- Director: Robin Hardy
- Writers: Anthony Shaffer
- Starring: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, and Christopher Lee
- Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
A couple days after we visited Citizen Kane, we visit a movie Fantagraphics once called “the Citizen Kane of horror.” The Wicker Man has been a huge influence on a lot of subsequent media, especially last year’s big horror hit, Midsommar, and the new HBO series The Third Day, starring Jude Law, which premieres this week. I’d been looking for something different for the site and then I saw The Independent’s review of The Third Day (which refers to the series as “The Wicker Man: Prestige TV Edition”) and thought it would be fun to check out the original. I should also probably say that I’m talking about the 1973 British original, not the completely nonsensical 2006 American remake starring Nicolas Cage (“THE BEES, THE BEES”), which has much more of a reputation for being so bad it’s good than for being actually good.
It is hard for me to say that this is a definitive horror movie, but that is more because I’m not even sure it really is a horror movie than because it’s not really good. There is no spurting blood or jump scares. Christopher Lee, who had spent the past decade or so starring as Dracula and in other horror roles for Hammer Films, provided the impetus for the film’s development after he expressed a desire to friends in the movie business to do something, anything different. But if horror is found in the slow accumulation of unsettling details, this movie is maybe the prime example.
West Highland Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland via seaplane, to investigate an anonymous tip he received about a missing girl. He is a devout (and prudish) Christian, and soon discovers to his horror that the islanders still practice “the old religion.” This involves not only things like putting frogs in the mouth to cure sore throats, but also a great deal of “copulating in the fields.” After observing incredulously that he saw a group of young girls jumping naked over a fire, he is told “it’s very dangerous to jump over fire with your clothes on.” He even walks in on a class of girls in the school being taught that “the maypole represents the phallus.” Howie cannot deal with these things, and reacts to the concept of sex ed about the same way you imagine he would if he witnessed a murder. It is easy to imagine a certain audience (especially one in the early 70s) wishing Howie would either get over his uptight nonsense or just leave these seemingly well-adjusted people alone with their group sex and folk ballads.
Yet even from the first moments something weird is going on. The islanders say they don’t remember the girl, but then it turns out her mother is there, then they say they do recognize her but she died. Howie has her grave dug up but when he opens the coffin finds only a dead hare. His seaplane, meanwhile, suddenly no longer works. After talking with the island’s Lord (Lee), and doing some research in the library, he guesses that the islanders are planning a human sacrifice on May Day to prevent their crops from failing. It must be the girl! He infiltrates the May Day parade in a mask (led by a prancing Lee in a bizarre costume) and finds that they do eventually come to the girl, who is alive and well. It turns out that she was bait this whole time, and it is Howie, an adult virgin (he “doesn’t believe in it before marriage”), that they are really after for the sacrifice. He is burned inside a giant, wicker man, while the islanders all hold hands and sing the old folk song “Summer Is Icumen In” in a circle around him. The movie’s final shot shows the wicker man collapsing in flames to reveal the setting sun over the ocean.
What this plot summary can’t really tell you is how next level bizarre this movie is, or as The Independent put it in another recent article, its “giddy, almost twee otherworldliness.” Did I mention it’s also sort of a musical? The islanders are always singing ritual songs, mostly while doing other weird stuff. Early on, there’s a lengthy scene where 60s/70s sex symbol Britt Ekland, playing the lascivious daughter of the innkeeper at whose establishment Howie is staying, dances around completely naked while singing an original folk-ish song composed for the movie. This is all part of an attempt to seduce Howie, which he resists after a lot of putting his hands on the wall and making pained faces. We figure out later that this is probably an attempt to test if he’s really a virgin.
Ekland was the biggest star in the movie at the time, more for her sex symbol status than for her roles to date. She had been married to Peter Sellers, and by the time the movie came out she would be dating Rod Stewart. There was a rumor at the time that Stewart tried to buy every copy of the film to “protect her dignity” from the nude scene being shown. This is probably not true, though we do know that Stewart said his big hit “Tonight’s the Night” was inspired by Ekland. She had been born in Stockholm (her father was the Captain of the Swedish Curling Team), and all her dialogue and singing in the movie was dubbed because she couldn’t convincing pull off a Scottish accent. She also used a body double for substantial portions of the naked dancing, due to being three months’ pregnant at the time. The next year she would play Bond girl Holly Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun, which also starred Christopher Lee as the titular villain.
The life and career of Christopher Lee, who plays Lord Summerisle, was packed far too full to summarize sufficiently here. In addition to his classic horror work, he was a spy during World War II, was the only member of the cast of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien, and recorded two metal albums after he turned 85. Up until his death in 2015, he continued to say that The Wicker Man was his favorite movie he had appeared in.
The fears that The Wicker Man taps into were new for cinema at that time, but not new to humans. Howie finds that the separation between the modern world and darker past is far less solid than it might appear, and finds that he cannot use reason or science to get back to “reality.” The themes of the movie are laid bare in a climactic scene, just before he’s burned alive, when Howie tries desperately to convince the islanders that they’re making a mistake. “Can you not see!” he yells. “There is no sun god. There is no goddess of the fields. Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands. It’s against nature! Don’t you see that killing me isn’t going to bring back your apples?” He turns to Lord Summerisle, thinking he’s really a more enlightened outsider humoring the poor, benighted islanders. “Summerisle, you know it won’t. Go on, man. Tell them. Tell them it won’t!” Lord Summerisle looks him right in the eye and says “I know it will!” in that enormous Christopher Lee baritone. Sergeant Howie is doomed.
Especially in 2020, we all likely feel like that sometimes, have moments where we suddenly realize that we’re completely surrounded by people who might as well have been taking crazy pills, and that the logic and reason we may have relied on in our everyday lives suddenly no longer apply. And it doesn’t help when the islanders have a crazy leader who, when called on to rein them in, instead chooses to deny science and persist with his course in the face of all evidence to the contrary. That would never happen in real life, as we all know.