Given 2013 marks The Wicker Man’s 40th Anniversary it is a high accolade indeed that it is still considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. With an original, previously thought lost, cut recently discovered, the film gets a re-release and shows how old school chills are still infinitely more powerful than the current crop of cheap, jump-scare horrors that are doing the rounds.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is invited to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. Once there he is given the runaround by the island dwellers and in particular by its leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). As he begins to suspect that the girl was sacrificed in order to help the island’s dwindling crops, Howie witnesses pagan rituals performed by the island which conflict with his deeply Christian beliefs. With every avenue he explores turning up empty, Howie soon finds himself a pawn in a deadly game with all those who reside on Summerisle, before a climatic revelation not even he could anticipate.
Typically ‘70s in its execution, The Wicker Man is a wonderfully slow-burning thriller for the majority of its running time. Happily leading Howie, and the audience, up the garden path before really heating things up to leave you reeling at the bleak and disturbing dénouement.
For the most part The Wicker Man takes the form of a procedural detective drama, Howie trying to get to the bottom of the missing girl while he, and the audience, are exposed to chilling and often subliminal messages to guide and throw us off the reality of what is really going on.
Hardy’s direction, especially in the early scenes, is brilliantly disorientating, enough to make your head spin. Add to this a vibrant colour pallet and at times you hope that, like Howie, this is all just a horrible nightmare, or perhaps a trippy hallucination you’ll eventually wake up from. Despite the horribly misguided remake, starring a particularly crazed Nicolas Cage, this original still has the power to shock and awe. No wonder it maintains such a cult status among horror aficionados.
What is slightly disappointing about this Final Cut is the still grainy image of the film. Given modern technology’s ability to clean up even the most damaged of prints it feels like a missed opportunity to not spruce up this new found Wicker Man. But perhaps that would fly in the face of pagan gods to touch something so pure.
From Lee’s perspective The Wicker Man was a conscious decision to break free from his Hammer and Dracula performances. As Lord Summerisle he’s brilliantly exuberant, erring on the camp side with just enough sinister undertones to firmly cement his credentials as a Bond villain a year later. Woodward meanwhile is fantastic, his Howie always the strong virtuous type whose increasing frustration at the islanders greatly adding to the feeling of unease created.
Creepy, subtle and disturbingly engrossing, The Wicker Man is like a horrendous car crash unfolding before you in slow-motion. Try tearing your eyes off it but remember; once seen it cannot be forgotten. “Oh God, Oh Jesus Christ NO”.