The Wicker Man (1973) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christoper Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt
Director: Robin Hardy

“Welcome, fool. You have come of your own free will. The game is over.”

It might never have been afforded the respect it deserved at the time, but The Wicker Man is now justifiably recognised as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Robin Hardy’s subtle folk horror is low on scares, violence or any of the other tropes that usually populate the genre, instead slowly building an inescapable feeling of dread and unease, as we watch a man’s journey to what is one of the most unforgettable deaths in the history of cinema.

Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) is a policeman called to the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle with a report of a missing child.

A devout and chaste Christian, Howie is immediately appalled by the clear pagan attitudes of the islanders who view with him with either amusement or barely concealed contempt. Worse, none of them will admit to having any knowledge of the girl, Rowan Morrison, including her own mother.

Suspecting a conspiracy, Howie investigates his way around the island and its inhabitants. As a result, his beliefs are challenged repeatedly, with locals freely having sex outside the inn, children dancing suggestively round a maypole, fertility rites being taught in school and pagan gods being freely worshipped.

Worse, the missing girl appears to have been sacrificed to those same gods, but nobody on the island will even admit she existed, not even the highest authority in the land, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)

What Howie doesn’t realise is that while there is a conspiracy at work, Rowan isn’t the sacrifice he thinks she is…

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here. This might be the greatest film ever made for me.

Right from the off, there’s something hypnotic about it, like we as viewers are being lured in as much as the naïve Howie. It’s a lyrical, poetic film, not a million miles off from a full-blown musical in fact, with its lush folk soundtrack illustrating pretty much every scene. Some songs are purely soundtracking, but others are in-world, sang by the islanders as if it was the most natural thing in the world, to the extent that the Landlord’s Daughter song is a group effort with every punter in the Green Man Inn taking a line each. It’s a deceptively innocuous approach but it helps to give The Wicker Man an otherworldly feel that’s not overtly noticeable at first.

The ensemble cast are exceptional too, mostly feeling like real villagers plucked off the street (as they should) with just the right amount of “other” about them to unsettle.

Christoper Lee gives perhaps his finest performance ever (he certainly thought it was) as the Lord of the Manor. As the ultimate authority on the island, Lee’s gravitas makes him perfectly cast here, but he gets to flex his acting muscles considerably with the role. Summerisle isn’t a villain, he’s a good man, with strong beliefs, much like Howie. It’s just his beliefs take in human sacrifice, but there’s no malice there, even in calling Howie a fool. It’s a role to him, a necessary one, not a term of abuse. That’s not to say he doesn’t play with him a little, particularly in their first meeting and Lee is clearly relishing playing such a layered and complex character.

It’s Britt Ekland’s landlord’s daughter Willow who messes with Howie the most though. The famous seduction scene starts slow, with her gently tapping the wall dividing their two beds, but builds wonderfully, as she dances around the room naked, pounding on the window frame, the walls, the door and eventually herself, laughing and stalking him along the other side of the wall. It’s pitched beautifully, with Willow playing with him like a cat toys with a mouse, her eyes laughing but with cruelty in there too, leaving Howie literally sweating as he resists her temptation with all his might. So much so that you almost feel sorry for him. Almost.

It’s a pivotal scene and essentially his final temptation (naked Ingrid Pitt in a tiny bath notwithstanding) and the final test of his moral character that ironically seals his fate.

None of this would work if Edward Woodward wasn’t so flawless in his depiction of Sgt Howie though.

His virgin policeman is masterfully constructed, jerky and indignant, shaking with barely suppressed rage at times, incredulous at what he’s seeing around him, but with a humanity and strength that allows you to empathise with him even at his most priggish.

That empathy is never more keenly felt than in those final horrifying scenes. His initial defiance in the face of death is destroyed when he sees The Wicker Man and realises what his fate is to be. His panic, horror and finally resignation is truly upsetting to watch, particularly the latter.

The entire island of Summerisle has controlled his every thought and action from the moment he arrived, leading him to this point. It’s horrendous and leaves you sitting watching in stunned silence, well after the symbolic last shot of The burning Wicker Man collapsing to reveal the glowing red sun behind it.

The Wicker Man is a remarkable piece of work. As unique, thoughtful and beautiful as it is utterly disturbing, there’s nothing quite like it and very little that comes close to it. Flawless.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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