Surprisingly, the best British horror movie of the seventies – many believe of all time – wasn’t made by Hammer. Neither was it made by one of their main competitors like Amicus or Tigon films. It was instead created by British Lion and bought by EMI, although it’s clear from their treatment of it that they had no idea what they had one their hands. Despite a not too successful original release, its reputation has grown immeasurably over the years. This week, the restored edition of Director Robin Hardy‘s preferred Final Cut gets its UK release. So join Ed Boff as he explores the film’s enduring appeal. Come … it is time to keep your appointment with The Wicker Man.
Wicker Man follows the story of Sergeant Howie of the Highland Police (Edward Woodward). Howie is a man steadfast in his beliefs, not just in law & order, but also in Christianity. One day he receives an anonymous postcard from isolated Summerisle, claiming that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing. When he gets there, though, he finds that the locals, although very friendly, are oddly unhelpful. As he investigates further, he finds more contradiction and confusion. Soon he begins to realise that what’s going on has nothing to do with a missing child but everything to do with the island’s ‘religion’ – a form of Paganism which celebrates May Day as a time of sacrifice …
At the core of the Wicker Man is a conflict of beliefs. When this was made, there was already a trend of horror movies based around cults such as Rosemary’s Baby and Race With The Devil. Where this film stands out is how it uses its alternative belief system. For a start, going a Pagan rather than Satanic route means that there’s no common ground with Christianity – there’s barely an acknowledgement of it by the locals. This may seem a purely aesthetic difference at first, and it does lead to some striking and unique visuals like the titular icon. However, it also aids the films’ depth immeasurably. In many ways, Wicker Man can be seen as a metaphor for generational gap, and the counter culture movement of the time, with the very liberal islanders against the uptight conservative Howie. However, the analogies presented are so broad that audiences can read into it almost anything they care to.
That’s just one major way that Anthony Schaeffer‘s script is remarkably intelligent. Another is its credentials as a horror film. You know this is a real horror film, because for the first hour, nothing scary happens at all. Indeed, for most of the film the story is played out as a straight mystery. At first this mystery seems to be “Where is Rowan Morrison”, then “is there a Rowan Morrison”, before making even more turns as the story progresses. Even when Howie thinks he’s got a handle on what it really all means there’s still one big surprise left for him. It’s that final revelation that leads into one of the most shocking final reels in cinema history, and the real horror is when you look back across the film. As you consider what came before in many of the more innocuous seeming scenes, you realise that this ending was unavoidable and been hinted at all along. Delivering a good scare is like telling a joke, it’s all “build-up, build-up, build-up, PUNCHLINE!”. The Wicker Man shows how effective it can be if the whole film is structured that way.
The main reason, though, that this film has endured, goes beyond engaging performances and storyline. It’s the way the film has been crafted to feel timeless. Although it’s set in undeniably in the modern day, Summerisle is so isolated that time may well have stood still for years. What’s more, the centrepiece for the film is a May Day festival, based on customs that one can still see being performed to this day. Finally, the folk music score composed by Paul Giovanni and the band Magnet sounds like something passed on through tradition since time immemorial. In fact, this music plays such a large part in many scenes that it wouldn’t be wrong to call it a musical: Robin Hardy has on occasion. As such, there’s almost nothing bar Christopher Lee‘s slightly terrifying hairdo to date it to the seventies. In fact, if the same story was told today, one wouldn’t really have to change that much, and everything would look much the same.
On that note, this film did get an utterly tone-deaf remake starring Nicholas Cage a few years back. The reasons that one failed are many. From the way the film felt the need to add in huge numbers of ridiculous jump scares to assure the audience it’s a horror, to the fact that in this “conflict of beliefs” they completely forgot to give the main character any strong beliefs of his own. The whole thing has simply become an amusing footnote in the history of the film and Cage’s filmography. Far more successful is Robin Hardy’s own not-quite-a-sequel The Wicker Tree, based on his novel Cowboys For Christ. While not nearly on the first films’ level, it’s actually not at all bad on its own terms as a very dark comedy, wisely deciding to keep the connections between films (bar a cameo from Lee) mainly thematic in nature.
All this is all the more remarkable, given the film’s tortured release history. EMI really didn’t know what to do with it, at first suggesting a deus ex machina to resolve the grim ending. In the end a huge amount of the film was cut – from 99 minutes to 87 – and it was only eventually released as the B-Picture to Don’t Look Now. What’s more, much of the original negative was lost. Now, however, a copy of an original 92-minute cut by Hardy himself has been found on 35mm. It is this that is the basis for this final, most complete DVD/Blu-ray release. On the film’s fortieth anniversary, this is a gift from the gods for fans, and it means that a whole new audience will finally understand the nature of sacrifice. “Sumer Is Icumen In…”