I wonder if I can credit Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man for initiating my interest folk music, given it constantly stops its own narrative investigation in order to indulge in a festive performance of traditional songs arranged by Paul Giovanni. It’s present to the degree that Hardy himself called the film a musical during production. It’s either that or Yusuf Islam back in his “Cat Stevens” days that brought this in me, but I was more or less exposed to both of them around the same time in high school and The Wicker Man seems the work of art that made a more significant impact on me. For The Wicker Man also initiated my interest in storytelling that focuses within an isolated location or community, particularly when the resultant development is a suspicious eerie atmosphere hidden underneath surface pleasantries with its inhabitants. And it is in that particular aspect that I think it was tough for me to figure out what I meant when I used “cult” to describe The Wicker Man.
You see, The Wicker Man is of course a film that explores the existence of a pagan culture within the fictional agronomical society of Summerisle that sits in the Hebridean Archipelago, based in Celtic history, as police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent there to investigate the sudden disappearance of a little girl named Rowan Morrison. So “cult” describes the subject.
But “cult” also describes the object. The film has only slowly developed more and more of that status than the already low-key but unanimously positive reception it had as a rough horror classic in the late 2000s when I first saw it and both of those elements – the reception and the version – are based in the same thing: a mind-bendingly convoluted set of rights disputes and poor handling of the print (sometimes apparently deliberate spite by producer Michael Deeley who famously hated the film, sometimes incidental) that led to the 102-minute cut that Hardy was satisfied with being turned into an 88-minute compromised cut that was released (as a double feature with fellow horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now) and most commonly seen. Meanwhile, a 99-minute version closer to Hardy’s preference was sent to Roger Corman to later be used as the basis of Hardy’s restoration to a Director’s Cut that was a bitch to find back in the day up until a Blu-Ray in 2013 was released of one more attempt by Hardy – whose previous decades of optimism that his original cut was still existent had now been disabused – into a 91-minute Final Cut from all the surviving resources.
I told you it was convoluted. All that combined made The Wicker Man a tough enough find in worthwhile quality to turn it to cult semi-obscurity.
Having seen the 88 minute, 99 minute, and 91 minute versions, I do feel most qualified to say that any version will easily get you to a significant amount of brilliance. For no matter which cut one watches, you’re still going to get the abnormal slow boil of the Anthony Shaffer’s mystery script coming together real nicely in any arrangement, probably thanks to Hardy being involved in each cut (even in reluctance) and so having an idea of where to deal with whatever’s removed or moved around. And while the Final Cut is my preference – it’s the one where the pacing feels tightest and confident in where it slips away, while also spreading the musical numbers spread enough (with the addition of the brilliantly dreamy “Gently Johnny” to truly pay off in Hardy’s attempts to create The Wicker Man as a musical – I particularly love the idea the theatrical cut had about opening right when Howie arrives on Summerisle in a seaplane without any foreplay in the mainland as in the other cuts. It gets us on quite the disoriented foot with the setting. Though I must say the original opening with Howie performing mass does so much to establish what position he is entering this conflict from.
The second of which he steps out of the plane, he’s given a hard time by the smiling harbor master just for requesting a dinghy. The harbor master tries to deflect as much as possible by claiming the harbor is closed until Howie insists long enough. And so the majority of the movie is witnessing Howie’s fluster as he is continuously directed around in a circle by several individuals or authorities, including being told by the mother and classmates of the child that Rowan never even existed. Howie’s a dutiful and thorough investigator who pushes through the continuous lies and mishandled records – all delivered in the most bothersomely polite manner and off-putting brightness – to find proof of her existence and evidence suggesting a misdeed of some sort. It’s often just enough clue at the end of a scene to augment the frustration out of every interaction Howie is involved in and understand why he must push his bemused way through every misdirect he’s given.
The direct obstruction of his policework is not the sole thing that takes Sgt. Howie aback. His firm appeals bring him eventually to the leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who charmingly informs Howie of the island’s pagan philosophies, rooted from his grandfather, as well the fruits of which the island bases its economy and why these two elements are intertwined. And even before Lord Summerisle lays it out for him, Howie has already witnessed strange unorthodox things happening around such as an open air orgy in the night (including an naked woman in a graveyard whose weeping over a grave resembles quiet orgasms), and the attempts of the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund, dubbed in an excellently weird way by Annie Ross) to seduce him behind the door by singing and dancing naked in a waking trance.
Howie, we learn extremely quickly, is Christian of a conservative and pious sort, establishing an impossible-to-miss battle of ideologies deep within the film. Shaffer and Hardy, to their incredible credit, deliver this fight in a difficult complex manner: Howie is there to investigate a potential murder and everybody in the island is throwing him the most uncannily suspicious sensation in all their twisting grins and lackadaisical attitude to learning of a child in danger. And yet Howie is also imposing of his Christian judgment onto the citizens of the island, at one point forcing a makeshift cross over a grave regardless of whatever religious beliefs the deceased may have had and outright calling Summerisle’s religion fake to the Lord’s face which is taken with the same unstressed casual receptiveness as anything else thrown to Lee’s face. Lee has long had glowing love for the performance he gave here, almost single-handedly keeping the film’s memory alive while it was essentially lost in the 1980s, and it shows with the clear amount of fun friendliness he exudes in perfect foil to Howie’s disgusted sobriety. It’s affecting to have the closest thing we have as a direct antagonist (as opposed to the entire community) such a welcoming air about him.
It’s off-putting to have such an intolerant character we are forced to align with by our moral sense of what he’s trying to do and yet this very island is so queer – personably as well as visually in flat focus, which is uncomfortably close for a setting so based in stone and trees dressed by a handicraft and populated by faces that look like they’ll squeeze your hand until you show them your teeth – that it’s just as much a natural orbiting to Howie’s point of view despite the aggressiveness of his rhetori. It’s miraculous that Hardy’s direction is able to frame Howie in such a way as to really pull out muted contempt for the character yet still treat his ultimate fate as utterly tragic (which I’d assume you know if you’ve even heard of the film, but if not I’m gonna go ahead and wave a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING up in here). It is indeed a strange land that the stranger has entered and sometimes what’s most familiar is what we’re going to gravitate towards.
About that strange land: I’m not sure, with a wide variety of Scottish Isles and cities in which it was shot, one can say The Wicker Man subscribes to Werner Herzog’s ideal of the “voodoo of location”, but for someone like me who was totally ignorant of the geography of Scotland at the time and to this day have never actually experienced the country firsthand, The Wicker Man feels transporting. Indeed, Lee in his autobiography Lord of Misrule appears to suggest that their experiences within those distinct areas of Scotland “stitched together a plausible island” and it’s believable enough to fool me. And what gives it that further out-of-place vibe as a setting is Harry Waxman’s vibrant whites making the place seem so overexposed in an eerie way. A visual approach that further provides menace and trepidation to how unfailingly cheerful Summerisle is as a community.
About the culture: well, the very handworn element of the costumes and the festivities leaning into the imminent May Day celebration that the film’s climax takes place (and of course, if you have heard of The Wicker Man, you know how it ends just about as well as you know how Planet of the Apes ends but I repeat SPOILERS once final time if you are of a lucky sort.) are of an uncivilized sort, even by the means of a culture portrayed as tying naval strings to graves and such. The costumes and instruments of their celebration are introduced in one of the latest montages of investigation, strewn together in earthy ways from earthy materials. But not least of all the Wicker Man himself, revealed to us at the last possible moment as a towering madness of straw that really calls attention to the inhumane sacrifice to be made inside of it. And when it dawns on Howie what their plans are for him and his helplessness, the film intensifies rapidly into a more unambiguous horror than everything that preceded it. In a way, the point of the ending of The Wicker Man is not what happens but how it happens and by the mood of Woodward and Lee in this climax is where the complex battle of ideologies has to introduce ambiguity to the final notes of their performances: Woodward as Howie goes through several modes of disbelief and terror in the knowledge of what waits for him and how easily he was manipulated for all his steadfast authoritarianism and trying to declare his faith with various levels of dubiety invited of the viewer, landing on a moment of truly cracking prayer before the flames that will take his life in seconds and undermine by the pained shrieks and cries of the animals dying with him. Lee as Summerisle, meanwhile, is confident and self-satisfied by his plan working as expected until Howie suggests a potential turn of events that knocks that perennial smile off his face and suggests his own level of ambivalence to the practices he mandates of the isle’s people. Shaffer as a writer pulls out all the possible stops with this final turn of events, amplifying the cheeriness of the people at their most religiously violent with their final chant “Summer Is Icumen In” battling with the cries of the animals for dominance on the soundtrack while this ends up being – now that the secrets are all spilled out – the moment that Waxman and Hardy opt for an overcast set of shots as we watch the titular construction burn and collapse to reveal the setting sun.
So yes, the staying power of The Wicker Man may be the loves it brought to be in folk music and quietly unsettling horror movie atmospheres. But it also delivers them in a remarkably intelligent package, mapped out by one of the best writers working in Britain in the early 1970s and executed by two terrifically polar performances by actors at the very peak of their abilities. It’s one of the earliest cases of a movie I watched truly sticking in my head and making me consider what I just watched beyond the hard genre shocks it delivers (it may be a foundational part of my atheism, if I’m being frank), in an unassuming way that does guide me on WHAT to think. And it’s probably based on that that The Wicker Man had the sort of longevity that get it being restored and worked on to be introduced by generations further on alongside me as I constantly engage with its rewatchability.
Like I said, it takes a really great movie to work wonders on people when the most popular thing about it is its ending.