(1973) Directed by Robin Hardy; Written by Anthony Shaffer; Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“We wanted to create a 20th century pagan society, and we wanted to make a treasure trove of clues in plain sight, so that the aware audience could start to pick them up.” – Robin Hardy
“It’s more important to teach a new generation born on Summerisle that here the old gods aren’t dead.” – Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)
Horror films are at their most effective when they work on a psychological level. Profuse levels of gore and jump scares pale in comparison to the terrors the human mind can devise. Not to say that horrific imagery doesn’t have a place – it can be a catalyst for nightmare fodder, but the most enduring frights are the ones that dwell long after the final scene has vanished from your retinas. Such is the case with The Wicker Man, a film that manages to make theological differences terrifying.
Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) and director Robin Hardy brought star Christopher Lee onboard, but it was their intent to create something that was different in tone from his many Hammer appearances. The filmmakers aimed for a more cerebral brand of horror. According to Hardy, “The entire film is a game.” From beginning to end, you’re never certain where many of the characters stand. The folk-infused soundtrack has a light, jaunty feel, but there’s something sinister brimming beneath the surface. Beyond the festive maypole dance and bawdy pub songs lurks a darker purpose.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), an uptight West Highland police officer, is dispatched to a village on a remote Scottish isle* to investigate a report of a missing 12-year-old girl named Rowan Morrison. The village residents are less than helpful (even her mother disavows her existence), and he finds their atavistic ways, compared to his devout Christian traditions, beguiling and offensive. As he digs deeper, his search only yields more unanswered questions, until he’s no closer to discovering whether Rowan is alive or dead. Clues lead to the conclusion that she was (or will be) offered as a possible sacrifice to appease their gods when the crops failed. Everyone in the village, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), participates in a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation, intended to keep Howie ignorant of their true intentions.
* Fun Fact #1: Although the events in the story lead up to the May Day celebration, The Wicker Man was shot on location in December. On account of the cool temperatures, the actors were forced to speak with ice in their mouths in some of the outdoor scenes, to prevent their breath from showing.
Woodward does a remarkable job as the obstinate, authoritarian Sergeant Howie,* who wears his title like a shield. Because of his status and rigid belief system, he feels empowered to impose his will and version of morals on the townspeople. It’s only appropriate that he disguises himself as a fool for their pageant. His arrogant disregard for the villagers’ customs only solidifies their resolve to defy his authority. And yet, we can’t quite despise Howie, who’s attempting to do his job under trying circumstances. Woodward endows his character with humanity and vulnerability. Despite his pious appearance, Howie is only a man, with human failings. If only he had given into temptation or had not been so insensitive to the villagers’ ways, his fate might have been different, but his nature was too unwavering.
* Fun Fact #2: Lee wanted his frequent Hammer (and Amicus) co-star, Peter Cushing, to star as the pious Sergeant Howie, but Cushing had other engagements. Although it would have been a treat to see Lee and Cushing together once more, it’s hard to imagine someone other than Woodward occupying the role.
Christopher Lee, who was well versed in the study of ancient pagan lore, plays Lord Summerisle (Lee counted this among his favorite roles), with the necessary level of gravitas and authority. As the grandson of the village’s founder, he serves as the community’s leader and spiritual compass. His interactions with Sergeant Howie are amiable and superficially cooperative, but like the rest of the villagers, his words and actions mask a hidden agenda.
The Wicker Man features many memorable scenes, not the least of which, is the sobering ending. The events that precede this, however, are all important pieces to the elaborate puzzle the filmmakers have constructed. The innkeeper’s daughter Willow’s (Britt Ekland) au naturel dance scene *is an attempt to seduce Sergeant Howie, a test of his faith. The longer cut of the film includes a sequence where Willow ushers a teenage boy into manhood. The remainder of the scene plays offscreen, but we infer everything from a song in the pub. Howie drops in on Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) as she explains the significance of the maypole and its phallic origins to her class. When he questions her about Rowan’s presumed death, she explains their theological orientation toward death (“death” has little meaning), as if explaining it to one of her students, “We believe that when the human life is over, the soul returns to trees, to air, to fire, to water, to animals…”
* Fun Fact #3: Ekland was only filmed from the waist up… the full-body shots featuring her character’s posterior were courtesy of a dancer from a Glasgow nightclub.
As I re-watched The Wicker Man, I realized how my point of view evolved over the years. After my initial viewing, I thought good and evil, in the terms of the film, were clearly defined. I sympathized with Sergeant Howie as an innocent victim, and viewed Lord Summerisle and the villagers as the antagonists. But what if there isn’t a clearly defined right and wrong? What’s sacred and what’s profane depends on your point of view. Howie insulted their way of life, along with their belief system, and presumed that he had power over them because of his position and his faith. He didn’t deserve his awful fate, but he arguably reaped what he sowed.
There’s nothing explicitly supernatural in The Wicker Man, which appears to be by design. Hardy and Shaffer leave the details vague. Will next season’s crops thrive? Are the old gods real? We never see any evidence, beyond the villagers’ beliefs. On the other hand, we’re never certain that Howie’s beliefs are any more valid. Paganism and Christianity stand on even ground, as the film neither supports nor refutes either set of beliefs. Ultimately, the film’s conclusion is a test of faith for both parties. The Wicker Man stands the test of time as an example of genre film at its best; unnerving, naturalistic and uncompromising.