Described by its many fans as the ‘greatest British horror film of all time’, The Wicker Man (1973) certainly has a cult following.
Directed by Robin Hardy, on its original release, distributors, British Lion Films (EMI), demanded extensive cuts and by doing so the story lost many of its essential early plot elements.
Upon release in the USA some 2 years later, King of the B-movies, Roger Corman suggested a further 13 minutes be shaved-off the running time.
So what it’s about? Essentially the film is little more than a Hammer horror film with slightly better acting.
Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent an anonymous letter about a missing girl on the mysterious and remote Summerisle.
Howie flies to the island and soon discovers that the islands inhabitants have long-since given up Christianity, and now worship the sun – believing in reincarnation and engaging in bizarre fertility rituals.
Howie, a devout Christian and a virgin to boot, becomes increasingly shocked at the islanders behaviour and attitudes. His investigations are constantly blocked by the islanders, and in frustration he demands to see Lord Summerisle (Sir Christopher Lee) Laird of the island.
Eventually Howie uncovers the truth (or is it?) that Rowan is dead. After a heated meeting with Summerisle, Howie obtains the Lord’s permission to exhume the body of Rowan from a grave in the island’s un-consecrated churchyard. But once opened, he discovers the fresh corpse of a hare, an animal with supernatural connotations.
Back at the Green Man, Howie notices a series of photographs, hanging on the wall of the bar, depicting the annual harvest but discovers that the latest image is missing. The locals tell him that it was broken and is at the chemist being repaired.
After breaking in to the chemist, Howie finds the original negatives and develops the missing photograph with Rowan and the harvest. It is obvious that last year was not a good harvest as the produce surrounding her is meagre compared to previous years.
Howie experiences an epiphany. He realises that Rowan is still alive and that the islanders are proposing to “appease” the gods by making a Mayday sacrifice. He assumes that Rowan is to be the intended sacrifice, whereupon he instigates a search of the island.
Failing to discover where Rowan is hidden, Howie disguises himself as Punch, a principal character of the May Day festival, hoping to strike at the root of the mystery.
He joins the bizarre procession of islanders as they cavort through the town and up to the cliffs. After he survives a sword-beheading ceremony, Rowan is finally revealed. Howie grabs her and flees through a cave but emerges at the other end on a precipice where Lord Summerisle and his followers await.
Lord Summerisle then reveals that Rowan’s disappearance was all an elaborate to bring Howie to the island. Howie, not Rowan, is the intended sacrifice, and the islanders believe his death will restore the fertility of their orchards.
Woodward, in his pre-Equalizer days, is totally believable as the naïve cop Howie. Sir Christopher Lee’s role could almost have been written for him, and probably was. He is both devious and pleasant and a above all masterful is his role as the Laird.
There’s an element of camp about the film and one would be surprised if any adult viewer of this classic cult movie would be disturbed. Indeed, Lindsay Kemp’s portrayal of landlord Alder MacGreagor, makes Danny La Rue look butch.
The Wicker Man was remade in 2007 and starred Nicholas Cage as the cop (Howie). Set in the American Northwest, the film was badly received.
Like the remake of the other British classic, The Italian Job, some things are best left alone!
Additional film information: The Wicker Man (1973)