FLESH TO TOUCH… FLESH TO BURN! DON’T KEEP THE WICKER MAN WAITING!
In the early 1970s, writer Anthony Shaffer had seen a fair share of horror movies and decided to write one of his own, one that would be quite different from the more conventional Hammer output. The film got made and even featured Hammer’s greatest star, Christopher Lee, but The Wicker Man came to be severely mistreated over the years. Key sequences were cut, others were simply lost. But it did become one of Britain’s most enjoyable cult classics and a “director’s cut” was eventually produced. This film deserves to be seen by more people. This man made of wicker deserves to be seen in his full glory.
Traveling to Summerisle
It begins with Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) traveling to the small Scottish island community of Summerisle. His mission is to find out what happened to a little girl called Rowan Morrison, who’s reported missing. He realizes that no one on the island wants to give him straight answers and Rowan’s mother denies that she’s missing. She even produces a girl she calls Rowan who looks nothing like the one seen in a photograph that Howie has received from an anonymous tipster.
He continues the investigation. The fact that everyone in the village seems to be lying bothers Howie, but perhaps not as much as all the displays of sexuality and pagan worshipping that goes on everywhere. Howie is a devout Christian and Summerisle has turned its back on Christ, much to the satisfaction of its mysterious leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee). As Howie comes closer to the missing girl, the island threatens to consume him.
Quite erotic and strangely fascinating
It is a very cleverly structured story that Shaffer has created and the director makes no mistakes in bringing it to the screen. But Shaffer is not the only one who deserves praise. The folk music is very memorable; there’s a lot of it in several sequences that play more or less like early music videos. These were shortened or cut in earlier versions, presumably by people who did not understand their value. They’re in fact crucial to the film. Without them, The Wicker Man is merely a good thriller about crazy people on an island. With them intact, the film is great, defying any attempt to categorize it by genre.
Some of these sequences are quite erotic and all of them are strangely fascinating. How about that orgy where even the snails on a leaf are having sex? How about Britt Ekland driving Howie crazy by dancing in the nude? The children preparing for May Day? The people of Summerisle happily singing as the wicker man burns? It’s all very odd and likely to haunt viewers. Equally unforgettable is the performance of Edward Woodward, at first making us laugh at his earnest, proudly prudish police sergeant, then making us feel for this Christian who cries out to God for help (much like the biblical Daniel in the furnace).
Woodward’s is the most accomplished performance, although Lee is terrific; incidentally, a friend of mine thinks the Hammer star shares a resemblance with Cher in the final sequences, and considering what kind of film this is it fits hand in glove. These gentlemen are ably supported by the supporting cast portraying the friendly but deluded population of Summerisle.
Is this a film worth recommending to hardcore horror fans? After all, it was Shaffer’s intention to make a film in that genre. Perhaps there are few shocks here, but there’s startling originality and it does turn increasingly unpleasant near the end. If you are used to horror movies providing some kind of happy ending, you will be sorely disappointed. The filmmakers make no compromise – nothing good can come out of visiting Summerisle.
The Wicker Man 1973-Britain. 99 min. Color. Produced by Peter Snell. Directed by Robin Hardy. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer. Cast: Edward Woodward (Neil Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Britt Ekland (Willow MacGregor), Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp.
Trivia: Remade in the U.S. as The Wicker Man (2006).
Quote: “I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.” (Lee)
Last word: “One has to look at it through the perspective of recent history. Scotland was traditionally quite puritan, much more so than the rest of the British Isles. You couldn’t get a drink in Scotland on Sunday, there were all sorts of things you couldn’t do, and that era was just ending when we made that film. So Howie was a believable part of that. I don’t think that Howie today would be as believable a character, he has to be seen in context of the seventies and before.” (Hardy, Mung Being)