Weekend Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

Spring has finally arrived in the northern hemisphere, even if the weather in my specific locale still looks and feels like winter. Never mind. Spring it is and, with the season’s arrival, we’re finally reviewing that most seasonal of horror classics, the original Wicker Man.1

Title: The Wicker Man

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Robin Hardy
Written by Anthony Shaffer

Cast

Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie
Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
Britt Ekland as Willow
Diane Cilento as Miss Rose
Ingrid Pitt as Librarian
Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGreagor
Russell Waters as Harbour Master
Aubrey Morris as Gravedigger
Ian Campbell as Oak
Robin Hardy as Minister

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Available from Amazon.com and as instant video.

Premise:

A detective arrives at a remote, isolated Scottish Isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The locals appear to be hiding something– while other anomalies of the island appear in plain sight, baffling, angering, and tempting the puritanical officer.

Have you ever encountered those tantalizing, obsessively researched, vividly illustrated, Pagan-permeated, frequently accurate, slightly sinister, occasionally erotic Man, Myth, and Magic encyclopediæ from 1970? Well, this is Man, Myth, and Magic: the Motion Picture.2

High Points:

Everything must be understood through the lenses of the conclusion and Lord Summerisle’s backstory. In an era when magick covens proliferated among people who believed in the gentle ways of ye Olde Religion that was persecuted by Christians in ye Burning Tymes, this film presents an exotic but scary Pagan cult (I suspect Jack Chick loves this movie), one capable of being as dangerous as any inquisitor. It also offers a plausible explanation for why the members of this isolated Pagan cult behave exactly like a Victorian reconstruction of a Pagan religion.

The conclusion turns everything– including several moments of comedy (intended and perhaps otherwise) and general WTF-ery– into a waking nightmare. After considerable uncertainty, I understood in the end why this film has such a strong reputation among horror aficionados.

Low Point:

While I understand the role of the musical numbers, they seem more artificial than they should, given the context. However, the film would be incomplete without them.

Some of the film’s idiosyncrasies may feel terribly dated and silly, but viewers have to accept these as a part of the film. This film should never be remade.

Except it was.

Never see the idiotic, ill-conceived Nicholas Cage remake or, if you must, see it after you watch the original (assuming you have not already seen the original). It makes zero sense, provokes neither fear nor serious thought, and spoilers the ending of the original. You can’t simply cut and paste this ending into some other thriller movie. Its true effect can only be appreciated by someone who has followed Howie’s quest.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Despite its reputation as a horror movie, this is a creepy mystery with the familiar premise of the outside investigator who encounters hostility and silence from the insular community whose inhabitants are clearly privy to a secret. Certain scenes push it into horror territory, but they don’t dominate the movie. Still, it takes unexpected turns. Although loosely based on an existing novel, certain scholarly and quasi-scholarly works, such as The Golden Bough and The White Goddess and their more sensational offshoots have as much influence here. The film channels the mystic zeitgeist of its era, but neither Hammer nor anyone else had made anything quite like it before.

Effects: 5/6 Remember, they shot this film without CGI or optical effects or even much in the way of a budget. 3

Production: 5/6 Fortunately, the actual Scottish village where they filmed most of the movie, and the other real-world locations, made perfect sets.

The maypole number features some obvious synchronization problems.

Acting: 4/6 The acting is uneven, but the film gives its difficult lead role to a strong actor, and some of the extras do well as sinister versions of themselves.

I don’t think anyone knows how to take Britt Ekland’s dubbed performance, and her bizarre, haunting musical number.4

Story: 5/6 Give the writer his due. By the end, the film has accounted for every significant plot flaw.

Emotional Response: 4/6 “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!”

Overall: 5/6. We have a diabolically clever film here. Despite its flaws, The Wicker Man casts a strange spell.

In total, The Wicker Man receives 32/42.

Some Notes

1. Although the film’s Spring (start of summer?– see comments below) setting is significant, they actually filmed during a very chilly autumn. Blossoms had to be glued to plants. Actors put ice cubes in their mouths so their breath wouldn’t freeze. And yes, those nude scenes left some performers cold.

2. Did I ever tell you about my experiences trying to purchase a first edition set of these? Of how two full, original sets vanished into thin air? Ask me sometime.

The set I finally acquired cost me a fraction of their usual price. I read with care; they’re so perfectly preserved they crack when I open them, and I’m fascinated to see how much people will pay for a set.

3. Rumours that animals died during the filming of The Wicker Man are false, though certain actors felt genuine terror during the conclusion, as a mishap or miscalculation might have cost human lives.

A 1995 interview with the director appears here, but it contains significant spoilers.

4. “Willow’s Song.” Warning: NSFW

8 replies on “Weekend Review: The Wicker Man (1973)”

  1. TheYellowLantern says:

    So more to movie then just, ‘it was 1970 and they were on drugs when they made it.’

    That ending. I cannot unsee it. It burns, it burns.

  2. Wrong season. It takes place at Beltain, or May Day, which is the next Sabbat. We just finished Ostara (vernal equinox.) :)

    Also, there has been a thing or two like it. Not as good, but like it.

    I wish I lived on Summer Isle. By the end of the film I wanted to burn Howie, too.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      Uh…. Spoiler alert on that last comment, maybe?

      But summer generally starts in June, which puts May near the end of spring, at least as we now reckon seasons in these latitudes. Your (and their) view of the change of seasons May vary of course, since you wouldn’t be going by the common calendar.

      Mind you, if we were being reasonable about these latitudes, we’d identify “summer” and “winter.” The rest of the time, the seasons tend to be on “shuffle.”

  3. Sorry, you’re right. Around my life knowing that movie is like knowing Star Wars, so I didn’t think it needed a spoiler guard any more than Vader being Luke’s father. Sorry about that.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      I added spoiler tags. This is always a problem with discussing these things. I had a great example from Psycho the other day, but couldn’t use it, because some of the people present had neither seen the film nor ever had the ending spoiled for them.

      Then there was the DVD of Planet of the Apes a few years ago, that used the final scene for the cover.

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