The Wicker Man. 1973. Directed by Robin Hardy. Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer; based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Water, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr, Ian Campbell, & Roy Boyd. British Lion Film Corporation.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: as of this writing it’s been 43 years since the release of this classic, so if you haven’t see it I really don’t even need to tell you about any possible SPOILERS! Yet I do so anyway. This review is going to talk about the ending later. If you head on through expect for that to get talked of openly. This is your final warning.
Upon hearing Robin Hardy passed today, I was torn up. Honestly there’s nothing else he’s done that I’ve particularly been interested in. It’s the influence of his mysterious folk horror The Wicker Man that endeared me to him permanently. When I was young I remember catching this movie on some channel, whether it was Show Case here in Canada I can’t be sure; likely, but not positive. I remember how strange and dreamy the whole thing was, and the way in which its songs mixed into the creepy story to make something altogether different from anything else I’d ever seen at the time. So as an early teen Hardy influenced me greatly with a single hour and a half of film.
There are a few reasons for Hardy’s influential touch. First, it wasn’t until about age thirteen that I finally shed the influence of my Roman Catholic upbringing, after my parents were smart enough to give me a choice – church or not. I saw this movie around age eleven, maybe twelve at most. It was before that choice of mine to stop going to church and taking communion, all that. The religious elements at play in this film were incredibly interesting to me. Second off all, Hardy’s finale is one of the single most horrific sequences of all time. To me it is the epitome of folk horror, including the gradual build up to those moments. This is a successful horror movie that does not rely on an entirely physical element to make things scary. Rather, The Wicker Man pries up your skin and slithers beneath it, both disturbing you and even making you smile (or laugh) from time to time.
One thing’s for sure: imitators be damned, there is NOTHING like this one.
Shaffer has done some good work other than this film, mainly Frenzy, Sleuth, Murder on the Orient Express come to mind. This is his crowning achievement. There’s of course the inclusion of David Pinner’s novel Ritual, but his work together with Hardy made for some terribly interesting story and characters. Forget the simple fact all that folk music thrown in is so unique and fun, Shaffer makes this paganism-styled religion out on the fictional Scottish island Summerisle partly unnerving and also an equal part intriguing. You want to know more, and as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers more then you sort of want to know less – in the best, mystery-horror hybrid kind of way. I love that there’s a great deal of attention paid to the Celtic traditions, paganism, as well as drops of history here and there. Shaffer uses all kinds of things, such as the Middle English folk tune “Sumer Is Icumen In” (you can find a proper copy of this in A Middle English Anthology edited by Ann S. Haskell) that you’ll find comes at a crucial moment. The song is a terrifying sound to hear when it’s sung. It is also very poignant for that scene, too. If you know a book called The Golden Bough by James Frazer then you can see how much Shaffer drew from when writing this script. What I love is that he creates a purely organic way for us to discover this Summerisle religion alongside Howie. Instead of feeling like a terrible load of exposition, while still being completely expository, the journey on which Howie goes to figure out what’s happening allows us to sift through the pagan island religion with interest. Other screenplays might make that feel boring. Shaffer manages to keep the pacing steady. Then you can also count the interesting musical pieces as a way to make everything feel compelling. Between the unique atmosphere, the songs and the dancing and the pagan-like rituals we witness, all the odd visuals (those first animal masks are horrifying), there’s enough to make this more than weird for weird’s sake.
Some of the more enjoyable aspects stem from the theme of religion v. paganism, the centrepiece of the screenplay. Howie is a direct parallel to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose hippy-like vision of religion appals the lawman, a staunch Christian. There are some genuine looks of horror courtesy of Woodward’s talented acting which really make you see how devastating the idea of pagan worship is to the straight laced, God fearing Christian worshipper. The awful irony is that Woodward’s Christianity leads him into curiousness and duty that is his downfall. That apprehension and judgement becomes a gateway into paranoia. In the end, this Christian paranoia re: heathenism alongside Howie’s dutiful police sensibilities combine in a lethal cocktail of curiosity. Something that’s worth noting is that on his way toward the finale, and his doom, Howie momentarily loses himself in the heathen pagan traditions: whilst wearing the disguise to follow Summerisle and his people, Howie sheds his Christian repression and slaps a few women on the ass gleefully. If only for a second he forgot his devout Christianity and let loose with the heathens. Probably all for the best, as the poor Scottish policeman isn’t long for this world, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned, The Wicker Man is successfully filled with horror not because of any blood or gore, nor any jump scares. It isn’t due to anything typical. All the fun elements like the songs eventually transform into something treacherous and evil. By the final scene, singing is nothing but a vortex into madness. The masks and the pagan symbols are appealing early on, like the marks of island/small town charm. Later, as Howie discovers himself the ultimate fool – perfectly dressed just like Punch, eternal fool himself – those animal masks and all the nature imagery, it’s positively chilling. Christopher Lee gives a charismatic performance that set him so far apart from the typical Hammer Horror roles it’s amazing, and his determined attitude as Lord Summerisle is nothing if not psychopathic. Likewise, Woodward plays Howie perfectly, and for all his foolishness you truly pity him, especially once he sees the eponymous structure from which the film takes its name. Robin Hardy will always be remembered, fondly, for his weird and wild The Wicker Man. It is not merely a load of hype. It is a fantastic piece of folk horror and an unforgettably unique moment in cinematic history. Relish that. I do, every so often, and as damned often as I can.
We’ll miss you, Mr. Hardy. Thank you for your strange vision; it is forever a fever dream in my memory.