The Wicker Man (1973)

the wicker man

“We don’t commit murder up here. We’re a deeply religious people.”

The Scoop: 1973 15, directed by Robin Hardy and starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland.

Tagline: Flesh to touch…Flesh to burn! Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!

Summary Capsule: Folk singing + fire + nudity = screaming. Who fancies a holiday in Scotland?

Louise’s rating: 3 out of 5 blonde Swedish girls

Louise’s review: Make no mistake: this is not a horror film, or an occult film. This is a nightmarish thriller with an occult premise, which comes across sometimes as a mad documentary and at other times as a soft-focus sex comedy gone wrong. The notorious final scenes are tame by today’s standards – no blood – but I found them still deeply unsettling.

Sergeant Neil Howie is a coldly handsome officer of the West Highland Constabulary and devout churchgoer. At the beginning of The Wicker Man, he arrives on the tiny Scottish island of Summerisle determined to solve the mystery of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. He’s not exactly likeable, because we don’t get to know much about his inner life, but he is our way into Summerisle and its inhabitants. We as audience share his journey, his hell and confusion when no-one will speak plainly to him, and like him we want to find the child and get off that bizarre island as soon as possible. At first Summerisle seems friendly; later it seems sinister. The locals initially deny all knowledge of Rowan Morrison, although they soon change their stories and drop hints with the subtlety of a Disneyworld parade. The actual mystery is no mystery at all from the audience’s point of view – you think you’ve solved it early on – because the real interest and suspense of the film comes from wondering how the net will close around the unwitting police officer.

Howie discovers that in the nineteenth century, paganism returned to the island. The islanders celebrate the seasonal festivals of Harvest and May Day with sacrifices, they dance naked in stone circles, they pronounce belief in the continuation of life in the earth, the air, the fire, the trees, and they are bringing up their children to do the same. This is where some of the disturbing moments in the film come from. It is so unexpected to find a crowd of Scottish children in perfectly normal (seventies) clothing singing songs about sex and regeneration, or learning about the sacred nature of the phallus, that it does boggle your mind. Sergeant Howie, with his Christian beliefs, is very worried that the children are not learning about Jesus except as a comparative religion, but I think that most of the audience would share his flabbergasted reaction. Christian or not, these days in English-speaking countries we view sexuality as for adults.

Not so on Summerisle. There is an atmosphere of free sexuality on the island, frequently shot in soft-focus and in slow-motion (actually quite amusing to twenty-first century eyes, 2011 as of writing). This is explored in some of The Wicker Man’s other memorable scenes. In one key scene, Howie is trying to sleep in his hotel room when he hears the landlord’s daughter singing in the next room and banging on the connecting wall, clearly an invitation. Howie is both enthralled and absolutely offended by the landlord’s daughter, and the chaotic and immoral possibilities she represents to him.

A key figure in the second half of the film is Lord Summerisle, the big man on the island, played initially in low-key style by Christopher Lee (almost unrecognizable without his beard or his Dracula costume). He seems so reasonable, so urbane, so happy to help, that it’s only when you see him in a long black wig and a gauzy dress, waving handkerchiefs, that you realize that he’s the worst of the lot. That’s also very upsetting for sensitive viewers. Christopher Lee in bad drag now haunts my nightmares. Thank you, Wicker Man.

So anyway, as the film goes on, it gets more and more like a bad dream. Even as I hope for it all somehow to end happily, plot twists are twisted and the trap is sprung. There will be fire, screaming, and really awful singing. There is a lot of folk/acoustic singing; some songs trick you into believing you’re watching a nice film set in the countryside, like Local Hero, others make it clear that you are in the country of crazy neo-pagans. All musical interludes are very badly dubbed. Well, it was the Seventies, after all.

It’s regarded as a cult classic, justifiably, I think. I wanted to challenge myself for Mutant Reviewers, and review the sort of film I would never normally watch. The Wicker Man was much more interesting than I was expecting. Edward Woodward (great name! Say it out loud three times really fast!) and Christopher Lee give splendid performances, and the location work looks great. I have a friend who considers himself a connoisseur of ’70s horror (particularly *ahem* Italian vampire films), and he found the film boring, pointing out that not much actually happens. True, but then I think that’s because it’s not meant to be a horror film. It’s horrible, not exciting, and solid filmmaking. That being said, I can’t imagine what mood I could be in where I thought, “I know, The Wicker Man would really speak to my soul right now.”

Just be glad it’s fiction… It is fiction, right…? Watch it and creep yourself out a bit. The Wicker Man is waiting.

If you want to know what a Swedish starlet will look like in 30 years, look at her father.

Intermission

  • Did you notice all the islanders’ plant-inspired names: Rowan, Alder, Myrtle, Rose, Willow, Beech, Oak? In the 2006 remake, that got pointed out for the audience, because modern audiences apparently can’t pick up their own hints.
  • In the 2006 remake, the missing child and her mother are surnamed ‘Woodward’. That’s got to be a shout out to Edward Woodward.
  • Britt Ekland was dubbed for her role as Willow MacGregor and, at certain points (hem! hem!)… body doubled…

Groovy Dialogue

    • May Morrison: Can I do anything for you, sergeant?
    • Sergeant Howie: Oh I doubt it, seeing as you’re all raving mad!

Lord Summerisle: We don’t commit murder up here. We’re a deeply religious people.

Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Sergeant Howie: But they are naked!

Class of schoolgirls: Phallic symbol!

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3 comments

  1. Did you watch the cut or the uncut version of this? I keep looking for the uncut, because I hear it’s better, but I can’t find it.

  2. trivia note: Britt Ekland didn’t actually know she was being body-doubled for THAT scene. The director knew that the sex kitten role was Ekland’s stock in trade, and she’d raise several different kinds of hell if she knew she was being doubled. So he had her film the sequence, then sent her over to the other side of the island location for three days while they filmed the double. The director swore everyone involved to secrecy; in fact, I’m almost sure that the double part didn’t come to light until a good twenty years after the movie was made.

  3. I don’t know which version I watched; I just picked it off my housemate’s shelf. I imagine it was the cut version.

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