by Steve Habrat
As horror moved into the 1970s, the genre was becoming extremely savage, bloodthirsty, and unforgiving. Exploitation horror was gaining momentum and even the arty offerings didn’t hesitate to get right in your face with bludgeoning images of sex and violence. Subtlety was slowly getting buried six feet under, but one British horror film chose to take a different approach to creeping you out big time. That film would be director Robin Hardy’s 1973 Pagan musical-horror film The Wicker Man, an unsettling look at religion that slowly works up to a fiery climax that has become one of the most well known finishes in movie history. At first glance, most probably wouldn’t be quick to label The Wicker Man a horror film. It’s got a folky atmosphere with a number of strumming musical breaks, several of which feature free-spirited ladies dancing around in the nude. Once called “the Citizen Kane of horror films” by the film magazine Cinefantastique, The Wicker Man slowly grows on the viewer before fully revealing an ugly side. Undoubtedly, it will take the viewer a moment to adjust to it, especially when a pub breaks out into song in the first ten minutes and Hardy presents a slow-motion sex scene. But as Hardy lures us deeper into this island and allows us to mingle with the inhabitants, you’ll start to feel a churning sense of dread as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle seals Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie’s fate.
The Wicker Man begins with devout Christian Sgt. Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) arriving at Summerisle Island, where he is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. As he opens his investigation, the straight-laced Neil meets with locals who claim never to have heard of Rowan. As Neil explores the island, he witnesses several couples having sex in the open air of a park, observes the island’s doctor attempting to rid a young girl of a sore throat by putting a frog in the girl’s mouth, wards off the seduction of the innkeepers beautiful daughter, Willow (played by Britt Ekland), and bursts in on a graphic school lesson. To Neil’s horror, he is wandering around on an island full of Pagans. After finding Rowan’s grave and discovering that buried in her place is a hare, Neil meets with island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee), who explains the history of the island, which is known for its fruits and vegetables. Enraged by his meeting with Lord Summerisle, Neil launches his own investigation of the island’s May Day festivals and in the process, he makes a shocking discovering that puts him in mortal danger.
What makes The Wicker Man such an uneasy experience is the exploration of religious extremity. We are asked to identify with a devout Christian, a virgin who trembles at the very idea of polytheism worship and open sexuality. While in front of the chuckling islanders, Neil wears an authoritative mask and a rigid stance, although it is easy to see that he is repulsed by what those around him claim to believe. Behind closed doors, he kneels beside his bed and prays furiously to his one true God. On the other side of he room lays the nude Willow, knocking on the wall and singing a hypnotic folk song in the hopes of luring the uptight Neil into her bed. She dances and sways around her room, seeming to cast a spell through her motions as Neil fights furiously to repel her advances. He sweats and stumbles, clinging to the wall as if an unseen hands were trying to drag him from the room. Early on, Hardy lets us know that Neil suffers from his religious beliefs, but he slowly allows us to glimpse the insanity of the islanders as they march in their animal masks and unveil their true intentions with our God-fearing protagonist. It’s horrifying what they will do for a successful crop season, a stomach-churning plot that reeks of lunacy and blind devotion. Even scarier is the way they smile proudly as they look upon their work, singing proudly and loudly up to their glowing sun god.
The two men caught in the center of this religious exploration are Christopher Lee’s shock-haired Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie, both who give drastically different but equally exquisite performances. Woodward is sensational as a man who just can’t open his mind up to the possibility that others do not believe what he believes. He is constantly irritated by the practices of the islanders and he even attempts to intervene when he catches an earful of what is being taught to the children in school. In a sense, we do feel bad for him when we see him struggle to stay pure, but it’s tough when he is basically a victim of his own faith and repression. However uptight he may be, you can’t help but feel for him when he is sacrificed at the hands of madness during the climax. On the other side of the spectrum is Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the island’s unhinged leader that smiles sarcastically as Neil accuses him of sacrificing the girl he is there to find in a Pagan ritual. By the end of the film, as the island wind ruffles up his hair and he explains that they have lured Neil into a trap, you’ll truly be convinced that Lee has never been more terrifying. He’s a realistic villain—a bonafide cult leader convinced that bloodshed is the answer to the island’s recent misfortunes. Lee is completely engulfed by the performance as Hardy zooms in on his euphoric signing with his faithful band of followers.
While I must confess that The Wicker Man didn’t entirely win me over at the beginning, the film grows on you with each passing second. I feared that I would never warm to the way Hardy works in some folky musical numbers, but they possess a pull that becomes hard to resist. The final chant around the burning wicker man is unforgettably scary, especially when complimented by Neil’s terrified pleas to God. The film also looks gorgeous, boasting breathtaking cinematography that makes great use of its picturesque Scottish locations. Overall, as far as the “Citizen Kane of horror films” praise is concerned, I don’t particularly believe that the film is scary enough to really earn that title. Sure, it is thought provoking and it certainly is a one of a kind, but it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you. It disturbs more often than it terrifies. However, this isn’t to say that The Wicker Man isn’t a really good film. It’s handsomely made, sharply acted, cleverly written, and it features one of the most powerful climaxes in horror movie history. You will undoubtedly be playing it back in your mind the next day, but it won’t have you switching on a nightlight for weeks after.
The Wicker Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD.