Director: Robin Hardy
Studios: British Lion Films
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento; ft. Ingrid Pitt
Tagline: Flesh to touch… Flesh to burn! Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, suspense, cult, occult
Scare score: C-
Plot overview: After receiving a mysterious letter alerting him about a missing girl, police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) ventures alone to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. His investigation is steadily thwarted by the townspeople, who first deny that the girl, Rowan (Gerry Cowper), ever existed and then claim that she passed away. Howie, a devout Christian, is further put off by the locals’ pagan beliefs and traditions, headed by the genteel but unsympathetic Lord Summerisle (Lee). As Howie grows closer to solving the mystery, he becomes part of the town’s May Day celebrations and soon learns the horrifying truth about the island and its people.
I have mixed feelings about this movie mostly because of the time period and because of how much thrilling potential the film ultimately fails to live up to. That being said, it was shot on a small budget and was a fairly rushed production, and given the general kitsch of the genre in the early ’70s, it’s incredible what a lasting impact this movie has had.
The Wicker Man is equally imaginative and macabre, well-researched and well if dramatically acted, and it includes some truly beautiful shots of Scotland and the Hebrides, especially in the stunning opening and final sequences. Even with the beautiful open landscapes, we feel a sort of claustrophobia as Howie enters the tiny island community, remaining an outcast in every sense of the word throughout his investigation. There is something frustrating about trying to take something seriously—especially the alleged disappearance of a child—only to be met with folly, ridicule, and condescension, and Howie encounters that in spades.
Aside from its great plot—adapted from David Pinner’s novel Ritual and in many ways recreated in the Netflix original Apostle—this movie relies on strong acting to carry us through the deepening mystery. Edward Woodward forces us to take him as seriously as Sgt. Howie takes himself in the movie and delivers some especially wonderful scenes closer to the end. How special is it to see the late, great Christopher Lee? Hot off his success with Hammer Horror (which I grew up on but haven’t reviewed yet!), a younger-than-we’re-used-to-seeing-him Lee takes on a more cerebral role as the lofty and manipulative Lord Summerisle. More like Lord Exposition amirite? Still, a great performance from him. Individual characters also stand out throughout the film in varied and creepy ways, most notably the Swedish beauty Britt Ekland as a pagan temptress, her creepy father played by Lindsay Kemp (a lover and muse of David Bowie), an especially sinister Aubrey Morris as the gravedigger, and a very formidable Ian “Mammoth” Campbell.
Fun fact: In a 2005 interview, Christopher Lee would consider this his best film. Saruman and Counts Dooku and Dracula can take a hike.
Though the editing feels choppy throughout and I don’t think the mystery meets its full potential, this movie has a lot of positive points. Designed specifically to deliver more drawn out suspense and not to rely fully on jump scares or gore unlike other horror movies of the time, The Wicker Man is an enduringly creepy movie. The disturbing norms and traditions of Summerisle start early in the movie and don’t stop coming, more often than not based around or in the form of music and dancing. The filmmakers did a great job at researching paganism and representing it in a fairly unbiased way throughout the movie— in fact, the only judgments we see made upon these traditions come from the zealous Howie. The film features plenty of mellow ’70s music—I felt like I was listening to Nick Drake half the time—but there is some really beautiful traditional music as well. Some of the most memorably unsettling musical scenes are the May pole, birds-and-bees-style song led by children and the schoolmaster as well as some horrifying chanting and arm-swaying at the end.
Final critique: Overall, this is a weird movie that remains eerie and impactful nearly 50 years later— it really does put the “cult” in cult classic. Part of me wishes it were made in a different time period or with a different production quality, but at the end of the day, it all came together to make something very digestible for general audiences without being too scary to watch. Really it’s hardly scary at all, but the questions it raises are where the true terror comes in. While watching, you know you’re uncomfortable or frightened, even if you can’t put your finger on it, and the suspense builds beautifully right up until the last shot.