Movie Of The Week: THE WICKER MAN (1973)

Cinapse Movie of the Week

Exactly what it sounds like, the movie of the week column is written up by the Cinapse team on rotation, focusing on films that are past the marketing cycle of either their theatrical release or their home video release. So maybe the movie of the week will be only a couple of years old. Or maybe it’ll be a silent film, cult classic, or forgotten gem. Cinapse is all about thoughtfully advocating film, new and old, and celebrating what we love no matter how marketable that may be. So join us as we share about what we’re discovering, and hopefully you’ll find some new films for your watch list, or some new validation that others out there love what you love too! Engage with us in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook! And now, our Cinapse Movie Of The Week…

I love Nic Cage. I admire his body of work. I think he is a genuinely talented actor (see Joe, Raising Arizona, Adaptation) and adore him when he goes ‘Full Cage’ (Vampire’s Kiss). I recently reveled in CAGED, a 5 movie marathon hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin. And for all this, there is something I cannot forgive: that he was largely responsible for a terrible remake of not only one of my favorite films, but one of the greatest horror films ever made. Yes, my pick for my first go at the Cinapse Movie Of The Week is, as expected, a personal favorite: The Wicker Man. As a 16 year old, I caught an airing late one night, no idea what I was letting myself in for. What unraveled was a gripping spectacle that I fell in love with, unaware of its cult-classic status.

“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous note informing him of a missing girl named Rowan Morrison, on the nearby island of Summerisle. He journeys to the island, and finds the locals welcoming enough, but having no knowledge of any girl named Rowan. And soon discovering the islanders practice Paganism. Howie, a devout Christian, is repulsed by their open demonstrations of sexuality, nature worship, and other pagan practices. He takes a stern and hostile approach to dealing with the island’s residents, notably the leader of the community, the eccentric Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) himself. His irritation rises as, at every turn, his investigation is met by denials, obstructions, contradictions and lies until he comes to the realization that the island’s harvests are failing and Rowan is likely not dead. Her disappearance is perhaps in preparation for the upcoming May Day celebrations, a day of sacrifice and celebration to the old Gods. The darker side of the island starts to reveal itself as Howie realizes he is trapped on the island and his time for finding Rowan is running out.

The plot is a simple one, but the setting, characters and twists are what create a truly memorable piece of cinema. The Wicker Man is, even now, a very different style of horror. The disturbing nature of the film creeps in by how Summerisle is a perversion of sorts. Not just in how its inhabitants turn their back on mainstream religion but also in its climate, being in an unusual, warmer gulf stream, allowing more tropical fruits to grow in defiance of geography. A Scottish Island peppered with palm trees is a strange thing indeed. Summerisle is familiar and yet unfamiliar, comforting but disconcerting, local and quaint but exotic. All these contradictions throw you off and leave you feeling uneasy throughout. On top of this are the Pagan practices of the islanders, a little soliloquy from Lord Summerisle himself reflecting on the path taken by the community he leads.

I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.

There is a liberation in this community, not beholden to guilt or penance, the exact opposite of a devout follower of the Christian faith. It is this clash that drives the intrigue in the film forward. Our protagonist (and in a sense, hero) follows a strict moral code. He is chaste, pure and dedicated to his faith and profession. The reality is this is a Christian man blinded by his faith. That and his rigidity contribute to his downfall in the film. Howie’s adherence to his moral code and insistence on imposing it on others drives him to antagonise this foreign culture. He is a stickler for the rules, unbending and frankly dull, but elicits sympathy largely through the outstanding work of Edward Woodward. But also because you never forget that he is trying to find and rescue a lost child.

The choice of following a Pagan way of life it not inherently evil, nor is it obviously portrayed in that way during the film. It is only in the closing moments that the full terror of the islanders actions is unleashed and you are left with one of the most memorable final shots committed to film. At its core, The Wicker Man is a theological dissection. Religion, or perhaps more pertinently belief, being the motivation of all the characters. Howie is a devout Christian who deals in absolutes, blacks and whites, religious doctrine and the law. Be under no illusion that the film paints Christianity in a poor light. Though Paganism, while shown as a rebuke to that faith, is equally shown to illustrate the problems of blind faith in anything.

The Wicker Man release coincided with a time when folk music was at its peak in the UK, Paganism was fading more into obscurity and, as a Nation, people seemed to be clinging more strongly to religion in the face of massive cultural changes with the solidification of the European Union and the influxes that would bring. The culture clash resonates still, the film showing how the warring philosophies cannot coexist due to their lack of understanding and compatibility.

Perhaps the closest comparative film in American culture is The Exorcist. Both deal with a crisis of faith, temptation and corruption, as well as the loss and abuse of a child. Granted there is no supernatural element at play here, but the journey and challenge to a man of God is a similar one.

The Wicker Man succeeds as a horror film because it also brings in mystery/thriller elements. This is a Detective at work after all. The film engages the audience and the clues are there as to where the plot is going. Why is there no fresh fruit or vegetables on an island known for its local produce? Why are there missing harvest photographs? It is also about a hunter becoming the hunted. In one scene, Officer Howie comes across a beetle tied to a nail, slowly winding itself closer to death. A perfect analogy for the film and a chilling portent for what is to come.

It is a thoughtful film, not out and out horror, the real horror creeps in when you think about the journey and outcome of the protagonist. The machinations and manipulation on the part of the villagers being terrifying to comprehend.

The film itself is gorgeous. The verdant green of Scotland, beautiful aerial shots tinged with added cuts of orchards and crops. (Spliced footage from a trip of Hardy’s to South Africa). Various shots around the island have tropical plants added. It gives the film a vivid, dreamlike feel, but still has dark and twisted imagery in parts. Films such as Seven and A Field In England as well as TV shows like True Detective draw from the look and feel of the film. One of the more unusual things to draw inspiration from the film is a The League of Gentlemen, a darkly disturbing comedy that I also recommend. It may be easier to connect with the ambiance of the movie as a Brit: it’s common to visit a small village and feel like you’re being watched and seen as an outsider. The Wicker Man is probably the pinnacle of capturing this “not local” feeling. Compounding it all is the use of pagan/gospel and folk music. Some of the ditties are pretty catchy and haunting in their own right.

Edward Woodward (The Equalizer, Hot Fuzz) and Christopher Lee (no films listed, its Christopher ‘Ruddy’ Lee and you know who that is) are critical to the film’s success. There is such conflict and resolve shown by Woodward in his portrayal of Howie and Lee just revels in his patriarchal role. Considering Lee has made over 250 pictures and considers The Wicker Man his best film, that must stand for something. Brit Ekland (weird dubbing and all) is the alluring landlord’s daughter and the personification of the temptations of the flesh sent to Howie’s door. Each villager and character only serves to greater add to the community you see and solidify the reality that this Island is out there somewhere off the coast of Scotland.

As with so many divisive films, there are numerous versions of The Wicker Man floating around. It was cut down to B-picture length on initial release to run with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (another seminal British horror film) as well as to satisfy censors. Director Robin Hardy’s original print of the film was thought lost forever. However, in 1979, an original print was discovered in the possession of Roger Corman. This was used to reconstruct a Director’s Cut that was released on the film’s 30th Anniversary. These extra scenes flesh out the island and it’s characters and only add to the surreal nature of the film. Recently a “Final Cut” version approved by Hardy was released with extra footage and a digital restoration. This version changes the introduction to the film, setting up the rigidity and dedication of Howie’s faith even more so, strengthening the perception of him as a “fool”, but perhaps crafting an even more sympathetic character in the process. The “Final Cut” is available from Amazon through a link below this article and is probably the best way to see the film.

The Wicker Man is an iconic piece of British cinema. It was both perfectly placed within its era and ahead of its time. Viewing the film now, it is perhaps easy to see a somewhat bizarre camp spectacle. But viewed in its original context it is an audacious and powerful work. A slow burn thriller with a horror vibe running through it. Career high performances from Woodward and Lee combined with a gripping tale and horrifying twist make for a truly memorable film. You may note I have remained pretty spoiler free in all this, especially with regards to the ending. Find a copy and sit down to see it unfold for yourselves, after all, “shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”.

It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.

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