Saturday 1 May 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, loosely adapted from the novel Ritual by David Pinner
Stars: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

It’s a testament to the power of The Wicker Man that, however many horror movies you watch, it consistently stands alone. Frankly, that holds true even if you start dabbling in the vein that’s become known as British folk horror, epitomised by Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and this picture, because the other two films there are period pieces, while this was contemporary to 1973. It’s remembered very well, with its two primary stars praising it highly. Christopher Lee, whose long and distinguished career was a busy one for almost seventy years, remembered it as his very best picture, above anything he did in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or James Bond. Edward Woodward, best known as TV’s Equalizer, described his lead role here as the best he ever played and called out the film’s ending as the best in film history. While received well at the time, it didn’t succeed wildly at the box office and had fallen into obscurity by the time Cinefantastique devoted an entire issue to the film in 1977, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”.

I had to choose it for this project because it’s inextricably entangled in pagan folklore and it ends on May Day, which long before its adoption in 1889 as International Workers’ Day, which would eventually lead to the iconic demonstrations of Soviet military might we saw during the Cold War, was a traditional spring holiday across most of Europe, dating back to Roman times and the festival of Flora. There are rituals in this picture that evoke Gaelic celebrations of Beltane, such as naked young women jumping over a sacred flame as part of their “divinity lessons”; they’re trying to get pregnant through parthenogenesis rather than sexual relations. Also here is a scene focused around a maypole but, unlike the family friendly version still celebrated in towns across England, this one is a phallic symbol, which Miss Rose teaches the girls of Summerisle is “venerated in religions such as ours.” In fact, there’s so much here that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s written a book about folklore to explain everything going on in The Wicker Man.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because this isn’t just about paganism, it’s about how paganism might clash with Christianity in a country that technically still has a state religion. That’s the point at which the film’s origins began. Christopher Lee wanted to take on more interesting horror roles, given the similarity of the parts he was getting at Hammer, and he chatted with Anthony Shaffer about making something happen. Shaffer was a novelist and playwright who was building a serious name for himself in the movie business, having written both Frenzy and Sleuth a year earlier. Lee owned the film rights to Ritual, a novel by David Pinner, and this became a loose beginning for the script that became The Wicker Man. The overt combatants in this age old clash are Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highland Police, a devout Christian who flies onto the western island of Summerisle to investigate a missing child, and the population of that island, led by Lord Summerisle himself, because, as the latter states, “Here, the old gods aren’t dead.”

The script is a clever one because what we think it is changes as the film progresses. Initially, it’s simply an investigation, triggered by an anonymous letter and photograph sent to Howie on the mainland, but it’s a strange one because nobody on the island seems to have heard of Rowan Morrison, including her supposed mother, May, who runs the local post office. May’s daughter Myrtle tells Howie where Rowan is but it soon becomes clear that she’s talking about a hare rather than a girl. It’s at the local school that Howie breaks through this wall of silence by seeing Rowan’s name in the register, but this merely changes the investigation. Now it seems that Rowan is dead and has been for six or seven months, even if there’s no death certificate. He finds her grave, in a cemetery by a ruined church, but, when he exhumes her body, he finds that it’s a hare. It’s a surreal investigation, to be sure, but we follow Howie as he goes about his business, Woodward upright both physically and spiritually as he stubbornly tries to do what’s right.

And, while all that’s going on, we can’t fail to acknowledge that the locals clearly don’t believe what Howie does. If we didn’t notice the eye on the harbour master’s boat that brings him in from his plane, we’ll see the flag or the cakes in the post office. All the girls are named for flowers. The local pub, where Howie finds lodging, is the Green Man, named for an ancient symbol of rebirth. There, he’s almost assaulted by what he sees as degeneracy: the locals bawdily sing the praises of the landlord’s daughter and his lordship brings a young man to spend the night with her as an offering to Aphrodite; a host of couples rut together in the fields outside; and there’s even a naked woman weeping on a grave. Of course, he’s seeing all this from the perspective of a devout Christian, which is perhaps expected on the western islands, where stores don’t always open on Sundays, even after the UK relaxed its laws in 1994 to allow it. Clearly, the people of Summerisle don’t share the same perspective and their focus coming up to May Day is on fertility.

Every time I watch The Wicker Man, in one of the various incarnations of it that have been released over the years, I tend to discover something new. This time, I believe I grasped the meaning of the beetle scene, which I always realised meant something but hadn’t quite figured out until now. This happens in Miss Rose’s classroom, when Howie first discovers Rowan’s name in the register. The one empty desk is surely hers, so he rushes over to open it and, inside, is a beetle attached by a piece of string to a nail. The girl one desk over explains that the beetle always circles the nail in the same direction, meaning that it eventually gets tight up to it, unable to move further. Now it seems obvious to me that she’s mocking Howie, whose rigid belief in Jesus closes his mind to anything else and makes him predictable and easy to manipulate. Perhaps, if the good sergeant had figured out the lesson of the beetle, he might have been able to get inside the mindset of the locals earlier, closed the case sooner and even made it home to his loving fiancée.

Of course, he doesn’t, and that sets him on his inexorable course to the finalé, which I’m not sure I can avoid given that it’s both an iconic moment in cinematic history and almost half a century old now, not to mention that it was kind of spoiled by the film’s own poster. There are a host of details, though, that lead to it being particularly powerful and, while some of them are indelibly tattooed on my memory, others return afresh with each new viewing, so I’ll behave. Let’s suffice with a suggestion that the ending shouldn’t be too surprising if we’ve watched the movie with the open mind that Sgt. Howie doesn’t have and tried to see everything from the perspective of the locals and their obvious pagan beliefs. While we may not be experts on pagan folklore, some of this is made clear early on. For instance, once Rowan’s name has been discovered in the register, Howie asks Miss Rose if the girl is dead. “You would say so,” she replies. The people of Summerisle believe in reincarnation rather than death. That flavours everything.

And, especially in Scotland, it flavours the holiday on which The Wicker Man ends. Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival, is one of the four seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Lughnasadh and Samhain, the latter of which has become rather popular in a number of other countries as Hallowe'en. Beltane happens halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and is traditionally seen as the start of summer, the day when cattle were driven out to their summer pastures, often in between special bonfires. Fire is a huge deal on May Day, when all household fires would be doused and relit from the Beltane bonfire. The more you know about Beltane and other rituals of May Day, the more you’re going to see through the plotting involved to get this film to its finalé. Again, I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s pretty clear from the poster and the tagline above the titular image that fire is going to seriously come into play: “Flesh to touch... Flesh to burn! Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!”

There’s so much to appreciate in The Wicker Man and I hope that discerning fans of horror find it sooner rather than later and also resist the urge to check out the universally panned 2006 remake of the same name, starring Nicolas Cage, about which I’ll happily say no more. I’d call Shaffer’s script the pinnacle of his career, knowing full well that he had only just adapted his play, Sleuth, into a very clever film, and much of what I’ve said above speaks to why. There’s a point late in the film when Howie chases through the town and encounters a whole host of little details that Shaffer doesn’t have time to explore at depth. I’ve heard of John Barleycorn and the Salmon of Knowledge and hands of glory, but I didn’t know much, if anything, about them when I first watched this film. I love the locations too, which aren’t all on a real island called Summerisle, whatever the note at the beginning of the Director’s Cut might suggest, but are from all over the UK, from Culzean Castle in Ayrshire to Wookey Hole in Somerset.

One of the critical components is the music, because, even though this might sound surprising, this is a musical as well as a horror movie. It’s just that, unlike almost every other musical in existence, the music adds additional meaning to what’s going on in the story. Often it’s ritual in nature, like the glorious Maypole Song that accompanies the winding of ribbons, or the chant heard as girls leap over the sacred flame inside the stone circle outside Lord Summerisle’s castle. There’s rarely a procession or a ritual that does not come accompanied by music of some description. The locals at the Green Man sing and play instruments because that’s part of Gaelic culture in pubs but there are deeper meanings too. Their rendition of The Landlord’s Daughter is primarily a dig at Sgt. Howie and his prudish Christian beliefs, because it clearly pisses him off. Later music from downstairs accompanies a song upstairs by that very landlord’s daughter, as she tries a sort of remote seduction of Howie in the room next door, which he staves off with prayer.

And, of course, there’s the acting. The majority of it seems very natural, as if the casting director just signed up whoever happened to live in the locations that had been chosen in which to shoot. The musicians, credited as Magnet, weren’t a band prior to this film, being formed specifically for the purpose of recording its soundtrack. An impressive percentage of the cast is made up of children, especially for a feature unafraid to delve into the nudity aspects of paganism, though everyone who gets naked is an adult. The kids do a fantastic job, never seeming to giggle at the adult nature of what’s going on around them. Edward Woodward is perfect as Sgt. Howie, his righteous indignation apparent from his first scenes but intensifying until the finalé, which is all the more shocking for his reaction to it. Christopher Lee is also superbly cast, however doubtful some of his seventies outfits happen to be. He’s loose but knowing, a strong leader but one perfectly willing to don a Ringu-esque wig and dress to play the traditional man/woman in the final procession.

There are also a number of strong women in the cast deserving of mention. The most obvious, of course, is Britt Ekland, a Swedish sex symbol famously married to Peter Sellers. She’s Willow MacGregor, the landlord’s lusty daughter, though she didn’t create the entire role: her speaking voice was dubbed by Annie Ross and her singing voice by Rachel Verney, while she had a body double for her nude dance scene, that remarkable view from behind really being that of Lorraine Peters, a nightclub dancer from Glasgow. In a more important, if also more clothed role, Diane Cilento plays Miss Rose, the island’s schoolteacher. She gets a few key moments at very different dramatic points in the movie and she’s excellent in every one of them. At this point, she was semi-retired from a long and distinguished career and busy divorcing Sean Connery; she would eventually marry Shaffer, who moved to Australia with her. That leaves the lovely Ingrid Pitt, who gets a much smaller role as the town registrar but still a notable one.

So, if you haven’t seen the original version of The Wicker Man, what are you waiting for? It’s easily in the top five horror movies of all time and is more than ready to duke it out with a few other notable classics for the top spot, such as Psycho, The Exorcist or Bride of Frankenstein. It’s also unlike pretty much every other horror movie out there, a distinction reserved for precious few, Freaks, The Night of the Hunter and The Abominable Dr. Phibes among them. It’s a gateway drug of a movie, not just to what’s becoming quite the genre nowadays, British folk horror, but even to musical genres like psychedelic folk. And, from the perspective of this project, it’s surely the one movie in this book most inextricably entangled in the holiday on which it’s set. Everything in this picture happens because it’s coming up to May Day and an explanation of the holiday serves as a pretty decent introduction to the movie too. So, if you’re not convinced already, let me underline my recommendation. Watch the Final Cut of The Wicker Man as soon as you can.

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