to appear in a cameo role. Despite this the film couldn’t even begin to match the brilliance of Hardy’s original horror, a film that perfectly embodied that particular brand of queasy British horror, folk driven, pagan tinged, old earthy horror, a horror so unique in its ability to terrify it’s unlikely anything will come close to matching it ever again.
See also The Wicker Man (2006), The Wicker Tree (2011)