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Savant Short Review:

The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man
Anchor Bay
1973 / Color / 1:78 / 102m.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris
Cinematography Harry Waxman
Film Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music Paul Giovanni
Writing credits Anthony Shaffer and
Produced by Peter Snell
Directed by Robin Hardy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This review has been updated and revised at this URL.

Created by top talent with the specific idea of making a horror film about ideas much deeper than Hammer's vampires and zombies, The Wicker Man is a good movie with a truly superior script. As a cult item, it's tops; few other marginal cult films even begin to approach its quality. A victim of the virtual extinction of the British film industry, The Wicker Man could have been as big as The Exorcist. As Anchor Bay's new disc explains, it became landfill for a roadway instead.


Strictly devout and slighty priggish, Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) uses a small seaplane to visit the many scattered islands in the North of Scotland. He goes to balmy Summerisle to check a report of a missing child, Rowan Morrison, and lands in the middle of a situation that outrages him and warps his judgement. Summerisle is privately owned and wholly Pagan, in the old Celtic sense; the entire society there is centered on the concept of fertility and appeasing the sun God, so as to guarantee a good crop of famous Summerisle apples. Bawdy songs sung in mixed company are one thing, but the straightlaced Howie sees couples having sex in public, teachers teaching what sounds like blasphemous sex education in the schools, and naked children jumping through fires and dancing around Maypoles. Even though Rowan Morrison is listed in school records, her existence is either denied by the locals, or it's vaguely inferred that she's been transformed into a Hare. The cheerfully boorish Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) counters Howie's every protest with a calm defense of his religion, backed up by his casual lover, schoolmarm Miss Rose (Diane Cilento). And the local strumpet Willow (Britt Eklund) further confuses Howie with an attempted seduction that may be aided by drugs, or magic. When Howie finds a dead rabbit in the missing girl's grave, he becomes convinced that Rowan Morrison has been kidnapped to await Pagan sacrifice on May Day.

Cinefantastique magazine devoted an entire issue to The Wicker Man in 1978, telling the tale of a classic horror film that most fans had never even heard of. Abandoned by its distributor during an ownership change, it was licensed to American 'distributors' who lacked the means to put it in theaters, and then was practically forgotten. Roger Corman's New World Company, was outbid, but nevertheless retained the preview print it was given. When the show was pointlessly cut down, and its entire original negative discarded in a vault error, Corman's print became the only possible source for the partially restored 're-premiere' given the film in 1979, which understandably was visually compromised.

Savant saw this special release on the early cable "Z" channel in LA in the early 80s and still has a fuzzy vhs taken from it. Now, somewhat restored, The Wicker Man finally makes its DVD debut, and it's a beaut. Anchor Bay has issued two separate disc packages. A flawless but short theatrical cut is on their standard disc, accompanied by an informative documentary, and an Easter egg television interview with Christopher Lee. A special edition boxed (or wickered) set adds a version where the cut scenes have been fuzzily reintegrated into the show from a fairly pathetic 1" source. With Christopher Lee touting the movie as his best role and trying to promote the rediscovery of even more lost material, The Wicker Man is way up there on the list of hot horror mysteries.

After writing so much about horror films with vibrant visuals but nonexistent texts, it's very refreshing to revisit such a beautifully written movie - this is the All About Eve of terror films. In the middle of the so-called swinging sexual revolution of the early '70s, The Wicker Man makes its hero a virginal and self-righteous bible man who abhors impropriety of any kind. In the most crippling omission from the short version, we see him taking communion with his fiancee and suffering the contempt of the staff in his police station, repressed louts whose sniggering attitude towards sex is offered as typical in our Christian societies.

The classic horror film has its violence and sex bursting forth from within the middle of complacent and stuffy conventional society. There's usually some implied critcism of society, if not a celebration of the chaos, which can make a clever horror show into something more satisfyingly subversive. The Wicker Man puts the liberals on the defensive by showing what a society literally based on and worshipping sex might be like. Sergeant Howie is as noble as any Knight of the Round Table, yet defenseless against the wiles of foes who do not believe in his goodness.

The second remarkable triumph of the film is its music, which convincingly creates an alien society through song. The ballads about barley and rebirth are beautiful, as is the Maypole ritual song that describes carnal sex as a joyful part of a cycle that includes the earth and a tree. Pagan symbols like Maypoles suddenly recover their original hardcore meaning as the song alludes to the 'tree' with which a man impregnates a woman. The eerie tune sung by Willow during her sex dance (that Howie doesn't witness directly but which inexplicably enraptures him anyway) has a seductively creepy tone, that Savant hasn't recalled anywhere this side of the wondrous 'Once upon a time ..' song from The Night of the Hunter. Even pompous singer Chris Lee gets to exercise his baritone, to pleasing results.  1

Now restored to their springtime brilliance, the visuals of The Wicker Man have greatly improved (on the theatrical cut) the overall look of the show. After thirty years of blah movies, Robin Hardy's direction and blocking now look fresh and inventive.

Savant isn't going to discuss the plot any more than he already has. It's a highly original variation on Anthony Shaffer's puzzle-and-trap crowd pleasers. But the concept of The Wicker Man has provided something of a puzzle. The Pagan vs Christian theme is fascinating, and extremely well exposited. Yet, it's lacking something. All a horror movie really has to do is to achieve a terrifying response, so The Wicker Man is obviously successful on that end. But reaching higher raises new questions, and Savant hasn't found a personally meaningful theme with which to resolve the film. Perhaps this isn't bad, and just the expert grilling the film deals out to our Judeo-Christian foundation is enough. Hammer in particular has a strong history of making cultural / religious comparisons a sub-issue of its horror films, a tendency that has certainly enriched their library for subsequent viewings.  2

In The Wicker Man, this subtext IS the text. It's all out in the open; Howie sticks to his Catholic/Anglican? tenets and Lord Summerisle contemptously touts the beauty of natural Pagan faith. Since this was all happening somewhere in the middle of the 'Is God dead?' controversy, it seems strange that Summerisle should proclaim Howie's God to be dead ... as a better case could be made for the Celtic Pagan dieties being far longer dead, more dead ... like, fossilized. In 1973, when a big piece of the world feared that society was going to abandon the church for good, Shaffer and Hardy made a show that portrayed Christianity threatened by an older, even crueller faith, one far more 'conservative' even if it appears on the outside to be more sexually liberal. Since audiences can be expected to root for and champion Christian Knight Howie against the Pagan foe, The Wicker Man carries its own conservative charge, one equally as resonant as the righteous thrill we get, say at Horror of Dracula. In that best of all vampire movies, Van Helsing turns us into 'believers' for at least the few moments that his crucifixes do their wondrous magic against evil.

The only fly in the ointment of this superior text is the lack of religious complexity given the Summerisle Pagans. They function as a variation on the coven in Rosemary's Baby or the vampires in The Fearless Vampire Killers, 'evil' groups that prevail over good because of their singularity of purpose and diametric opposition to their foes. The coven is so closely knit that defectors can be quietly eliminated, and who ever heard of a vampire betraying vampire-dom? But the Pagans of Summerisle are simply an alternative to Christianity and not feeding from it or trying to wipe it out. Summerisle is also something of a free society, and the people on it just like the Scots on the mainland, only they eat pornographic sweets and hang umbilical cords on sapling trees. A thousand people on the island and no dissenters? Not one rebellious kid with a soap-carved Jesus hidden behind his fertility handbook, looking for the chance to blow the whistle to Sergeant Howie? Besides their willingness for the occasional human sacrifice, the Pagans seem to be decent folk. It would seem contrary to the concept, if they've been killing anyone and everyone who strays from the Barley and Seed faith. The whole alternate-faith threat that forms the backbone of The Wicker Man falls apart if Summerisle is just another dictatorial conspiracy fantasy.  3

Since few movies even attempt the intellectual puzzle found here, it seems really graceless to harp on this issue ... this is one of the better horror films ever made, original in concept and an outsider to most of the historical trends.

Anchor Bay first announced The Wicker Man back in 1999, when waiting two years seemed an eternity. Savant would be happy to recommend the shorter Theatrical cut, but it's missing the critical mainland precredit sequence that sets up Sgt. Howie and establishes our attitude toward him before he lands on Summerisle. It also has some very good material that helps explain Lord Summerisle's direct role in the community (note that I'm being purposely vague: the less one knows about this show before seeing it the better), and other odds and ends that wouldn't have hurt either. The efficient and professional documentary is to the point and uses prime sources (Corman, Shaffer, etc.) to tell the movie's woeful production tale, but see the film first, as it gives away everything, spoiler-wise. The extra interview, from an ancient video source is also a welcome find for Wicker addicts. All in all, Savant has to recommend the fancy package this time around.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wicker Man rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, TV spots, documentary, television interview with Christopher Lee
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2001


1. one of Savant's more bizarre jobs on 1941 was to go to the library and find a stack of drinking songs for Lee to sing as Colonel Kleinschmidt, the Nazi sub officer. So in between practicing his German lines, he belted out Bavarian numbers right and left. I think Spielberg did all of this just to keep Lee happy and busy; no songs were filmed.

2. Savant's thinking of The Mummy and The Stranglers of Bombay here. A common plot hook for many a chiller is to have arrogant scientists steal, interrupt, or defile the practices of other cultures, and pay a supernatural price for their crimes. Various curses bring forth monsters or vile diseases. Since this aspect of the movies is usually underdeveloped or a subtext, it makes great viewing looking for additional clues. .

3. Of course, dissenters have described our churches as dictatorial conspiracies for years too ... this thing just goes in circles. Spinning off in another tangent, The Wicker Man is remindful of fantasies where the modern world and its technology are challenged by 'ancient' Pagan societies that are barbaric to the max, yet wield formidable science and magic powers to oppress people or wage war. I'm primarily thinking of the Atlantis movies, like Atlantis the Lost Continent, Giant of Metropolis, Atragon, etc., where the primitives hold Pagan rites, yet carry ray guns. This idea comes completely from Raymond Durgnat's must-read book Films and Feelings. Perhaps The Wicker Man's basic equation is similar. Just as the hidden meaning of the Atlantis films seems to be that technology and weapons make us less and not more civilized, Shaffer's ploy may be to equate the Pagan and Christian faiths as barbaric but somehow necessary anyway ... that people are essentially primitive.

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