THE WICKER MAN (REVIEW)
Dir. Robin Hardy
Reviewer. Dan Cook
Widely considered to be the one of the best British horror movies ever made, Robin Hardy's 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN is a masterclass in mystery, intrigue and threat. Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, the film tells the story of Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward), a devout Christian police officer who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. While on the island, he quickly discovers that its many inhabitants practice an ancient form of paganism and as his findings and questionings lead him closer and closer towards the truth, the unsuspecting sergeant soon finds out the true diabolical nature of the townsfolks beliefs.
Much like the other British folk horror movies of the era such as 1971's BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and 1968's THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the roots of THE WICKER MAN lie in the now extinct quasi - religions and ideologies that formed the backbone of the theologies of England, Scotland and Wales over seven centuries ago. By utilising the authentic, natural settings of the island (in reality, a conglomeration of numerous Scottish and English villages) as well as carefully placed and very well chosen folk songs provided by one-time band Magnet, Hardy encapsulates the looks and sounds that many of us associate with paganism and religious cults, helping to add to the strange and inexplicably threatening aura of the picture.
On the surface, Summersisle looks like an average seaside village; you have the pretty landmarks, the quirky and colourful locals and the slightly odd yet charming traditions. We recognize the landscapes and we recognise the people as traditionally British but the values and ideologies that the island holds in it's heart are so much more alien and dangerous than anything ever seen in horror. It is as if Summersisle is a place frozen in time where Christianity is dead and paganism rules with a strong and malicious heart.
While the Highland settings are indeed beautiful and the strange narrative is told in a very manageable way, it is the performances that elevate THE WICKER MAN above many of the horror movies released today. In the central lead we have Edward Woodward who gives a performance which is nothing short of extraordinary. Playing a man who wears his religious beliefs proudly on his sleeve, Woodward brings a stoic and determined personality to his character, making us believe in his motivations and relate to his various physical and psychological dilemmas. He is not a man driven by his own emotions or his own personal needs, rather driven by his duty and his insatiable need to seek justice and this makes the character of Howie far more compelling than most horror leading men.
While Woodward plays the part of the stiff upper lipped police officer very well indeed, it is when he plays the part of a devout Christian that he transcends the genre of horror. Already shocked by the depravity and decadence on clear display on Summersisle, it perturbs him further when it becomes apparent that Christianity plays no part in the lives of these people living on island of the coast of the British Isles in the 20th century. He may be able to overlook the hedonistic nature of the islanders beliefs but it is when his faith and Christian values are questioned and undermined that Howie allows his true feelings and opinions flow. Acting as a messenger of the Lord, Howie endeavours to bring solidarity and traditionalism to Summersisle; actions which of course fall on deaf ears and it his frustration and, eventually, his fear that forcefully drive the second half of the narrative kicking and screaming to its nightmarish crescendo.
During the late 50's and throughout the 60's, Christopher Lee was the king of British horror thanks to his starring roles in the hugely popular Hammer pictures. However, while his roles as Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula had bought him both fame and fortune, the actor had become bored of typecasting and endeavoured to spread his wings. THE WICKER MAN provided such an opportunity. In a role he calls the best he ever played, Lee is downright terrifying as Lord Summersisle; the governor and pagan leader of the people of the island. With a distinctive charm, friendly nature and erudite personality, Lord Summersisle is the direct opposite to Sergeant Howie and this drives the conflict between the two providing THE WICKER MAN with some of it's most indelible set pieces; set pieces which are both tense and darkly comical. Fast to judge the police officer due to his what he calls 'dead beliefs', Summersisle is the embodiment of the paganism that has taken a hold of the psyche of the island. While at first glance, he may not be the archetypal horror antagonist, Summersisle quickly reveals himself to be one of the most dangerous and psychotic in all of horror thanks to his devout unfounded beliefs and unwavering trust in wholly inhuman practices.
Unlike many horror movies where the frights comes from blood, gore and jump scares, THE WICKER MAN's fear comes from its believability. As is evident in the rise of Scientology, Manson-ism and other dangerous cults, people are willing to believe anything as long as it comes from a smiling face and promise of a happy life. I'm sure it's not outside the bounds of reality that a pagan cult like the one depicted in THE WICKER MAN could exist in 21st century Britain and it is this realism and potential for existence that makes it one of the scariest movies ever made. The terror builds up throughout the narrative but it is not until the final 10 or so minutes that the film reveals its ultimate horror and when it unexpectedly does, the result is almost too unspeakably bleak to conceive.
Upon it's release in 1973, THE WICKER MAN quickly gained a reputation as a true cult classic, a reputation that still exists to this day. Named by the American magazine Fantastique as the CITIZEN KANE of horror movies, THE WICKER MAN is a tour de force of storytelling, acting and filmmaking. While it's name may now have been blighted thanks to the 'so bad it's hilarious' remake starring the always entertaining Nicolas Cage and even a wholly unnecessary sequel directed by Robin Hardy himself, it is impossible to deny that THE WICKER MAN is a film like no other and one that is sure to live on forever through repeat viewing and continuous praise from horror fans and critics alike.