Movie review: The Wicker Man (1973)


Film review: The Wicker Man (1973)

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Note – this is a review of the 84 minute cut – for more information on all the many versions of this film, please check the Wikipedia entry, but of course beware of spoilers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wicker_Man

Cast

  • Edward Woodward as Sgt. Neil Howie
  • Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
  • Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor
  • Annie Ross as Willow MacGregor (voice)
  • Rachel Verney as Willow MacGregor (singing voice)
  • Diane Cilento as Miss Rose
  • Ingrid Pitt as Librarian
  • Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGregor (the landlord)
  • Russell Waters as Harbour Master

No Spoilers

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The fine and upstanding Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward)

Scotland, 1973. A little girl goes missing, and Sgt Neil Howie, a strictly religious man with a devout belief in the teachings of Jesus, is sent to find her. His search takes him to the idyllic Summer Isle, but the investigation soon becomes very fraught, as he learns that the islanders have long ago rejected the church and have instead reverted to a Pagan lifestyle and ancient superstitions. However, everyone on Summer Isle is incredibly happy, and it does seem like paradise compared to the uptight policeman’s idea of the good life. But it rapidly becomes clear that they’ve had a bad harvest, and the possible fate of the little girl becomes increasingly sinister. However, the real secret hidden on the island is worse than he can possibly have guessed…

For the few that haven’t already heard this or seen The Wicker Man, this non-spoiler section of the review is for you. Try not to learn too much. If you haven’t seen it yet, find a copy as soon as you can. Don’t even look up what the title means. Watch it as soon as humanly possible. Be prepared for joyful nudity, eerie folk songs, leery pub-goers and terrifying pagan rites. This is a very beautiful film, showcasing the sunny Scottish countryside in all its glory (although they filmed in October and November, brrrr), and the print available on NowTV seems to be far better than the version I videoed off the TV in the late 1990s.

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So much more naked flame-jumping than I remember…

Given how much happens in beautiful, hi-def daylight, it’s still an incredibly eerie film. Poor Sergeant Howie has no idea what he’s let himself in for, as he self-righteously dismisses the islanders’ beliefs, and cringes at their open displays of nude dancing, shagging in the graveyards, and teaching the school children about the true meaning of the Maypole. To be fair, a lot of the prancing nudes are almost certainly lot prettier than the cast who keep their clothes on. Very odd, that. Anyway, fan service aside, there’s plenty of cunningly rendered. tension between Howie’s rigid religious fervour and the laid-back but troublingly fanatical pagans. The folk songs are a lot bawdier than the sweet melodies might suggest, too. Although send these islanders to Ibiza, or any town centre on a weekend night, and see if the hedonism still shocks them then. If anything, the Wicker man predicted what much of the UK would ultimately turn into…only with much gentler music.

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Who’s the real fool?

As a slice of disarmingly gentle horror with a savage bite, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Another one that rewards patience, I sympathised fully with Howie’s priggish struggles, whilst wishing he would let himself go, just a bit.

But then, in the name of duty, some sacrifices do have to be made…

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Can you say…really frickin’ OMINOUS?

Spoilers – including a couple for Shutter Island

OK, everyone here already seen it? Good. Because even when you know what’s about to happen, this film’s payoff is a doozy. The dread leading up to the reveal is luscious. I think it works even if you know what’s coming, because you end up trying to figure out the extent to which the villagers are messing with him, and how their plot somehow comes together to entrap him for their purposes. Much like SPOILER Shutter Island, the whole island has conspired to trap their unwitting visitor within a narrative woven especially to suit him, and while Howie actually IS who he says he is, there’s the same level of deceit and a tragic ending going in this community, which he can never hope to escape from.

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Poor, poor Howie – and all the animals, too. Hope it was worth it you pagan-crazies…

Have to wonder, though. Will the villagers actually get away with it? There is a police-issued sea-plane parked right outside their island. Surely someone is going to miss that, if not poor Officer Howie, at some point? Or is he really that unpopular at work? And in some cuts, he apparently has a fiance. Hopefully she’ll raise some questions, right?

I also love that the success of the sacrifice called into doubt, we never know if it even worked (correlation is not causation, folks). Also if the islanders weren’t already thinking of sacrificing Lord Summerisle should the crops fail again, they’re definitely all thinking about it, now…and that’s something, I suppose, for poor Howie – and the viewer – to hold onto as the flames lick higher.

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Well she can’t jump the flames in that flimsy thing, she’d go up faster than the Wicker Man…

The good

  • The ending. Dear God no! Oh Jeezuz-Chriiiist!
  • Also the line by Lord Summerisle “Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man’. It looms on the cliff top. Oh shit. Chills.
  • Looks gorgeous. Especially the sunrise at the end.
  • The cast of creepy villagers are unnervingly natural in their roles, and they’re having a damn good time playing depraved (and frequently naked) pagans.
  • The folk music is actually pretty good – did it all sound this creepy before the WIcker Man came out, too? Impossible to think of it otherwise, now.
  • Edward Woodward is amazing. His reactions of terror and outrage, including his despair, and earlier on his repressed lust and self-righteous fury. Christopher Lee is also in his element as the deluded Lord of Summer Isle.
  • Inspired such folk horror gems as Kill List and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Even gets shown on the TV during Danny Boyle’s wonderful Shallow Grave (1994).

The bad

  • Britt Eklund’s dubbing is a little…odd.
  • Christopher Lee’s hair…kind of…and those bright yellow pullovers.
  • The creepy folk singing, there’s just slightly too much of it, for my personal preference anyway. Same reason I’m forever grateful they cut Tom Bombadil from the movies of the Lord of the RIngs…but here it definitely serves a purpose.
  • Those animals, too, though we are assured by the director that they didn’t actually set any of them on fire either, and Edward Woodward ws perfectly fine, too (apart from the worried goat peeing on him at one point).
  • The 2006 remake. So bad it’s good? Nope.
  • Makes pagans seem more unhinged than they are, although I feel it gives all the superstitious beliefs a pretty good kicking.
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Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. His outfits throughout this film are rather stunning.

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