The Wicker Man (1973)
(15) Running time: 88 minutes
Director: Robin Hardy
Writers: Anthony Shaffer, David Pinner (uncredited)
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland
Reviewed by; Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, now almost 40 years old, remains one of the most important and chilling horror films ever made. For British horror, it is without doubt one of the best our lovely island has to offer. Many horrors and spiritual films have come and gone since, but few leave a lasting impression quite like The Wicker Man. For me, personally, the key to The Wicker Man’s success is in its simplicity: there are no big scares, no big special effects and hardly any violence. The Wicker Man gains its power from a simple, believable tale which could quite possibly happen anywhere, and it is one of those wonderful films that has a really nasty sting in its tail. This film is a classic, no question, and for all out creepiness, there are very few films that can top this.
With the majority of the film shot during daylight, newcomers may wonder what exactly it is about The Wicker Man that is so creepy. No violence, no big scares, then what is it? The ultimate scare in this film is the realisation as to just how a religion can take over your life and have you believe in anything. The characters in this film all appear brainwashed, lost in their own little world where outsiders are not welcome and they are happy to fend for themselves. It is the solitude, the fact that they are completely cut off from a normal life that haunts the viewer; and what is even more disturbing, is you actually find yourself siding with them as an interfering police sergeant heads to their island to investigate a missing young girl. The Wicker Man works on so many levels it is frightening, and having re-watched this again recently, it is staggering just how far ahead of its time this film actually was.
The director’s cut opens with a get to know scene involving police sergeant Howie, he is as straight and down the line as they come and not one to be messed around. Even his co-workers make fun of just how by the book this guy is, the perfect opposite to the flamboyance of what he will experience during his investigation. Howie is played with absolute brilliance and passion by Edward Woodward, he engulfs the character and quite literally becomes Howie in a staggering performance. He has been sent a letter from the Summer Isle, a small island off the coast of Scotland, and the letter is asking for his help to find a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. Howie flies in using his own plane, lands in the sea and has his first encounter with the locals as he asks for a dinghy. The harbour master first off tells him that this is private property, but after showing his police ID, they let Howie on land. Sticking together, the locals deny any knowledge of the missing girl as Howie shows them a photo. Less than ten minutes in and already we get the impression there is no normal law on this island, and that the poor policeman is not feared. He is, in a way, mocked by the locals, proof that they answer to a higher power, and that the law you and I know is way beneath them. That in itself it a reason to be fearful.
Before we move on, I must mention the quite breathtaking scenery we are blessed with as Howie approaches Summer Isle. The film was shot in Dumfries and Galloway in South West Scotland, and it is stunning to look at. The island itself is a joy to behold, and has all the charisma of any small fishing village, blended with a country lifestyle. To round up, if ever you wanted to live either in the country, in a fishing village, or both, The Wicker Man expertly showcases that lifestyle, the local shops, the local pub, everyone knowing each other, simple everyday life with no need for the hustle and bustle of a busy city. Summer Isle is the perfect place to get away from it all, but after watching this film, you wouldn’t really want to go there!
Sergeant Howie finds a shop run my May Morrison, the Mother of the missing girl. With her living room right behind the shop, Howie is able to go in for a cup of tea and speak with May’s other daughter, where he makes the disturbing discovery that Rowan is described as a hare! Alarm bell’s should now be ringing, but Howie heads off to The Green Man Inn for food, a drink and a bed. He finds that, as well as many other interesting and shocking things, that here is where everyone meets, and here he finds to photos of the yearly harvest. Here is where the film really kicks into gear and gives us a glimpse of just how these locals behave. Howie finds strangers having sex at night in the pub garden, the locals barely raise an eye brow at the fact a policeman is present, and then we get the song ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ as the sexy Britt Ekland introduces herself. The locals sing the most bizarre song, a big fat bearded man follows Willow (Ekland) around while making sexual gestures, and Howie looks on, stunned, lost for words. This will not be his only encounter with Willow, as later on (in a scene which moves to a more effective point in the story in the director’s cut) Howie finds himself at the mercy of Willow’s spell. In an infamous scene, Willow dances naked in the room next to the sergeant, banging on the walls and wriggling around like there is no tomorrow. Ekland was only happy for her top half to be filmed naked, and so a stand in was used for the rest of the body shots, something which annoyed Ekland who had already had her voice dubbed over for the singing! Howie is a true Christian, and does not believe in sex before marriage, but here he can barely contain himself!
As Howie continues his investigation, events turn more sinister. He asks a class at school if they knew Rowan, and all the young girls deny any knowledge, and Howie is very unsettled by what he sees being taught to the girls. Not only that, outside the class, boys are dancing around a tree and singing to it, and for a Christian man, this is all becoming too much. After being told by the classroom teacher that “Rowan has returned to the Earth, the tree’s and the water”, Howie begins to suspect things are not quite right on this island. Locals seem to worship the land rather than God, something which disturbs Howie since he is a Christian. Like many religions, the conflict here is not what you believe in, but the fact you don’t believe in the same thing. Howie really struggles to come to terms with the fact these islanders, only a short plane trip away, do not believe in God. He can’t get it through his head that they worship the land, and praise the land. Paganism is not something Howie clearly believes in, which cleverly allows the viewer to all of a sudden side with both parties, and here is where the film gets scary.
You know deep down that these locals are not right, however it is unfair to call them evil for they are doing what they believe is right, but suddenly we the viewer are met with the dilemma that both Howie and the locals have their own religion, both trust it dearly, and even though what the locals are doing is wrong, it is their belief. This is The Wicker Man’s power, it doesn’t blatantly point out who is right or wrong, it allows the viewer to judge, and if you end up caught up with the locals and their rituals to feed their crops, you may find yourself agreeing with them. Certainly you don’t want to, but for now everything they are doing appears normal to them, and Howie appears as an interfering busy body who is an outsider. That is the brilliance of Hardy’s direction here, we as a viewer feel like we are imposing on an ancient way of life that had we not interfered with, there would be no issue. But then the questions start to arise as to why exactly Howie has been invited here…
Christopher Lee eventually makes his presence known as the islands head honcho, Lord Summerisle (cleverly named after the island). It is his family who has made the island a thriving business with their exports of local fruit and veg, and in order for their harvest to deliver each year, they must pray and perform rituals to the Sun God. The locals appear a peaceful bunch, but some rituals begin to unsettle: naked girls dancing round a fire in s stone circle, and eventually jumping over the fire, a later sinister ritual which involves six swordsmen skilfully placing their swords in the shape of a pentagram and each local pops their head in-between the swords waiting to see if they are the person intended to have their head chopped off. The dancing in the fire is met with a superb answer as Howie queries them being naked “well, it would be more dangerous in clothes” bellows Summersisle, and you will find yourself nodding in agreement.
Naturally Howie asks the question to Summerisle about God, and he is met with the chilling response “God had his chance, he died” If that didn’t give Howie the hint, then another response from a local of “you’ll never understand the true nature of sacrifice” or even more worrying, “don’t interfere with things that don’t concern you”, should do the trick. If that was not enough, the May Day festival is approaching, all the locals are dressing up as animals, and Howie is running out of time. In a scene which feels like it has come straight out of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Howie frantically searches door to door for the missing girl, yet with each door comes a new, bizarre character. It all comes to a head when he opens a door and finds a staircase which leads down instead of up. Howie tumbles down the stairs as the film actually becomes quite comical, but only for a brief moment. The film heads towards a shocking, colourful, flamboyant and strangely expected finale. We can pretty much guess where the film is taking us, but the shocking fact is no matter how many times you see the final fifteen minutes, they still send shivers down your spine, and Hardy can rest assured that he had created one of horrors finest moments, a crowning glory for not only horror, but British cinema itself. Not many films, even by today’s standards, would have the guts to do what Hardy pulls off. The fact it is SO well constructed for maximum impact, even after all this time, is testament to the power of this stunning film.
The performances really help lift this film out of basic horror territory into something in a league of its own. Woodward is exceptional as Howie, Ekland oozes sex appeal, the locals are disturbingly realistic, but it is Lee who steals the show as the charismatic and chilling Lord of Summer Isle. Lee delivers one of his finest performances, he is believable, honourable to the character and utterly chilling in places. Lee himself has claimed this to be his finest performance, and the shocking truth is that he offered to do the role for free. However, it is not just the acting that shines here, Hardy as a director shows off skill that would be considered these days as among the very best cinema had to offer. His sense of surroundings, the cinematography, the way he places his camera, the use of the stunning scenery, the holding back to capture as much in the frame as possible, the close ups when needed. Hardy directed this film in such a way as to make the viewer feel like we are intruding on a world we should not be allowed to see. Locations and background scenery are enhanced by Hardy’s often still camera, and the many long range shots really give the impression that we are the spectator, hiding in the bushes hoping to not get caught. It is expert stuff, and I doubt that even Hardy realised just how skilful he was with a camera.
The Wicker Man, now forty years on, will continue to captivate audiences and unsettle horror fans the world over. This is the sort of film which gets under your skin, without you even realising, and stays there for years. There are many scenes and images from this film that are guaranteed to show up in your nightmares, and even if you try to laugh off the madness of it all, The Wicker Man just won’t let you go, and it will not allow you to rest easy once you have seen it. A film which delivers maximum chills, with you least expecting it. Absolute classic!