The Wicker Man (1973)

How much does Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) love his followers? This much! Enough to help them build "The Wicker Man."

Directed by Robin Hardy. Written by Anthony Shaffer. Produced by Peter Snell. Music by Paul Giovanni. Photographed by Harry Waxman. Edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins. Art direction by Seamus Flannery. Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eckland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr.

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man makes an excellent case for the careful delaying of payoffs within a horror movie. Here is a story so restrained, so sympathetic to a recognizable reality, that when it finally strays from that path and shows its cards, its cumulative effect is quite devastating. Even before then, it holds an eerie quality that is enhanced by the way it effectively pleads its own innocence: the direction and writing seem blissfully unaware of how skillfully they are pushing our buttons. And it doesn’t pound us over the head with musical stingers, or wave gore at us and scream “be afraid.” It simply observes, with mounting incredulity, as its elements build and then finally coverge in the most surprising of ways. This is a splendidly-made horror film, especially in the way it seems to not want to be a horror film at all.

The original Wicker Man, it must be said, has very little in common with the 2006 remake directed by Neil LaBute, which now has the dubious distinction of sitting high on the short list of worst films of the past decade. LaBute’s remake starring Nicolas Cage has a similar premise (police officer goes to island to investigate a disappearance in their bizarre community), but uses that as a jumping-off point for nonsensical writing, a tone that borders on parody, obvious (and stupid) horror shocks, and a “surprising” finale that taxes first our disbelief, then our patience, and then our very faith in tight, engaging storytelling. It also betrays a troublingly misogynistic bent, since LaBute’s rewrite places Cage in a matriarchal colony of psychos. LaBute may or may not be a misogynist, in the end, but since his entire career has been plagued with accusations of mean-spirited sexism, it probably would have behooved him to remake The Wicker Man either in a different way than he selected, or simply not at all.

The original, on the other hand, is creepy in the way it doesn’t insist upon itself, so much so that in its early sections, we could be forgiven for not knowing where this damned thing is going. It opens with police Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) landing his seaplane off the coast of Summerisle, and requesting a few curious men ashore to bring out a dinghy to fetch him. The very character of Sgt. Howie as played by Woodward, with his stiff demeanor and obnoxious disposition, feels almost like he wandered out of a Monty Python skit. As he questions the locals about the disappearance of a girl named Rowan Morrison, waving her picture around while looking closely at everyone’s facial expressions, he even has an imperialistic air about him: clearly he considers himself above the rabble he’ll meet on the island, and wears his shiny police uniform like’s it’s a badge of divine right.

Sgt. Howie is a devout Christian, a virgin, and a stern disciplinarian who has no patience for the locals of Summerisle. When the tavern patrons of his inn spontaneously burst into a bawdy song, he registers his displeasure, and his introduction to the innkeeper’s shapely daughter Willow (Britt Eckland) stirs longings within him that make him feel seriously troubled. He is engaged to be married, and when the free-spirited Willow coos at him, he shakily states that he doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex, although it’s hard to imagine him endorsing any other variety, either. When alone, he hears the voice of Willow, singing naked in her adjoining room, and he paws at his door, looking more like a waste of flesh instead of a competent police officer. Sgt. Howie’s sexual insecurities are elements completely excised from the remake, for obvious reasons, but that is further argument against the remake, not for it: those aspects in many ways lie at the heart of this material.

The movie casts its creepy spell as Sgt. Howie investigates the locals, who (he learns) comprise a sect of pagans, presided over by the Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Summerisle, as befitting a character played by Christopher Lee, is a charismatic and hypnotic fellow who is open about his religion even when faced with Sgt. Howie’s growing conviction that one of his flock committed murder. The investigation, however, leads to endless frustration as Sgt. Howie feels the presence as a conspiracy, even amongst the town’s children, who deny the existence of Rowan while the evidence around them says the contrary. Eventually, Sgt. Howie feels increasingly isolated and helpless during his stay on the island, not only because of the police investigation but also due to the bizarre rituals that he sees unfold around them: orgies in the field, folk songs (composed by Paul Giovanni) with unpleasant undertones, and schoolwork that mocks Sgt. Howie’s deeply religious beliefs. Soon he is stranded by sabotage, bowing to the hallmark horror tradition of characters being locked suddenly and dangerously into a remote location.

You may think all of this sounds silly. And it is silly, but while The Wicker Man is unfolding, that hardly matters. If movies are more vehicles for emotion than thought, then certainly the horror genre benefits the most from that assessment – it is, after all, the only genre that is named after an emotion. The logic of The Wicker Man may not exactly hold up to scrutiny, but it is perfectly suited to the intangible territory of nightmare logic, where paranoia exists to be justified, and where the deepest of beliefs will fail to protect you. One scene late in particular The Wicker Man shocks us, and although we are soon comforted, the disquiet that the moment instills lingers, and grows. The screenplay by Anthony Shaffer (from an uncredited novel called “Ritual” by David Pinner) is expert at making its craft seem downright documentarian.

One scene illustrates the film’s central principle of freaky nightmare logic. Sgt. Howie, frustrated from days of investigating and fed up with the townspeople, goes back to his seaplane. The dinghy picks him up and rows him out, despositing him at the plane. He can’t get the plane started, and cries for help. The dinghy does not return, although the men are plainly visible on shore. Soon, more townspeople come to the shoreline, having donned crude animal masks, popping out from behind fences and standing at the water’s edge in creepy silence. Given what the people of Summerisle are ultimately intending to do, why do they do this? Because it makes for a good shot? Yes, but moreover, it is an image that burrows into our brain, one that cements the people of Summerisle as the Other, and casts their motivations as suspect and confusing. In that one moment, we are with Sgt. Howie, on the plane, screaming for help, frightened. There is no reason to the shot, and that is the point, because The Wicker Man is above all an invocation of feelings that have nothing to do with reason. Nothing at all.

Several moments in the movie are just plain odd, in subtle ways that gnaw at us. There’s the curious manner with which Christopher Lee seems ingratiating even when describing what is, by all rights, a cult (this role is often noted by Lee to be his favorite). And there’s the spooky orgy that Sgt. Howie stumbles upon in a field, as the camera plays with speed and missing frames, as if the repressed Sgt. Howie can barely process what he’s looking at. There are the songs (a running presence throughout the film), which are more unnerving because they are seem legitimately composed to sound life-affirming, rather than thrown together to be featured in a horror film. The film’s inclinations towards horror are acknowledged through details that don’t stand up and announce themselves. They accumulate.

I won’t be so mean as to “spoil” the ending of The Wicker Man, because seeing the ending unspoiled is one of the benchmark experiences in viewing the history of horror movies. Therefore, I will not tell you what happened to Rowan, what happens to Lord Summerisle, or even what happens to poor Sgt. Howie, although I doubt I’m spoiling anything if I say a great big Wicker Man does make an appearance. (It’s not what you think.) What is so skillful about the ending is how gradually the screenplay has dispensed with plausibility and replaced it with twisted dread, so that when we hear explanations, they sound ridiculous, but by now they make complete emotional sense, since this is a story that has so fully brought us under its spell: its tale of good being manipulated and exploited by evil. There’s an aspect of humiliation involved as well, since The Wicker Man is truly a story of the systematic removal of the personal things people hold dear: religion, the law, values, common human decency.

There are some who would argue that The Wicker Man is not a horror film. They may point to its deliberate pace and naturalistic style. That is a compelling argument, but I don’t agree with it, because thematically, labeling The Wicker Man as horror is apt. The film preys upon themes that are frequently the domain of horror: the disparity between vying religious beliefs, the descent of modern man into primal fear, and the nausea-inducing notion that there are still places in the world that evade modern values, and exist to ensnare, baffle, and corrupt the innocent. That is why for as much as the ending to The Wicker Man is a secret, it is also an affirmation, because although we may pretend to be surprised, in our hearts, we knew this would have to be the way it would end. The ultimate end point here is that, as members of society, our securities are illusions, we are on our own, and we will fail. Anyone who never fears that is, arguably, a fool. One with a bright uniform and a superior attitude and a steadfast belief in God, as if that is enough to protect oneself. Maybe if it’s the right god. Maybe it just doesn’t matter.

Is The Wicker Man the best horror movie of all time? Is it, “The Citizen Kane of horror movies,” as Cinemafantastique argued in 1977? (That quote has made its way onto every poster and video box cover ever since.) Perhaps, perhaps not. Such rankings are silly and pointless, anyway, as they suggest all horror movies strive for the same ends. What I can say is that The Wicker Man is a thrilling and stunningly effective horror film, one that cultivates a chilling fascination. That’s especially apparent in subsequent viewings, with the film’s endgame now clear. It overall succeeds in getting under our skin and staying there, which is the most crucial thing we can ask a horror movie to do. And it illustrates yet another interesting contrast between modern horror films: here is a movie that, instead of being about cardboard characters chained to a clockwork plot, is instead about fully-fleshed out people who possess free will, not that it ultimately will help them.

GRADE: A-

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