Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Wicker Man (1973).

Final Girl Film Club ahoy!

I believe this was chosen before the passing of Edward Woodward, so it was a sad and fitting tribute to be watching one of his films.

[As an aside, Edgar Wright's piece on Woodward was the best one I read. It can be found here]

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, was another film that my Dad recommended to me when he realised I was becoming a horror film enthusiast.

I was relatively young when I first watched it and recall finding it quite... dull. I didn't get why a horror film would have songs in it and the subtle layering of the small town creepiness wasn't to my unrefined palate back then. I do, however, remember the ending sucker-punching me. It's odd thinking about how different and genre-naive my opinions were back then.

So, re-watching many, many years later was an interesting experience. Small town based chills are now one of my favourite types and bizarrely, during the opening act of this film I was very much reminded of Dead and Buried (review here) despiteThe Wicker Man predating it by eight years. The songs in the film I now see as adding to the eerie, rather than taking away from it.

The plot, if you somehow aren't familiar, concerns Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) a devoutly Christian police officer, who is sent to investigate a case of a missing child on the island of Summerisle.

Where is Rowan Morrison?

From the moment he arrives the locals act suspiciously cagey: denying facts Howie knows to be true, contradicting themselves and generally being aggravatingly unhelpful.

As the Sergeant's investigation progresses, he begins to not only uncover the truth and lies regarding Rowan's alleged disappearance, but also learns of the inhabitants' neo-pagan beliefs. His traditional sensibilities are increasingly horrified at what he witnesses: public copulation, Christian churches left in ruin, school children being educated about "phallic symbols". Then, at the film's shocking conclusion, all remaining mysteries are explained and Howie is led screaming to his sacrificial death as the islanders look on, singing merrily.

"Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man."
- Lord Summerisle.
The film unfolds more as a mystery to begin with, displaying instance upon instance of off-kilter behaviour from the Summerisle folk. The pace is steady, answering some questions but raising even more as we follow the trail of breadcrumbs along with Howie.

Whatever happened to traditional confectionery?

Why does the village chemist have a jar of foreskins? (And where did he get them from?!).

What's with the creepy animal masks?

What exactly do the May Day celebrations involve, apart from the island's owner prancing about in a long black wig?

Upon meeting Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, impressive in all aspects including his hair and wardrobe) Howie encounters the apex of the island's weirdness.

Howie: "But, they're naked...!"
Lord Summerisle: "Well, naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on."
Where he thought he would find co-operation from the owner and magistrate of the island, the policeman instead finds a charismatic leader who speaks of old gods, divinity lessons and appears as "raving mad" as everyone else.
Lord Summerisle: "Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent."
No review of this film can pass without a mention of the infamous Britt Ekland nude scene.

In an attempt to seduce Howie, Willow (Ekland) the sexually liberated landlord's daughter, casts a spell by dancing around the room adjoining the one in which the virginal policeman is staying. She sings, bangs on the walls and he - who is engaged to be married and a believer in abstinence until the wedding night - is tested to his limits as he paces, sweats and presses himself against the wall in return. Somehow however, he ultimately resists Willow's charms. Unfortunately, he just should have gone for it, because his self control ultimately proves to be one of the nails in his own coffin.

I definitely didn't appreciate this sequence way back when. It's more than just a pretty woman dancing around with no clothes on; it is charged with eroticism and in a very simple, beautiful way shows the battle between sexuality and repression.

The spell, in song form, is named 'Willow's Song' and is rightly lauded as one of the best in the film. Watch the whole thing on Youtube here.

For something classed as a horror film, the horrific only comes into play right at the end, where Howie learns of his fate. I would be tempted, if it were not for this final scenes, to deny that this is a horror film at all. However, the building dread, from the ritual preparation of the policeman before his sacrifice; his anger which turns into begging for mercy that in turn becomes him screaming for his life; the islanders' terrifying conviction in what they are doing and the image of the Wicker Man itself are undeniably frightening elements. I may not have been convinced of the film's cult status when I first saw it, yet Howie's screaming stayed the fuck with me.

The Wicker Man is a quintessentially British film that may not make it onto everybody's 'ultimate horror' list, and yet anyone calling themselves a fan of the genre certainly needs to see it. I'm pleased I have had a chance to watch the film again, now that I am old enough and wise enough to "get it". Horror films may not be advised viewing for young'uns first and foremost due to potentially scary content, but it is also a case of needing a little life and genre experience to fully appreciate them, too!

Going to end on this image, because I capped it and adore it, even though it didn't fit into the review anywhere. It's too good not to include.


  1. And amazingly, I've still never got round to watching this film..

  2. Then I really wish you didn't know how it ended; because it's SO much better when it's a shock.

  3. If you love small town Horror you really should make an effort to see The Messiah Of Evil.

    Its tough to find but well worth it.

  4. That's such a lovely post from Edgar Wright. Thank you! I hadn't seen it. (And I didn't even recognize EW in Hot Fuzz.. I'm an idiot.)

    Very nice review! I also love the May Morrison image. I love everything in that sweet shop... one of my favorite images in the film is May slicing up the baby-shaped cake.