#172 The Wicker Man
(1973, Robin Hardy)
“What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?”
Hello. Sorry about yesterday. Seems that my films got mixed up and I ended up reviewing the remake of The Wicker Man instead of the original British movie from the 1970s. But no worries, the real review is here now, covering that original movie instead of the terrible remake. But is the original any better than the Nic Cage shriek-fest?
Police officer Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has arrived on the remote island of Summerisle, somewhere off the coast of Scotland, after receiving a mysterious letter from one the residents about a missing girl. Rowan Morrison has been missing for months, and it’s up to Howie to unravel the mystery. Along the way, he encounters bizarre Pagan rituals and beliefs, all under the guidance of the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), and soon the mystery turns out to be much darker than he first suspected.
So, let’s forget about that remake, shall we? In this original movie, there’s no Nic Cage shouting and punching women in the face. The isolated Pagan colony is in a place where it actually makes sense to have an isolated Pagan colony. There are no girls being hit by trucks while on a ship (seriously, how is that a legitimate jump scare, Neil LaBute?). And now the Pagan colony leader is being played by an actor less known for playing hysterical mothers and more known for playing evil wizards (Saruman, Lord of the Rings) and the lord of the vampires (Dracula), so that’s a plus.
Although exact categorisation is difficult, at its heart, The Wicker Man is a horror movie disguised as a mystery drama. This is a movie built on atmosphere. Life on Summerisle resembles that of any other small rural town in 1970s Britain, but something is always off.
The Wicker Man wastes no time telling us that something is very wrong on Summerisle. Even before the really weird stuff starts happening, the awkward way people act towards Howie is enough to put you on edge. Switching their stories from “Rowan never existed” to “Rowan died” and breaking out into a sudden fully synchronised folk song when Howie walks into the pub tip the audience off right away that something very bad has happened to Rowan.
And then the landlord’s daughter starts dancing around naked in her bedroom to try and seduce Howie while numerous couples have sex out in the fields. We discover that kids on the island are taught about maypoles being phallic symbols, while Lord Summerisle himself talks highly of the old gods, while the Christian god is apparently dead. The mystery is masterfully scripted and the pacing is spot-on. Not once does the film drag.
Helps that the acting is fantastic across the board. Woodward never flinches as the incredibly stern and ultra-religious police officer. His reactions to the disturbing Pagan rituals feel natural due to his strict Christian beliefs, and his determination to the cause is admirable, showing the right level of restrained anger every time he feels he’s being toyed with. Christopher Lee is excellent as always, looking very young compared to his more recent roles, but coming across as a little more down-to-earth, which is ironic considering how unhinged his character really seems to be.
However, it is possible to take issue with The Wicker Man for its portrayal of Paganism. Seemingly criticising the religion for being all about weird people sacrificing animals and practicing bizarre sexual rituals, it’s easy to feel that not much research was done on actual Paganism beforehand. That said, it could easily be argued that this could be a sect of the religion, particularly due to its isolated nature, but it’s still hard to feel that it could have been portrayed better.
However, this is my sole issue. The movie has a fantastic creepy atmosphere and manages to be scary without making use of a single horror movie cliché or jump scare. It’s easy to see why it’s frequently held up as the best British horror movie ever made. I’d make the case that it’s the best horror movie overall.
And fortunately, we don’t have Nic Cage demanding to know HOW’D IT GET BURNED?!
Starring Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt & Christopher Lee
Written by David Pinner (novel – Ritual) and Anthony Shaffer
Produced by Peter Snell
Music by Paul Giovanni
Cinematography by Harry Waxman
Edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins
Favourite Scene: The dramatic conclusion, where Woodward plays his role with the perfect blend of fear, anger and restraint, while Lee remains stoic despite looking completely deranged
Scene That Bugged Me: While I understand its relevance and importance in the wider plot, “Willow’s Song” felt a little out of place.
Watch it because: Christopher Lee considers it his greatest role, and he’s right
Avoid it if: You thought the remake was a genuine masterpiece