The Wicker Man Simply Great Horror
By Kristin Battestella
One of my earliest professional reviews was of the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. My critique was right out of the theater, and we now know how that turned out! Yes, a relatively fine cast can’t save that one from its strangely laughable and obvious outcome. Fortunately, this 1973 original tour de force is horror goodness and delight.
Upon receiving a mysterious letter about a missing girl named Rowan Morrison, devout police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the isolated island of Summerisle where his investigation is strangely blocked at every turn. Rowan’s mother (Irene Sunter, Take the High Road), school teacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), the town registrar (Ingrid Pitt), the seductive tavern lord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) – each presents bizarre beliefs, pagan hysteria, and sexual decadence that test the Sergeant’s realms of expected morality and religion. Howie eventually meets with Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and learns about the island’s history of hearty fruit strains, natural blessings and rituals, seasonal parades to numerous gods, fertility rites, and sacrifice. As the May Day festival approaches, Howie fears for the fate of the missing Rowan- and eventually, for his very soul.
Director Robin Hardy (returning to Summerisle this year with the follow up The Wicker Tree) and writer Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy) build great mystery, brooding, and foreshadowing in this tale taken from David Pinner’s novel The Rite. Perhaps it’s a relatively familiar story now thanks to The Wicker Man’s horror celebrity status or that aforementioned shadow of a remake. However, there’s still plenty of innuendo, suspicion, suggestion, and topsy turvy to keep everything well paced and entertaining for an hour and a half. There’s an intelligent clashing of Pagan versus Christian ideologies, old world discussions, and awry and warnings on both sides. Naturally, The Wicker Man may put several audiences off thanks to the sexual conversations, ill pagan portrayals, and some stubborn Christianity. Serious spiritual prudes might just faint, and the pagan picture painted is not a positive one. The people of Summerisle apparently see no distinction between sacrifice and murder, but is it the outside arm of the law’s right to judge their ways? Both sides would think the other is in an upside down world and wrongs are made all around. We know someone has to come out on top- and even if you know the ending, it’s still dang scary and smart horror in getting there.
Edward Woodward was the man as The Equalizer (seriously, not even Robert Mitchum could replace him!) and he’s still great here almost 30 years on. Howie blindy clings to his faith as the paramount rule in all the lands and arbitrarily goes about his lawly ways whether they are warranted or not. On one hand, you have to admire the guy, the one point of sense and proper society on this decadent island! I love the Sergeant’s great buttoned up contrast- always in uniform with his hat on and looking totally seventies city- in a Summerisle that looks like we’ve stepped back in time. Howie largely represents us, the supposedly better off and enlightened viewer, but his poking his nose where it doesn’t belong will also be his undoing. We root for him to solve the crimes, but you also yell at the television over some of his stupidity. And seriously, it is very easy for a man to look stupid going toe to toe with Christopher Lee! Woodward’s acerbic Biblical quote for quote prayers and salvation scenes are excellent against the twisted and juicy charismatic and power tripping Lee as Lord Summerisle. Okay, so I’m really not sure about that wig he’s sporting, but seeing Dracula in Beltane drag is quite bizarre and absolutely memorable. Perhaps more strangely, the demented pomp only makes Summerisle more attractive and powerful. It does seem such a lovely and orgyriffic island- all Lee’s talk of fruitfulness that just happens to come thanks to a sacrifice at any cost. The audience, however, does have to wonder exactly how much Summerisle actually believes in the pagan potluck he’s been handed. Is it all about the power trip? Or is the faith only while the fruit is good? Lee’s ambiguity adds a shady corner in the match against Woodward’s stalwart, and this core beautifully takes The Wicker Man a step further.
Things are a little more uneven as we turn to the ladies, though I must say. The stunning triumvirate of Diane Cilento (The Agony and the Ecstasy), Britt Ekland (The Man with the Golden Gun), and Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers) doesn’t have much to do beyond being an all too supple and willing accomplice. We don’t get to see as much of the dames as I might have liked performance-wise, and yet, we do get to see a lot otherwise if you know what I mean. Of course, there’s some thick accents and dubbing going on as well, but Ekland fans will find The Wicker Man must see even if there’s some body doubling for her very naughty serenade. Pitt is actually an unnamed character and only appears in a few scenes, but she’s delightfully delicious as always. Cilento fairs slightly better as Summerisle’s semi companion and the kinky schoolmarm perpetuating his ideas. Unlike the iffy remake which is pro women or Spice Girls power in using men as we see fit, here sexual relations seem slightly more misogynistic. The gals answer to the man and the harvest, yes, but they aren’t afraid to be sexual or manipulative as needed either. It’s a juicy dynamic, and fans of the skin or the girls will enjoy.
In addition to all the fleshy scenery, the Scottish locations look so sweet. I don’t know much about proper Celtic practices, but the onscreen rituals look awesome and freaky real at the same time. The peasant-esque garb, breezy slip off gowns, kilts, and swinging casual seventies suits also look sharp. While the photography is a little grainy and there is some unusual editing and cutting, these work in the framework of the film and thrust Sergeant Howie into a surreal, distorted world. The musical styling, scoring, and songs totally fit within this environment, and the lovely sounds take on several layers of irony, warpedness, or kinky as needed- if you’re still paying attention to what’s really supposed to be going on during “Willow’s Song,” that is! Some purer horror audiences or contemporary non-musical viewers might find the tunes annoying or at best, you need to be feeling your Celtic music mood. Nevertheless, the sounds are authentic and flavorful, adding another touch and dimension to The Wicker Man.
Cult horror fans, Lee enthusiasts, and other lovers of the cast should definitely see The Wicker Man. Yes, those touchy about religion or pagan iconography might want to avoid if these audiences feel their respective side is mis-portrayed. Fortunately, the excellent performances, food for thought plot, and dynamic pacing more than make up the difference on anything potentially offensive. However, it should go without saying that The Wicker Man is not for kids, unless you want them to learn about fruits of the womb and phallic imagery in the movie classroom! Despite those seventies naughty vibes, this isn’t dated one bit- though the lack of DVD subtitles, lost footage, and varying versions and film lengths can be bothersome. The Wicker Man also isn’t really a harvest or autumntide picture either, thanks to its springtime festival subject matter. Add a whallop to your May Day and witness The Wicker Man.