So here it is again, resurfacing once more, this time in a handsome restoration, apparently the most complete version there is ever likely to be*, after a 40-odd year journey from cult oddity to classic status. In 1972, Robin Hardy’s film was very much the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now (there’s a night at the movies!). Heavily edited and under-ballyhooed, The Wicker Man seemed destined to sink without trace. Later, after decades of late night viewings, Hardy’s film began to be seen, together with the messy, oddly beguiling Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), as being in the vanguard of a British sub-genre that never blossomed, a road not taken – call it the folk horror film, or horror pastoral. Today, that sub-genre seems to be on the up again, at least for as long as Ben Wheatley’s got anything to do with it, and so it’s a good time for The Wicker Man to be back on our screens.
If you haven’t encountered the film before, it goes like this: Edward Woodward plays Police Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian officer, tasked with flying to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Upon arriving at Summerisle, however, he finds his efforts frustrated by the locals, who variously deny that the girl is missing, or that she existed at all. As he tries to find out what lies behind these contradictions, he is appalled to discover that he is surrounded by practising pagans, whose belief system has held sway over the island since the 19th century, and is currently overseen by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The fields are filled with copulating couples, the schoolchildren are being taught about phallic symbols, and the whole island seems transfixed by a cult of fertility, except, as he discovers, the previous year the crops disastrously failed. Could the islanders be planning to sacrifice Rowan to appease their gods? As the May Day festivities approach, and with no help coming from any quarter, Sergeant Howie desperately resolves to find, and rescue, the girl.
If the presence of Christopher Lee and Ingid Pitt, who pops up as a librarian, suggest links with the Hammer tradition, The Wicker Man largely plays against them. Lee, here, gives a much more nuanced and playful performance than he was generally required to deliver in a cape. The film is contemporary rather than period, location shot rather than studio bound, and benefits hugely from found imagery and the use of non-pro actors. It builds a sense of nightmare from an accumulation of creepy details, mostly seen in broad daylight, and a ripe vein of folk weirdness that seems miles away from Hammer’s dusty castles. And moreover, it is, oddly enough, a musical of sorts: besides the incidental score by Magnet, we have the locals in the Green Man bursting into Paul Giovanni’s largely saucy numbers at the drop of a hat, and maypole dancers and fire leapers accompanied by catchy little ditties (the song ‘Gently Johnny’ has been restored for this version, sung, distractingly enough, by a Neil Gaiman lookalike). This is before the landlord’s daughter and island’s Aphrodite, Willow (Britt Ekland, and body double) has her finest screen moment, tunefully testing Woodward’s faith by writhing naked against his door. This kind of thing didn’t happen in your average Amicus production (more’s the pity…) While its influence has grown over the years, The Wicker Man still has the feel of a film apart, an island detached from the mainstream.
‘Only as a comparative religion’ is schoolteacher Miss Rose’s (Diane Cilentro) blithe reply when asked if she teaches Christianity in her classes. And that’s very much the name of the game here, as Howie’s dutiful, establishment religion is repeatedly contrasted with the shag-happy islander’s unorthodox beliefs. However, Anthony Schaffer’s** script plays sly games with our sympathies. A young audience in post-hippy 1972 would be expected to find much to like about Summerisle’s horny paganism, and a lot of fun is had at Howie’s expense as he boggles at the rampant sexuality and freaky-folky business on display. In this cut, we see him in church at the outset, singing hymns and taking communion, and these images recur later on, the church rituals looking cold and empty against the pagan rites, with their animal eroticism. For much of the film he looks a bit of a fool, especially when resisting the advances of Willow, trembling in his brown pyjamas. But… slowly our sympathies turn; the locals may be colourful, but they’re also evasive, mocking and increasingly sinister. Howie may be a humourless, self-righteous stiff but, largely thanks to Woodward’s performance, he’s also human, and admirably driven, on the side of the angels. At the climax of the film, the islanders swaying rendition of ‘Summer Is Icumen In’ seems brainwashed and deranged, while Howie’s ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, by contrast, has some kind of powerful dignity. Take your pick, you heathens!
*If you’re curious, the ‘Final Cut’ is the version Hardy assembled for distributors Abraxas in 1979, now cleaned up and looking decidedly spiffy. For those only familiar with the short version, this means a little restructuring, plus a brief bit of Howie on the mainland, the song ‘Gently Johnny’ as mentioned above, and a sequence introducing a kilt-wearing Lord Summerisle on Howie’s first night on the island. For my money this scene telegraphs the rest of the movie a little too much, but hey, it’s nice to see it.
** Incidentally, the title credit actually reads ‘Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man’. Offhand, I can’t think of any other film that credits the screenwriter this way. Odd. And well deserved.
Watch the trailer: