The Wicker Man (1973) is widely regarded as the best British horror film ever made, and has earned the dubious compliment of having been the subject of a Hollywood remake starring Nicholas Cage. Whether one agrees with this analysis or not, few would dispute that it is the best film ever to feature Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward or Britt Ekland.
The Wicker Man’s cult status is appropriate – because it is about what might happen in an isolated community that reverts to pre-Christian practices. Lord Summerisle (Lee) is the hereditary laird of a Scottish island. His deceased father persuaded the islanders of his generation to reject Christianity, and return to (or reinvent) Druidic paganism. Summerisle has therefore inherited not just ownership of the island, but also the mantle of the island's religious leader—a potent combination.
Enter police sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward), a devout Christian, after he receives anonymous reports that a young island girl has gone missing. The film begins with Howie’s plane passing over a gleaming archipelago to the accompaniment of a haunting score by Paul Giovanni. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its plangent music, including some reworked folk tunes and Robert Burns poems, performed by the ad hoc band Lodestone.
From the moment he arrives, Howie is met with polite obfuscation, and everywhere confronted with what are to him appalling blasphemies – naked women in unkempt graveyards, un-roofed churches with posies, impaled birds and libations instead of crucifixes on the altar, very young children saying “penis” and being given magic lessons, naked girls dancing in circles and jumping over fire, and the clientele of the island’s only pub (where Howie is compelled to stay after his plane malfunctions mysteriously) singing along lustily to a ribald song called The Landlord's Daughter (Willow, played by Britt Ekland)—“0, nothing can delight so / As does the part that lies between her left toe / And her right toe!” the respectable-looking locals (including Willow’s twinkling-eyed father) bellow joyously, while Willow wriggles lasciviously. Later that night, a nude Willow dances in her room, which is adjacent to Howie’s, drumming on the dividing wall and calling to him to come to her (“Heigh ho I am here / Am I not young and fair?”), while he prays, perspires and wraps the pillows around his head to drown out her song. (He has vowed not to have sex until he is married.)
Howie is predisposed to dislike the islanders, and becomes increasingly convinced that the missing girl has been abducted, and that the islanders, from the unhelpful Lord Summerisle down, are complicit in a cover-up. Not only that, but he fears she will be used as a human sacrifice in a magic Mayday ceremony—in an outlandish but insularly consistent attempt to improve the island’s failing (and economically essential) apple crop.
He tries frantically to find her while the island is fizzing with anticipation for the big festival—ornate costumes being made, special breads and cakes being baked, shop windows being decorated with sexual symbols, songs and dances being practiced in dark corners, furtive conversations stopped when they see him coming, giggling children playing him tricks, costumed conspirators glimpsed for a split second down dark alleys. Exhausted, he lies down in his room for a while—then jerks awake to the repulsive sight of a smoking narcotic ‘Hand of Glory’ (a dead man’s hand), on the bedside table, seemingly left there by Willow. He dashes it to the floor in horror, and rushes into the streets, to find the islanders all grotesquely customed and dancing out of the village. He knocks out the landlord and purloins his Fool costume so he can infiltrate the procession. Eventually, they arrive at the place of sacrifice—whereupon Howie discovers that his ‘disguise’ had fooled no-one, and he has been trapped. The missing girl comes running laughingly from where she has been hiding, while a stunned Howie struggles to comprehend.
Summerisle explains with bland charm that he had been specifically targeted to come to the island, because his Christian faith and sexual abstinence mean that he will be an especially powerful offering to gods. Even as Summerisle is talking, the pinioned Howie is being dragged along the top of the cliffs to see—terror of terrors—a huge wicker semblance of a man filled with caged chickens, pigs, goats and combustible material. “Come” says Summerisle—“it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man”. Howie alternately tries to reason with Summerisle, prays and screams as he is carried up the ladder and tied in his place, and as the flames rise and the dying animals squeal—while the arm-linked, swaying islanders smile gratefully, even kindly, up at him and sing “Summer is icumen in, Loude sing cucu”. The howling flames rise to the head and the screams stop; the flaming head falls into the sea and left behind on the horizon is a wintry orange sun sinking in the boundless West, where the Celts believed lay Tír na Nóg, the Land of Eternal Youth.
As well as Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack, the acting is impeccable. Edward Woodward later recalled that he had momentarily felt real terror when he first saw the Wicker Man set up on the cliff. There is also stunning Dumfries & Galloway scenery and a driving sense of impending disaster expertly created by Frenzy screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s assured direction. But what makes The Wicker Man unique and also much more disturbing than most horror films is the way in which uncomprehending cruelty and the basest superstition are so deftly interwoven with domesticity.
The kindly sweetshop owner, the no-nonsense schoolmistress, the cheerful landlord, the joking fishermen, the tweed-wearing pensioners, the shy children—all wearing normal clothes, living in normal Victorian and Edwardian houses, holding down normal positions in society—such people could be found almost anywhere. Except that when people everywhere else are going to church or the superstore, these perfectly believable and even likeable people are harking back to a time not just before Christianity but before reason, when all of Nature was populated by demanding daemons and everything was ‘explained’ through sprites instead of science.
It was a real past—Hardy and Shaffer researched the rites from James George Frazer’s magisterial 1890 survey of European magical practices The Golden Bough, while the Romans recorded the Celts immolating animals and men in giant wicker figures. That remote time and sensibility in many ways have never left us, with ‘old religion’ symbols and sites co-opted but not captured by Christianity, and retaining a coherence of their own. Pagan place names and topography persist in hundreds of thousands of wells, woods, waters, henges, forts and mazes. Green Men, wild men, fantastical monsters and Sheela-na Gigs look down on us from cathedral roof bosses or pub signs. Ancient iconography is seen again by holidaymakers idly watching the Padstow Hobby Hoss or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Pre-rational reasoning is found in perennially popular astrology columns, New Age healing, ‘deep ecology’ and people who have been exposed to centuries of science still being afraid of the night-time. Much of our folk-music is immeasurably old, containing melodies and sentiments that have recurred over centuries (“Summer is icumen in”, for example, supposedly dates from the early 1200s). And perhaps paganism may even make a comeback as Christian belief goes down in the West like the sun in the last frame of the film. It is our sense of the persistence, and the strange familiarity, of our pre-Christian past which makes The Wicker Man so plausible, so powerful and possibly even predictive.