“Come! It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man…”
Directed by: Robin Hardy
Starring: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt
In a Nutshell:
Along with Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man makes up the “Unholy Trinity” of late 60s and early 70s British movies that are fundamental to the folk horror subgenre. It’s one of the strangest films ever to have worked its way into popular culture, a largely bloodless nudie horror musical set almost entirely in broad daylight. The chills are largely in the details as Robin Hardy creates a sense of creeping dread, before one of the most harrowing final scenes in movie history…
Devoutly Christian copper Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The locals are all cheerfully unhelpful to his inquiries, and Howie is appalled to find the islanders openly revelling in the worship of their Pagan Gods.
After encounters with the bountiful landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) and the island’s colourful laird Summerisle (Christopher Lee), Howie begins to suspect that the girl is about to be offered up as a human sacrifice…
Edward Woodward grounds the movie with his wryly humorous performance as Howie. He’s an uptight, pious, strict, but essentially good man who is notable for his almost complete lack of humour.
Horror icon Christopher Lee is delightful as the sophisticated, suavely menacing Lord Summerisle. The clash of beliefs between him and Howie provide the most riveting exchanges in the movie, as well as giving The Wicker Man its resonant theological and philosophical underpinning. For example –
Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Howie: Oh what is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion… Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…
Lee considered Summerisle to be his finest role and campaigned tirelessly to gain the film a bigger audience.
Britt Ekland creates a vivid impression as the bounteous landlord’s daughter, Willow. She doesn’t have a huge amount to do other than look suitably alluring, and her standout moment is her naked attempted seduction of Howie. Ekland was pregnant at the time and needed a nude double for this scene, but you’d have to be pretty eagle-eyed to spot the joins. And I’m sure many guys have studied the “Willow’s Song” scene very, very closely indeed…
The Wicker Man‘s awesome folk soundtrack is essential to the eerie mood of the film, as well as delivering plenty of exposition through song. The songs have become synonymous with folk horror and sound so authentic that it’s hard to believe that some tunes are original compositions written especially for the film by Paul Giovanni.
The showstopper is “Willow’s Song”, a passionate siren’s call packed with gorgeous lyrical images (“I’ll catch a rainbow from the sky and tie the ends together”) and sexual innuendo (“How a maid can milk a bull/and every stroke a bucketful”).
Other highlights include the bawdy, shanty-like “The Landlord’s Daughter”, sang with comic effect by the drunken locals of The Green Man pub. (“Much has been said of the strumpets of yore…”)
Cut from the shorter theatrical version of the film is the beautiful lilting ballad “Gently Johnny”, which makes the longer cuts worth searching out in its own right.
Sex and Violence:
There’s quite a bit of nudity in the film, as the pagans are a free love community who are basically shagging all the time. Having said that, very little of it is gratuitous and the T&A on display is crucial to showing the islanders’ beliefs and their joyous attitude towards sex, in stark contrast to Howie’s virginal copper.
For a horror movie, there is almost no blood and very little violence – until the final scene, that is. Before Howie keeps his appointment with the Wicker Man, the most gruesome image is a severed hand being used as a “Hand of Glory”, to keep the copper asleep while the islanders indulge in their May Day celebrations.
The last few years have seen a resurgence of folk horror, which probably wouldn’t have happened if The Wicker Man hadn’t developed such a strong cult following in the decades since its release. Films like Gareth Evans’ Apostle and Ari Aster’s Midsommar owe a particular debt of gratitude to Robin Hardy’s pagan masterpiece.
Despite the burgeoning modern folk horror scene, the spate of new movies does nothing to dispel the unique atmosphere of the film. It’s a true one-off and I would recommend seeking out the longer versions, which have some really fascinating extra scenes and explore the beautiful, sinister world of Summerisle in greater detail. The Wicker Man is essential viewing for all cult aficionados and lovers of weird movies.
If you loved this, also check out: Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw (the other two films in the “Unholy Trinity” of folk horror), Robin Redbreast, Midsommar. Then if you’re really getting into folk horror and want to see how other countries do it, you might enjoy the Australian “Unholy Trinity” of Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout.
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3 thoughts on “The Wicker Man (1973)”
Finally seeing Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man after I first saw him in The Equalizer gave me the best respect for his acting talents.
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Thanks for a greaat read