Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
The Wicker Man may be an obscure film, but its fans hold it with such conviction that it is as remembered and cherished as a grade school crush. My interest in the film was given after hearing it described as a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Despite the inherent humor in this comparison, the claim is surprisingly appropriate. Described as both a horror film and musical, The Wicker Man is an odd gem of Seventies cinema.
The film begins with summary photography of an airplane suspended over rocky islands in north Scotland. The pilot is police Sergeant Howie, who has been employed to investigate the disappearance a girl on the secluded island of Summerisle. Upon his arrival, it requires great difficulty for him to discover that she even existed.
The island’s patrons are friendly and open to the overly uptight officer, though they are strangely wooden to Howie’s inquiries about the girl and often answer him with irritatingly ambiguous responses. The island’s patrons, he finds, are a deeply religious group whose beliefs and religious practices resemble pagan rituals. Howie ultimately discovers that Summerisle’s patrons are reliant upon a successful harvest each spring. The prior year’s harvest failed dismally, and only a human sacrifice to Nuada, the sun god, will break the trend. This discovery is particularly controversial to Howie, who becomes involved in a ploy to prevent it. Howie, a stubbornly devout Christian, will find no sympathy for his beliefs on this island; by the same token, he finds theirs affrontingly taboo.
When Sergeant Howie discovers the missing girl’s grave, he exhumes it and finds the corpse of a hare. He approaches Lord Summerisle, the island’s ruler, who contends that the event only evidences his people’s belief in reincarnation.
Another odd scene occurs during Howie’s first night on Summerisle. Drunkards at a local inn gather in harmony and sing a song entitled “The Landlord’s Daughter,” which is basically a melodic listing of reasons for their attraction to Willow, the landlord’s daughter, in perverted detail. The strangeness of this song is outdone only by the number that follows it. Howie’s room adjoins the daughter’s, and he is awakened in his first night by her thumping on a wall. She, too, engages in a perverted sing-a-long in which she punctuates the melody with a naked, oddly choreographed dance.
Religious imagery is in abundance in The Wicker Man. In the same scene in which several couples copulate at midnight on a dimly lit yard, men can be briefly seen watering graves (the scene is cut by a flashback of Howie attending communion). In a visit to a graveyard the following morning Howie notices trees growing from the soil of each grave. In the corner of the graveyard is a woman nursing a child, holding an egg in her free hand. These images and others occur throughout the film. Their function is apparently intended to illustrate the islanders’ weird religion, and their meaning is a mystery.
At the heart of the film is Howie — an archetype of close-minded religion and the responsibility of the law, and the islanders — a freethinking legion of nouveau hippies whose religious beliefs, though extreme, are more tolerant than those offered in established religion. This pairing is at conflict in the film. Though it is not by nature a religious commentary, The Wicker Man raises questions and engages the viewer to apply his own beliefs.
Howie is quick to criticize the islanders for their unconventional practices. He becomes more annoyed as his search progresses. Instead of leaving Summerisle unaffected he aims to remedy his annoyance by forcing his own stubborn-minded beliefs on the island’s patrons. His attempts to witness are disregarded similar to the unsolicited ploys of bible salesmen.
The film is constructed towards a climax and the ending is genuinely chilling, despite its predictability. The island’s belief in pagan symbols and sacrifice come full circle as the film’s namesake is revealed in its final minutes. I relent to hint at what happens, for knowledge of the event would only lessen its chilling impact (attentive readers may already know).
Interest in the film is due in part to its very unique history. The Wicker Man was a low budget effort, even by early Seventies standards, though it includes the collaboration of reputable players in the British film industry. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer had previously penned critically praised adaptations of Sleuth and Frenzy (for Alfred Hitchcock). Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) rose to fame as Dracula in numerous Hammer Films productions. To date Lee has been in over 200 films, and claims The Wicker Man was the most intelligent script he was handed.
Britt Ekland (as Willow, the dumbly attractive landlord’s daughter) was dating Rod Stewart during filming, and was pregnant during shooting. In rumor the frosty-mulleted soft-rock star, apparently in an effort to save his girlfriend’s embarrassment for dancing and singing (naked and pregnant), attempted to purchase the original negative and to block any future screenings of the film. He failed, and his former girlfriend’s weird, naked dance is left intact in all available versions of the film. Further rumors claim that the majority of Ekland’s dialogue was dubbed. Her song voice is obviously mismatched, and her dialogue is delivered in a stilted, detached manner. It seems she is merely reciting lines without any emotion. By this measure she didn’t act in the movie; she only appeared in it. Ekland’s performance only enhances the film’s unique existence.
Upon completion the original screened version (running nearly 110 minutes) was trimmed. The cut footage was supposedly deposited as fill underneath a highway in Britain. Sporadic video releases were distributed in varying lengths. The Anchor Bay release in August 2001 contains an extended cut of the film. It is the truest version of the film available, and comes packaged in a nifty wooden box.
There are few entries in Seventies cinema in which the efforts, the ideas, and the execution transcend the implications of cheap, genre filmmaking, and there are none as thematically appealing as The Wicker Man. As a horror film it is intelligent and as a musical it contains immense camp value. For example, a chase scene near the end of the film is scored with a typical bass-driven Seventies groove. Instead of functionally punctuating the scene, it rather mocks a decade famous for its addiction to disco. The song does not “fit,” yet, again, only strengthens the film’s odd appeal.
The Wicker Man is a strange film and it is heralded for precisely that reason. Its success is that its subjective religion is displayed so believably that it transcends the campy stride of other horror films from the same era. Notice, incidentally, that the film is only labeled horror by default, when in truth it is less a horror film than it is a Sunday school lesson.