Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

What is The Wicker Man? That question haunts viewers, both during and after this strange, memorable film.

In the movie, Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the reported disappearance of a girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). In spite of a letter postmarked from the island informing the sergeant about the missing girl, none of the inhabitants will even acknowledge Rowan’s existence. To make matters worse, Howie, a devout Christian, is repulsed by the paganism he finds alive and thriving on Summerisle.

So the film takes on the familiar shape of a mystery about a missing person in a remote, tightly-knit community. Yet the film’s initial image of a strange wooden face and the evocative title linger in the viewer’s mind throughout the duration of the film. What is this Wicker Man, and how does he or it connect to the missing girl and the pagan rites active on the island?

After watching the film comes the question of the its genre: what kind of movie is The Wicker Man? The standard answer is, “a horror movie,” and while it’s true that the audience’s feelings of unease will likely build to shock and perhaps even disgust, the movie does not fit neatly into one of the usually-rigid subcategories that dominate the genre. It’s neither a ghost story, nor a slasher flick, nor a monster movie. There are no vampires or zombies. The film stubbornly refuses to become the Gothic mystery we might expect and initially want. As in real life, the influence of the supernatural on the events of the story is debatable. The central thematic conflict is between Christianity and paganism, and the film’s serious, factual interest in its pagan subject matter makes it stand out in the genre. So if The Wicker Man is a horror film, it’s certainly its own unique species of horror.

Unlike any other non-comedic, non-parodic horror film I can think of, The Wicker Man is also something of a musical. Its folk music soundtrack dominates substantial portions of the film and many of the songs are sung diegetically, by characters in the world of the movie. The score initially bothered me, but after subsequent viewings I’ve come to see it as an integral contribution to the film’s unique atmosphere, and one of film’s many devices for confounding the viewer’s expectations. The pagan subject matter also highlights the ancient origins of folk music. In other words, the folk music isn’t simply there because the film was made in the early 1970s.

The film is also a mystery, but while the story seems to take on a familiar pattern—the lone inspector’s search for a missing person—even that plays out in an usual way. For starters, the film’s use of setting avoids the overtly sinister. Summerisle is a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, but it looks quite pleasant. Set around May Day, most of the events take place in broad daylight on an island known for its mild microclimate and orchards. Even during the scenes set at nighttime, the film avoids most Gothic conventions and jump scares. Yet the film achieves a subtly disturbing atmosphere all its own.

The film evokes an older, pre-Christian Britain that alarms for its alien quality, and Sgt. Howie’s disturbed sensibilities and puritanical sense of righteousness help to emphasize the strangeness and difference of Summerisle. Images such as a midnight lawn covered with moaning couples freely having sex and dried umbilical cords casually hanging from gravestones (the man who tends the graveyard thinks it perfectly normal) slowly work to unsettle us. The islanders may be hostile to Sgt. Howie, but this could be attributed to Howie’s identity as a mainlander and a Christian and, especially, to his authoritarian manner when dealing with the locals.

Even the initially mysterious lord of the island, Lord Summerisle (played by the late, great Christopher Lee), comes across as fairly sensible and charming when Sgt. Howie meets with him. Christopher Lee was a strong champion of the film and he considered Lord Summerisle one of his favourite roles. Lee lends his believer in the old gods a sense of patrician gravitas, which helps to balance paganism against Christianity in the film. When seen opposite Lord Summerisle, Howie might look like the fanatic. The Wicker Man troubles any neat assumptions the audience might want to make early in the film about a sensible Christian versus crazy, sinister pagans. Message board arguments that the film is neatly anti-Christian, pro-pagan also seem off the mark. Indeed, for me, one of the film’s pleasures is how it allows for different readings and complicates all. The famous ending only makes things more difficult to interpret.

Perhaps we might think of The Wicker Man as a mystery that leads to horror, for the full weight of the film’s terror is only felt at the end. I wouldn’t dare spoil the mystery and its conclusion. All I will say is that the shocking final minutes of the film cast everything that has come before in a different light; the Wicker Man extends his shadow and power over the entire film.

The Wicker Man is one of the most famous and lauded British cult films. An oft-quoted line from Cinefantastique calls the film “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.” Though meant to praise the film, the blurb actually obscures what makes The Wicker Man great. It’s not a pioneering work in filmmaking, nor did it ever set the template for what could be achieved in horror cinema (as, say, Psycho did). In spite of its cult status, its influence seems limited, and I wouldn’t describe it as a technical masterpiece. I have never seen anything else quite like it though, and its oddness and ability to defy expectation are part of its power and mystique. It’s a film of strange mystery, esoteric in interest and restrained in scope. It’s one of the most curious horror films ever made.

9 out of 10

The Wicker Man (1973, UK)

Directed by Robin Hardy; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer; starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Geraldine Cowper, and Aubrey Morris.