The Wicker Man (1973) / Horror-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sexuality, and disturbing images (originally rated X)
Running Time: 102 min. (beware: shorter cuts exist)
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eklund, Irene Sunters, Geraldine Cowper
Director: Robin Hardy
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer (based on his novel)
Review published August 25, 2006
Mainland police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward, Breaker Morant) travels to Summerisle, a fictitious island in the Hebrides (Scotland), to investigate the alleged disappearance of a young girl named Rowan. While there, the very devout Christian in him is shocked that the entire island is full of quasi-pagans, performing indecent fertility rites and bizarre customs, all in defiance of his own perception of how things should decently be. He finds the people there very unhelpful to his investigation, as well as frustratingly offensive, and repeated threats to have them arrested serve him little purpose. Although initially thought dead, he begins to suspect that Rowan might be alive, saved for the purpose of a human sacrifice during a grotesque ritual the pagans are planning on May Day.
Plagued with production problems and studio meddling, The Wicker Man surprisingly would turn from a film many tried to disown at the time of its release to one that emerged as one of the finest semi-horror films of its time (favorably compared to Don't Look Now). Although many lump this film in the horror genre, it should be noted that, while certainly haunting in a certain respect, this isn't a horror film in the traditional sense. At times it is, but just as often, it is a mystery, a psychological thriller, a drama, a dark comedy, and a musical. In fact, the soundtrack perhaps rivals the film itself in terms of influence and notoriety.
Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy) had been on a roll during the early 1970s, which, along with the fact that it is based on his book, led to some releases of the film sporting his name as part of the title. The writing is very good here, and always interesting, even when the main plot of the film seems like it is beginning to take a familiar turn. At its heart, the film explores the nature of religion itself, not just pagan vs. Christian, showing how the rites and beliefs of them can lead to zealotry and acts that might be deemed morally and ethically repugnant by most other societies.
The Wicker Man is an odd movie, and therefore, not to every taste. However, it is so uniquely developed and presented, it is well worth the time and effort for film-lovers that enjoy macabre tales of mystery and suspense, and should be especially pleasing to those that like the sound of neofolk. Still very much a cult movie, but with its increasing popularity, it might just turn into a classic. Regardless of your reaction to it, here's no question that the film does leave an indelible impression, with haunting images you're likely to never forget.
-- Remade in 2006.
©2006 Vince Leo