It’s in no way an exaggeration to say that there is no other film like Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece The Wicker Man. Buried by its studio on initial release but now revered as one of the finest British horror films ever made, it pushes the boundaries of the genre in the most exquisite ways while breaking all its rules at the same time. It is the strangest combination of elements: a horror film conducted almost entirely in daylight, with no blood or gore or acts of extreme violence, no monsters or supernaturalism, and driven so much by its score that it feels at times like a kind of musical. The Wicker Man is both contemporary and ancient, immediate and primal, baffling and deeply disturbing – and the shock waves it caused are still felt in horror cinema today.
The film begins with Christian police detective Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travelling to the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). When he arrives, he finds the residents unhelpful; they haven’t reported the girl missing, and Howie has no definitive answer as to where Rowan is. With the approval of community leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), Howie conducts his investigation regardless, gradually becoming convinced that Rowan’s disappearance is connected with the island’s pagan religion and upcoming May Day festival.
One striking element of The Wicker Man is that the island’s ancient religion is not treated as a negative or oppressive force, but rather as a legitimate and complex way of life. It seems to be a place that is simultaneously very much of 1960s Britain and of a time long, long past. Much of the film is given to illustrating the residents’ beliefs, and those textures are woven deeply into the aesthetic fabric of the film. In many ways the detective, in his devout Catholicism, acts as a kind of antagonist, with his refusal to accept the islanders’ way of life presented in stark contrast with their openness towards him. His journey is a rabbit-hole descent into a world of images and customs that have no reference point in either his religious or modern-day background, and his response is to react with intolerance.
It’s only as we go deeper into the second act that The Wicker Man begins to reveal itself as a work of deeply intelligent horror. Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer never lose hold of the mystery of Rowan’s disappearance; rather than offer Howie clues, the film simply builds further questions and uncomfortable inconsistencies. The first act establishes its representation of the pagan harvest religion, but it is here that it starts to use that imagery to foster a feeling of dread: a dead hare; naked women jumping across a fire; a woman breastfeeding while holding an apple; a beetle tied to a nail. Nothing is explained, and yet nothing feels incongruous: one feels the film building towards something without knowing what that is, each successive flash more bizarre than the last.
Never is this clearer than in perhaps the most remarkable aesthetic element of The Wicker Man, Paul Giovanni’s remarkable score. Working from traditional English and Scottish folk music, Giovanni mixes traditional songs and original compositions in a manner that both comments on the narrative and plays a part in it, completing the tapestry of the world the film depicts. At the outset, the music is elegiac, pleasant, even funny; but the further in we get, the more discordant and ritualistic it becomes, ultimately erupting ecstatically in the final minutes. In a sense, it is Giovanni’s score that makes it clear whose side The Wicker Man is on; and as with some of the truly great works of horror, it may not be the side the audience expects.
Hardy’s approach to the material is incredibly unadorned; many sequences are shot by cinematographer Harry Waxman in a rough, handheld style. The film uses very few visual tricks, and is devoid of any spit and polish; it wears its limited budget on its sleeve. And yet, The Wicker Man is both visually dynamic and strangely beautiful. It certainly never looks like a horror film, and perhaps that’s what makes it such a satisfying and ultimately shattering experience. By 1973, horror in Britain was defined by the garish colour and shadow of Hammer, and Hardy’s film was specifically created as an antidote to that, even while casting Hammer staples as Lee and Ingrid Pitt. 1 Equally, even while the film has the intellectual rigour of a classic like The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961), it rejects the histrionics of the kind of horror performances found therein. So much of The Wicker Man is trying not to appear to be a horror film – an important distinction from trying not to be a horror film. It lulls the audience into a false sense of security until they realise it’s too late, culminating in an unforgettable sequence (which I won’t ruin for those who haven’t seen the film before).
The Wicker Man is one of the truly great works of horror cinema – not so much ahead of its time as existing outside of time itself – and the horror it addresses is one that is so very deeply human. Even afterwards, one is never clear whether the real antagonists of the film are the residents of Summerisle or Howie himself; what makes this all the more disturbing is that its ultimate act is not one committed out of malice or evil, but simply a deeply held belief that one way of thinking is more correct than another. There are no villains or heroes in The Wicker Man, and neither is there clear commentary on who is right and who is wrong. The film’s narrative culmination is merely presented as an example of what can happen when two sides believe with total conviction that they are right, and that this is sufficient justification for whatever action they see as being necessary to satisfy their needs, whatever the consequences. As Rowan’s mother (Irene Sunters) says to Howie towards the end of the film, “You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice”; it is our collective understanding of what that truly means that brings us to The Wicker Man’s moment of pure, exquisite and jaw-dropping horror.
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The Wicker Man (1973 UK 88 mins)
Prod Co: British Lion Film Corporation Prod: Peter Snell Dir: Robin Hardy Scr: Anthony Shaffer Phot: Harry Waxman Ed: Eric Boyd-Perkins Prod Mgr: Ted Morley Snd: Robin Gregory, Bob Jones Mus: Paul Giovanni
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp
- See William Grimes, “Robin Hardy, Who Set The Wicker Man Cult Alight, Dies at 86”, The New York Times, 4 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/05/movies/robin-hardy-who-set-the-wicker-man-cult-alight-dies-at-86.html ↩