The Wicker Man

UK (1973) Dir. Robin Hardy

As an atheist, I often tend to take a dim view the influential effect of religion, based on the actions of extremists whose interpretation of their teachings result in dangerous and antagonistic myopia. And to support my case I present to you exhibit A – the classic chiller, The Wicker Man.

Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is a devout Christian, his faith so strong that he has yet to marry nor indeed know pleasures of the flesh. He receives a letter from the remote island of Summerisle in the Hebrides asking for his help in the case of a missing schoolgirl Rowan Morrison. Howie flies to Summerisle by seaplane to investigate, immediately hitting a brick wall when nobody claims to know of Rowan.  

Howie struggles with the decadent behaviour of the locals, their rejection of Christianity, and refusal to help him with the investigation without permission from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Summerisle is a welcoming chap but his take on religion irks Howie, who suspects Rowan’s abduction is a murder case. But little does he know the shocking truth that awaits.

The Wicker Man is regarded as a classic British horror film though I would proffer a more accurate label is psychodrama, as the horror is less about jump scares and gore, instead built around the innate creepiness of the denizens of Summerisle. It is a definitive slow burn of a film that leaves it shocks until the very last moments, teasing the audience with many mundane possibilities that get increasingly darker and things progress.

With the basis of the story taken from the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner, Anthony Shaffer’s wonderfully adapted screenplay takes the implied sentiment of seclusion from mainland civilisation turning people into autonomy of odd behaviour and arcane rituals and amps it up to 13. The icing on the cake is how little malevolence there is from the residents of Summerisle, only from the pious Howie.

It should be noted that this isn’t a knock on Christianity either, but could be interpreted as a gentle nudge to anyone with faith to not judge others by their own standards or teachings, lest you come across those with their own beliefs that are stronger than yours are and less flexible. In this extended “Final cut” version, the film opens with Howie being mocked by his mainland colleagues for being uptight whilst the veracity of his faith is illustrated during a passionate reading at church.

Life on Summerisle is an eye opener for Howie, not in the least the rampant orgies that take place in the fields outside the Green Man inn where he stays, or their lewd singing about the landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland), which she treats as flattery. But it would seem this was no bawdy banter but a truthful observation, as later that night, Howie observes Willow inviting a young man into her room as part of a local tradition.

Yet this is the least of his problems as the mystery of Rowan’s disappearance is making little sense as even her own mother (Irene Sunter) denies having a daughter by that name. Howie’s next visit is to the school where again Rowan’s existence is denied, though teacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) does reveal the beliefs held by the islanders about death and reincarnation, which naturally clash with Howie’s Christian dogma.

Declaring the islanders to be Pagans, Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, his definition hinting at Buddhism and Taoism suffused with Celtic traditions, a doctrine created by his grandfather a century earlier. Shaffer painstakingly researched Paganism and the other religions to ensure they were all portrayed accurately and objectively so no single ideal is deemed “right” over the other.

Bearing in mind the post-hippy period setting, free love and peaceful co-existence with nature was still lingering in the air, making the islanders look contemporary compared to Howie with his uptight Bible bashing. Conversely, abstruse touches that even the kids are exposed to and accept without a care gives the island its eeriness to make anyone feel unwelcome. There is nothing backwards about this society, only slow progress due to its insularity and anachronistic traditions.

Even if you haven’t seen the film the climax is legendary and for good reason, especially as a visual spectacle and as a piece of terrifying cinema, thanks to the juxtaposition of gleeful singing to the sight of Howie meeting his fate. But there is a wonderful irony in his last ditch attempt to argue his way out of harm, as he tries to explain the gods the islander worship don’t exist – imagine saying that to a Christian about their God!

As mentioned earlier this is a reconstructed final edit with 12 minutes of extra footage, notable by the poor quality compared to the crisp remastered transfer, including a new opening, more songs, new and extended scenes with cogent material, and – for the fellas – more naked Britt Ekland! It definitely fleshes out Howie’s character more whilst adding new layers of intrigue to the investigation on the island.

Christopher Lee said this was the best film of the 275+ he made. His portrayal as Lord Summerisle is rather out of character in the sense he isn’t imposing or inherently evil, embracing the playfulness of a man who believes in the whimsy of enlightenment, with a penchant for absurd, large-scale human sacrifice.

Therefore it is left to Edward Woodward to be the aggressor – resolute and officious to the point of being pompous, Howie is not someone the audience warms to though we don’t dislike him either. Woodward is such a commanding presence and pitch perfect in this role, it should be as iconic as any.

Hollywood remade The Wicker Man in 2006, and all involved should be burned alive for trying to update a seminal, unimpeachable classic that works because it is a product of its time and can’t be replicated. I’ve probably said this before but Thank God I’m an atheist!

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