In the winter of 1977 the film magazine Cinefantastique dedicated an entire issue to a largely forgotten 1973 movie The Wicker Man, calling it ‘the Citizen Kane of horror movies’. With hindsight, this can be seen as the moment that the fortunes of The Wicker Man began to change and a film that was poorly received by many critics when it was released became, by the turn of the century, considered by many to be one of the best British films ever made. Against all the odds The Wicker Man endured.

The reason for its growing reputation can be found in that Cinefantastique quote. Audiences went thinking they were going to see a horror movie, but it is so much more than that. It is too simple to see this as a film which pits good against evil. It is about the nature of faith and religion. It places one belief system against another, and depicts the terror that such a clash can bring.

The tension between the locals’ paganism and the visiting Sergeant Howie’s Christianity is at the heart of the movie and is exemplified when the islanders sing the traditional English medieval folk song ‘Summer Is Icumen In’ while Howie tries to drown them out with ‘Psalm 23’. In fact music and ritual are central to the film, and just as it is said that the devil has all the good tunes, so the pagans seem to be having all the fun on their home of Summerisle. Original songs such as the lovely ‘Willow’s Song’ sit alongside well known folk tunes and traditional adaptations, and there are May Day festivities, maypole rituals and fertility dances throughout the film. The music and dance of the island is in stark contrast to Howie’s Calvinistic restraint.

The Wicker Man is classic ‘cult’ material, particularly as it brought together people who were on the fringe of popular culture. Ingrid Pitt was best known for Hammer Horror bodice rippers. Britt Eckland was partner to chanter and tartan clad footie fan Rod Stewart between her marriages to Peter Sellers and the great Slim Jim Phantom. Lyndsay Kemp, who plays the landlord of The Green Man pub in the film, is best known for teaching mime to a young David Bowie. Barbara Rafferty and Tony Roper went on to gain TV infamy as Ella and Jamesie Cotter on BBC Scotland’s Rab C. Nesbitt and Diane Cilento was briefly Mrs Sean Connery before marrying Anthony Shaffer, the man who wrote the screenplay for The Wicker Man. The stories that were played out behind the scenes were more complex than that of the film itself. Here is the trailer:

The film’s sheer oddness could have been unbearably camp if it was not for how serious the lead actors take the film. The Wicker Man is carried by Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle and the late Edward Woodward as the devout Sergeant Howie. Woodward in particular was never better. They are the representatives of the opposing belief systems. It is interesting that neither men are completely likable, or indeed admirable. Where they are matched is in their certainty that their respective Gods will prove victorious over the other. Theirs is a contest of faith.

Christopher Lee was a real mover in getting the movie made, and, although he thinks that the final cut was a shadow of the film that could have been, he still views Lord Summerisle as his greatest ever performance. Here is the man himself talking about the movie and its critical reception:

The Wicker Man still divides opinions today, but as The New York Times recently said in a review of Christopher Nolan’s Inception ‘any film worth arguing about is worth seeing’. Many view it as the worst pseudo pagan nonsense, many as a deeply unpleasant film, many just think it daft. I can appreciate all of these points of view, and although I’m a fan I admit it is more difficult to pin down why it has become such a widely loved film. My theory is that it taps into a desire for times past, a folk idyll that never really existed.

Anthony Shaffer’s script uses a whole range of pagan ritual and rites including Celtic, Middle English, Eastern European, ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian as well as those of the supernatural. This pick and mix approach to paganism and mysticism was one that had taken hold in the Western world in the late 1960s and saw a renaissance in the 1990s and again in the present day. The success of festivals, such as The Wickerman Festival which is held in Dumfries and Galloway every year, and the vogue for all things folk in contemporary music (many purveyors of which cite The Wicker Man soundtrack as being a strong influence) give yet more clues as to why the film continues to fascinate and find new followers. Summerisle is not simply an island out of time, but very much of the time. This is a contemporary commentary as well as being fantasy.

The strength of the final acts of the film should never be overlooked when considering its appeal. Some times a good shock is all the audience demands. Occurring in broad daylight (much maligned director Robin Hardy’s masterstroke) what unfolds is genuinely shocking, and a community who we have previously viewed as mischievous, playful and even childish, but rarely truly threatening, turn out to be all too ready to destroy. Perhaps that is what appeals so much about the film? The audience is seduced into believing that these people are ultimately harmless, and that the received law of the (main)land, whether Christian or otherwise, will win out in the end. It is what they had come to expect in their movies. It is these final scenes that have given the film its tag of ‘horror movie’, and understandably so. Few other films leave such an impression.
Swiftly passing over Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake/remodel which can only be of interest to Nicholas Cage and bad movie fans, there has yet to be a sequel to The Wicker Man. Anthony Shaffer did write a treatment for one, the transcript of which can be found in the appendices of Allan Brown’s excellent book Inside The Wicker Man (see Wicker Man Revisited…) but this never came to pass.

There is, however, a film called The Wicker Tree currently in post production and which sees the story of The Wicker Man come full circle. Although it claims not to be a sequel, it is based on the aforementioned Robin Hardy’s novel Cowboys for Christ and he also directs it. It is also due to star Christopher Lee, although I’ll believe it when I see it. In fact I won’t be holding my breath for the film’s première. It is scheduled to be released this year but as yet has no trailer or accompanying website. So far this poster (above) is the only concrete evidence of its existence. And it should remain that way. The original Wicker Man was a film that worked despite itself. It was a glorious accident. To try and replicate its success would be like trying to bottle lightning.

Alistair

Buy The Wicker Man and more Scottish films from the Dear Scotland Shop here:

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.

Willow’s Song – (safe for work version)

Willow’s Song – Doves

Willow’s Song (How Do) – Sneaker Pimps

Comments

  1. I love one of the final scenes where the townspeople are parading along with animal masks – it’s innocent-looking yet erie. Great soundtrack as well. Corn rigs and barley rigs, corn rigs are bonnie.

  2. Your right Amy, the soundtrack is worth owning whatever your thoughts on the film are. The maypole song is a particular favourite as I think it catches the mood of the film. As you say, innocent yet eerie; the soundtrack adds to the atmosphere and never lets you settle, but it does this by being melodic and light rather than the normal building of tension that you would expect to find. The whole film is askew, and that’s what makes it great.

  3. Apparently the US version of the film is shortened and does not include the first 15 minutes of the film, which takes place on the mainland and provides a snapshot of Sergeant Howie’s Christianity by showing his church-going, his relationship with his coworkers, and his fiancee.

    Unfortunate because it takes so much away from the understanding of the film.

    I have a special-version dvd housed in a little wooden chest with the image of the Wicker Man burned into it with the full-length film myself!

  4. I’ve never seen the full version, and wasn’t aware that it was available, so I’ll have to track it down. You might be interested in Allan Brown’s book ‘Inside the Wicker Man’ that I mentioned above. It’s a fascinating account of the making of the film and its strange journey to cult status. There are lots of great facts and myths for fans of the film.

  5. Don’t these re-issue DVD covers kind of give the ending away? I can remember how much of a shock it was the first time I saw it – the tone of the film hadn’t really suggested it was coming, which I think is the beauty of it. I am a big fan of the movie but it does have some terrible moments in it – Woodward’s Teuchter accent, Ekland’s dubbed voice (is that only in the US print?)..

    Not that many movies covering Wee Free fundamentalism … have we done Breaking the Waves yet here?

  6. The DVD cover that I have looks like a woodcut. I’ve never seen one that has the actual photo of the wickerman on it; that would definitely give away the ending. By the time I saw the movie, I knew it was a cult horror flick but was still shocked by the final scene. I’m going to try and find that book. Breaking the Waves – another of my faves with an excellent soundtrack.

  7. Strangely, even the original 1973 poster had the actual Wicker Man on it, which is an interesting publicity move. I agree with you Kenny that the shift in tone of the film is the key, along with the fact that it is (almost) never shot as we now expect a horror movie to be. It lulls you into a fall sense of security.

    I tend to think that I like it because of its flaws rather than despite them. For instance Lyndsey Kemp’s landlord seems to be only a few years older than his ‘daughter’, but they all add to the oddness.

    I’d forgotten about ‘Breaking the Waves’, but that will be covered soon. I’ll have to watch it again as it’s been a while, and you have to be in the right mood for a Von Trier film. A night in with some gin and self loathing should do the trick.

  8. To be honest, not sure I could put myself through Breaking the Waves a second time. I nearly gave up half-way through but thought, well it can’t get any grimmer… wrong! Same again for Dancer in the Dark… But I did love them both in a perverse kind of way…