When Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate rumors of the disappearance of a young girl, he slowly finds himself entangled in a mystery leading to a clash of cultures and religious extremities.
Faith is an interesting concept, as it can move people to do things of which they weren’t aware they actually could. Faith can move mountains, or so they say, but that extra push that faith gives has a dark side. A terrifying side, as faith not only moves mountains, it can also destroy them. The horrifying nature of faith is the main theme explored in one of the most interesting horror films ever made: Robin Hardy‘s ‘The Wicker Man’. Ever since its troubled release back in 1973, ‘The Wicker Man’ is slowly (yet constantly) developing a cult following that earns new adepts as the film becomes better known, finally getting the praise and recognition the movie deserves as one of the best British films ever made. It’s hard to believe that this superb example of mystery and suspense in film was almost lost forever, as not only the financial problems of its production company (British Lion Films) nearly botched the making of the movie. After the film’s completion, Hardy was forced to make cuts to his movie for distribution. Still, while not exactly the director’s desired version, this tale of the disastrous consequences of a clash of faiths has a perfect mix of horror, mystery and suspense.
In ‘The Wicker Man’, Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Neil Howie, an officer from the mainland who travels to the remote island of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter informing him of the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan. Immediately after his arrival on Summerisle, Howie begins his investigation, but discovers that the locals refuse to admit having seen Rowan in the island. It’s as if the girl had never existed. Somewhat discouraged by the answers, Howie decides to keep investigating, and soon learns that the population of the island follow a strange religion with pagan beliefs that are a complete shock to his very conservative Christian faith. As he discovers that there’s a chance that young Rowan may still be alive (with the villagers being responsible for plotting her kidnapping), he decides to attempt to rescue her from what he thinks is a barbaric and uncivilized way of life, but he’ll unveil that there is much more going on in Summerisle than the case of a kidnapped child. During his stay on Summerisle, Sergeant Howie will also experience different laws from his own, and the true nature of sacrifice.
Writer Anthony Shaffer became fascinated by the idea of a modern clash of religions when he attempted to adapt David Pinner‘s novel ‘Ritual’ to a feature narrative. While Shaffer felt that a straight adaptation of the novel wouldn’t translate well to film, the book’s premise (a devout Christian meets a town of modern pagans) grew on him, and it soon became the source idea for ‘The Wicker Man’‘s main theme: a confrontation between two extreme sides of religiousness. The level of detail put into the village’s pagan religion shows that a good amount of research was done before the writing, and this translates into a vastly rich and realistic universe to set the film in. Probably the most interesting thing about the plot is the fact that Shaffer doesn’t seem to side with any of his characters. While Sgt. Howie is the protagonist of the story, it’s truly hard to empathize with him given his uptight attitude. On the same hand, the villagers are charismatic, yet Shaffer never stops reminding us that they aren’t entirely sane. To summarize, Shaffer avoids simplistic labels of “hero” and “villain” for them, and just lets them be human. Horrifyingly human.
Even when Shaffer‘s brilliant screenplay is one of the film’s fundamental elements, the direction by Robin Hardy is what truly completes the circle and makes the whole movie what it is. Despite having been made under a serious budgetary constraints, Hardy managed to bring to life Shaffer‘s thriller taking advantage of the script’s exhaustively researched plot to create a movie that was ambiguously captivating, frighteningly realistic and of a simply otherworldly nature. By blending a very natural, almost semi-documentary visual look with the unforgettable folk score by Paul Giovanni (that updated old traditional songs), Hardy created a joyful atmosphere that even if cheerful and playful at first sight, becomes increasingly haunting and unsettling as the plot unfolds. Hardy maintains a human approach to every element so that it never feels illogical. In fact, that’s perhaps what’s so terrifying about ‘The Wicker Man’, the fact that this kind of sociological horror could really happen. Giving little to no clue about the mystery of the plot, Hardy maintains the suspense always at a maximum level in preparation to a sublime conclusion. A film finale that has now become a classic.
Another of the film’s best features are the incredible performance of the cast members. Edward Woodward is simply perfect in the difficult role of Sergeant Howie, a character that as mention before, is hard to like as a protagonist. As the Christian officer, Woodward delivers one of the best performances in the history of horror cinema, his role being pivotal in this brutal clash of cultures. Legendary horror icon Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, owner and ruler of the island, and one of the movie’s most interesting characters. Lee literally becomes Summerisle and fills the role with his natural charm and breathtaking talent, showing that there is more in him than the Dracula of his Hammer films. Director Hardy managed to convince Diane Cilento to come out of retirement and play a part in ‘The Wicker Man’, adding her experience to the film’s assortment of talents. Finally, Britt Ekland plays Willow, a local of Summersile who gets interested in the newly arrived cop. Ekland may not give a performance as amazing as her three co-stars, but she gives the eroticism the movie needs in one unforgettable scene.
Sadly, the first thing one notices about ‘The Wicker Man’ is how dated it looks. While the themes at play are really universal, the film can’t help but look like a product of its time, specifically a product of Great Britain in the ’70s. It’s colors, it’s overall design, it all feels quite obsolete by now. However, even when considering this a flaw, it’s thanks to Hardy‘s stylization of the film this flaw redeems itself by giving the film the look of a real documentary film. So in this way, the look and feel of ‘The Wicker Man’ seems justified. This of course has the immediate result of increasing its gritty realism in frightening proportions. Through the years, ‘The Wicker Man’ has faced some criticism due to the constant use of songs through the movie, almost to the point of being labeled a pseudo musical film. While this is true to an extent (the songs are certainly omnipresent, and a couple may even break the pace of the film at times), I think that the way they are used fits the detailed plot and its intended themes perfectly, adding as well an enormous amount of realism to Summerisle village and its culture.
At first sight, ‘The Wicker Man’ may look like another of those typical low budget thrillers filled with mystery and suspense that were popular in the ’70s, but the truth is that this film is actually one of the most intelligent and interesting movies ever made. Literate and stylish, ‘The Wicker Man’ is a brilliantly written movie that invites its audience to question the nature of heroism and morality, and to witness how far mankind can go for their beliefs. Raising difficult yet interesting questions, Hardy and Shaffer create in ‘The Wicker Man’ a powerful tale about faith that definitely leaves a mark on its viewers, regardless of their personal beliefs. While it really looks dated by now, it’s still one of those movies where everything fits in the right place, making the movie as a whole feel like perfect. ‘The Wicker Man’ is definitely a must-see, and not only for the horror genre fans, but for everyone interested in cinema in general.
Trailer on Youtube.