(Before I launch into this review here’s a quick plug for a new blog called Hyperfilm, which I’ve recently started so that I’m able to post what will hopefully become a vast archive of drivel all about the magical, mysterious world of film. Please check it out and if you like what you see remember to follow it. (Hey, if the word ‘drivel’ puts you off from doing just that, then let me quickly point out that I’m joking, and I can assure you that as little as 90% of it will actually be terrible and/or pointless, so there’s no need to worry unduly about taking such a life gamble.) I’ve wanted to set up a new blog for a while so that I can post about film-related stuff other than reviews, such as trailers, comments on movie news, links to reviews and articles by other film bloggers that I’ve enjoyed reading, classic scenes, film posters, top tens and the like. You may be wondering why I don’t simply incorporate all that stuff into Popcorn Nights, but the answer is I’m stubborn and want to keep this site 100% reviews-based, since that was the point of it in the first place. Popcorn Nights isn’t going anywhere – like the Sphinx – but I will be blogging regularly at Hyperfilm too so please head over and say hello. And now on with the review…)
Two films that are routinely described as being among the best British horrors ever made were actually released as part of a double bill way back in 1973. The ‘A’ feature – rated X by the censors because of its sex scenes – was Nicolas Roeg’s haunting, unsettling ghost story Don’t Look Now, while the ‘B’ feature, incredibly, was Robin Hardy’s odd blend of music and mystery, The Wicker Man.
While The Wicker Man has since become a widely-appreciated classic (as has the superior Don’t Look Now), its origins as a B-movie are very much evident, with the low budget accounting for minimal production design and a short running time (although other, longer versions have been released in the years since it first appeared). And it certainly looks cheap, like an extended made-for-TV drama, but this actually works in the film’s favour and there’s nothing to distract the attention away from the sheer oddness of the events that unfold. The film’s star Edward Woodward, playing a devout Christian policeman named Sergeant Howie, had a considerable amount of stage and TV experience in the UK but had only recently made the transition to the big screen, appearing in the cheapo horror Incense For The Damned as well as Sitting Target, an early 1970s Oliver Reed vehicle designed to cash in on the success of Get Carter. While Woodward would go on to achieve international acclaim following his roles in Breaker Morant and TV’s The Equalizer, he was relatively unknown outside of the UK when The Wicker Man was made, therefore it’s unlikely the producers expected to attract an international audience.
The story was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, and it follows Howie’s visit to the eerie, remote Hebridean island of Summerisle as he investigates the disappearance of a young local girl named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). After he arrives by seaplane Howie finds the locals strangely unhelpful – even Rowan’s mother May (Irene Sunter) claims that the girl never existed – and his stay is an uncomfortable one thanks to the antics of the islanders, who fill their evenings with boozy, lewd singing sessions in the local pub before rodgering each other senseless outdoors with nothing but the night sky to cover their modesty.
Eventually Howie meets the island leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in what he maintains is his best film). It becomes apparent that the islanders have largely eschewed the Christian way of life, and have declared the ruling UK government and attendant law to be irrelevant, instead paying homage to the pagan Celtic gods of their ancestors. Naturally this is very much to the distaste of the clean-living policeman, who realises that the May Day celebrations will contain a virginal sacrifice to the gods in order to ensure a successful harvest – the missing Rowan, Howie presumes. Determined to uncover the island’s conspiracy and appalled by what he finds, Howie attempts to infiltrate the celebrations while resisting the advances of Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland), the local landlord’s daughter.
Director Hardy revels in the oddness of Summerisle and the strange behaviour of its residents, and as a result his film has an unsettling, threatening tone from the first scenes to the very final shot of the burning wicker man and the setting sun. The locations included the small Scottish towns of Gatehouse of Fleet, Kircudbright and Newton Stewart, although some scenes were filmed in Creetown and Plockton. (As an aside, I found myself in the picturesque town of Plockton during a holiday in Scotland earlier this year; as I stood by the harbour looking out to a sea loch the place seemed oddly familiar, and only afterwards did I find out that it was the location for Howie’s arrival by seaplane and subsequent conversation with a few local men. In Plockton they don’t really advertise the town’s role in The Wicker Man, which isn’t too surprising, although the harbour has changed little since the 1970s. Anyway, there’s a nice pub there and some of the sacrificial rituals I witnessed were top notch.) Some scenes were also shot in and around the Isle of Whithorn, and the owners of the castle and other locals appeared in the film, adding a degree of authenticity.
Though the locations seem (and in some cases are) remote, and therefore increase the odds of the audience accepting the premise of the story, It’s the actions of the locals that really lends the film its strange, creepy vibe. When they’re not leading Howie up the garden path or shagging each other under moonlight on it, they’re quick to break into song – The Wicker Man is a musical every bit as much as it is a horror film or a mystery – and the music forms an important part of the narrative and adds to the threatening atmosphere. Composed, arranged and recorded by Paul Giovanni and a specially-formed folk group named Magnet, the songs have their own strange quality, and many are actually performed by the characters. The soundtrack does not contain real pagan folk songs, instead relying on new compositions by Giovanni and the group, though in some cases well-known lyrics and nursery rhymes, such as Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, are appropriated.
As a result of the music some key scenes that would be weird enough in their own right are given an extra creepiness: one that stands out in particular is the scene in which Willow attempts to seduce the virgin policeman while she remains in the room next door; as the conflicted copper goes back and forth to his own bedroom door she writhes naked against the wall, and the whole thing turns into a strange avant-garde dance routine (Britt Ekland, who incidentally mimed the famous ‘Willow’s Song’, had a body double for parts of this scene but that didn’t stop then-boyfriend Rod Stewart from threatening to buy and burn the negative).
Though some of his acting here could be described as ‘suspect’, Woodward has a good stab at the part of the uptight, outraged Howie and his performance is a memorable one, particularly with regard to his rant-filled final moments. Christopher Lee – already a horror veteran by 1973 – is magnetic as the powerful Lord Summerisle, and though we see very little directly, the grip he has on the islanders is palpably felt throughout. While there’s not much for Ekland to do as Willow she plays the role of the temptress well, and there are memorable turns too by Diane Cilento as a dismissive schoolteacher and Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGregor, the pub landlord.
The Wicker Man is probably best known for some of its imagery, though. There are strange sights such as the procession of villagers wearing animal masks, fertility dances by children and a severed hand that doubles as a makeshift candelabrum, but mention of the film will always conjure up a mental picture of the burning of the actual wicker man at the end in particular. An odd sight in itself, when coupled with the film’s twisty revelation and the haunting adaptation of the middle English folk song Summer Is Icumen In on the soundtrack, the scene makes for powerful viewing and has been understandably voted one of the scariest moments in cinema history. The studio, incidentally, wanted a more upbeat ending that completely differed from Hardy and Schaffer’s finale, but thankfully they didn’t get their way.
A 99-minute version of the film was sent to Roger Corman in the US, to find out how he thought the film would play in drive-ins and theatres in America. He recommended cutting around 13 minutes, which Hardy did (much to the annoyance of Lee, who felt the cuts added nothing but continuity problems), and an 87-minute version was released alongside Don’t Look Now. Both films have received critical acclaim in the years since, and interestingly feature several thematic similarities, most notably an increasingly frantic search for a child that ends up with the main protagonist being led to a pre-ordained fate. Both films share non-linear editing, as well, though it is less of a feature in The Wicker Man.
Despite his reservations Lee was still proud of the shorter version, and he even offered to buy tickets for critics so that they would watch it, but even this couldn’t stop The Wicker Man from fading into obscurity after it finished its run in cinemas. A few years later Hardy remembered that Corman had a copy of the original cut, which turned out to be the only one still in existence, and was able to release a restored 96-minute version in 1979 to even greater critical acclaim. Since then various other versions have been released by different distributors, although the most recent DVD version is 91 minutes long and is titled ‘The Final Cut’. The film has also endured a pointless and misogynistic remake by Neil LaBute which stars Nicolas Cage, and a 2011 ‘spiritual sequel’ by Hardy set in Texas called The Wicker Tree (featuring a cameo by Christopher Lee).
Unusually set in broad daylight for the most part, The Wicker Man is an unconventional and deeply unsettling horror. Its B-movie roots means there’s a little roughness around the edges and some of the exploitation elements ensure that it hasn’t aged too well, but it powerfully questions dogmatic religious belief, highlights the lack of logic behind some practices and has been rightfully praised as one of the better examples of British horror.
Directed by: Robin Hardy
Written by: Anthony Shaffer, David Pinner, Paul Giovanni
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento
Running Time: 87 minutes