Wicker Man, The (United Kingdom, 1973)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Wicker Man is an early '70s British export that criss-crosses genres as easily as it confounds audience expectations. A film that defies categorization, The Wicker Man can be considered to be a horror film, a psychological thriller, a musical, or a melodrama. In reality, since it includes elements of each of those types, it literally has something for just about everyone. And, because there's a richness and intelligence to the story that leads to an unexpected climax, few viewers leave The Wicker Man unshaken. This is one of those motion pictures whose final images stay with audience members, haunting their steps after the end credits have rolled.

The Wicker Man has a behind-the-scenes stories that is almost as compelling as what happens on screen. Like the Little Engine That Could, it has seemingly defied the odds, surviving despite a conspiracy by fate and chance to efface it from cinematic history. Overseen by producer Peter Snell, the film went into production under the auspices of British Lion Film Corporation. A change in upper management at the company led to Snell's removal, and, when the new regime decided that The Wicker Man was unlikely to bring in much money at the box office, the movie was consigned to virtual oblivion. Director Robin Hardy's 100-minute version had about 12 minutes trimmed and the result ended up playing as part of a double bill with Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. To add insult to injury, the master negative was lost when it was inadvertently included in a shipment of disposable material buried beneath the under-construction M3 freeway. Somehow, however, The Wicker Man has survived, in large part due to the dogged persistence of actor Christopher Lee (who names it as the best film he ever appeared in) and the aid of Roger Corman (who ended up with the only complete copy of the film in his possession). In fact, over the years, The Wicker Man has developed a cult following and the title appeared on the BFI's list of the 100 Best British Film list.

Two versions are currently available on home video. Each has its pluses and minuses. For completists, there is an "Extended Version", which re-creates Hardy's original cut by using material from Corman's copy to supplement the theatrical version. The resulting product is of variable visual quality, with the deleted scenes showing signs of degradation, and the overall sound quality being murky. The "Theatrical Version" is much better in terms of audio and visual clarity, but it is missing the 12 minutes of footage. That's not all bad - while some of the cut scenes are useful in terms of character building, nothing critical has been eliminated.

The Wicker Man was written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), who penned the screenplay because he wanted to script a horror movie that was devoid of the blood and gore that characterized films of the genre. To complete the illusion that this was a "horror" movie, director Hardy and producer Snell recruited a pair of Hammer icons - Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt (rumor has it that Peter Cushing was approached to play the lead, but was unable to do so due to scheduling conflicts), who are cast against type - Lee does not have fangs and actually sings, and Pitt has little more than a forgettable supporting role. In fact, however, while there are horrific elements in The Wicker Man, those expecting something in the vein of Hammer films are likely to be disappointed. The movie is chilling, but bloodless.

Edward Woodward, an actor who, despite a long career in British TV and film, will probably be best remembered in North America for his series "The Equalizer", has the lead role of Sergeant Howie, a humorless policeman whose devout religious views cause him to look dimly upon any kind of heathen activity. When Howie receives an anonymous letter informing him that a young girl is missing on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, he flies out to investigate. What he discovers shocks him - a community of pagans who worship the old Celtic gods and have rejected Christianity. In the schools, children are taught to venerate the male genitalia. At night, outside of the pub, couples copulate openly. The leader of the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), explains to Howie that the citizens of the island are not irreligious - they just worship different gods. And Howie's faith comes under assault when Willow (Britt Ekland), the sensual daughter of the local innkeeper, offers herself to him. But, under it all, there is the mystery of the missing girl, and, as Howie uncovers clues, he begins to suspect a terrifying possibility. At first, everyone in Summerisle denies that she ever existed. Then, they claim that she has not died, but has been transformed into a spiritual being. But, based on evidence the townspeople attempt to hide from him, Howie comes to believe that the girl may not yet be dead, but may be the intended human sacrifice at a May Day celebration.

The Wicker Man places us in Howie's shoes, although his dour disposition and puritanical outlook on life makes it difficult to sympathize with him entirely. He sees the men and woman of Summerisle as monstrous heathens; we view them a little less judgmentally (at least initially). But, like Howie, we suspect that there's something rotten at the core of the community, and, also like the dauntless police officer, we don't figure out what it is until it's far, far too late. The brilliance of the writing is such that we don't seen the twist coming until it's nearly upon us. And that's when The Wicker Man's uneasy undertow turns into a riptide of roiling dread.

Yet, although the movie utilizes horror staples and adopts the whodunnit? format, it works equally well as a cautionary melodrama. The film warns of the consequences of religious zeal. Initially, we see Howie as the representative of uncompromising faith, but that's only until we realize the lengths to which the residents of Summerisle are willing to go to appease their gods. A philosopher once said that religion is the root of all great good and great evil. The Wicker Man illustrates that often the only thing that differentiates one from the other is point-of-view. In the wake of events of September 11, 2001, The Wicker Man gains a relevance it has not had in its previous 28 years of existence.

Strangely enough, The Wicker Man also contains elements of a musical. Music was very important to the Celts and their Druid priests, and there are at least three occasions in which Hardy elects to move the story along through song rather than dialogue. The most memorable of these occurs when a naked Britt Ekland dances seductively in her room, trying to ensnare Howie in her web. In all, there are about five musical numbers (including one that was excised from the theatrical version but remains intact in the extended director's cut). The songs are not the kind of ditties that viewers are likely to be humming as they leave the theater - Paul Giovanni's compositions are a little eerie and fit the picture's overall atmosphere.

The acting is of a high caliber. Edward Woodward (playing the part reportedly offered to Cushing) inspires confidence as Howie. He's no Sherlock Holmes, but we are convinced that his dogged persistence will get him to the bottom of matters. We feel safe identifying with him, because he has the power of righteousness on his side. Christopher Lee oozes an oily charisma. Perhaps its his close association with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, but there's something about his easy smile and baritone voice that we don't entirely trust. Britt Ekland is stunning and sexy, which is all her role really requires. Diane Cilento plays a school teacher and Ingrid Pitt is the local librarian.

Woodward's approach to the final scenes is critical to their being as unsettling as they are. His broken cry of "Oh my God!" is unnerving. Hardy's meticulous approach to filming the final scenes leaves us more than a little shaken and disturbed. By a combination of careful planning and happenstance, he chooses all the right shots to send The Wicker Man out with a bang. The story is told, although there are questions than linger. (Who, for example, wouldn't like to revisit Summerisle the following autumn to see what the harvest is like?)

Like many of the best horror/thrillers, The Wicker Man works because it surprises audiences, relying on carefully-nurtured suspense rather than cheap, theatrical shocks. With impressive set design and an attention to accurate historical detail, the film asks questions and ponders issues - traits not normally ascribed to pictures of this genre. While it's a shame that The Wicker Man's sad production history has relegated it to relative obscurity, it's somewhat of a miracle that the film survived at all. Now, whether in the "Extended Version" or the "Theatrical Version", it's well worth spending an evening watching.

Wicker Man, The (United Kingdom, 1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Music: Paul Giovanni
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1