It’s midsummer, so revisit ‘The Wicker Man’ at our cinemas
The cult classic is screening across a selection of our UK Houses this month – book now to be sure not to miss it
Saturday 24 June 2023 By Hanna Flint
‘OH GOD!! OH JESUS CHRIST!!!’
God can’t save you on Summerisle. Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Neil Howie finds that out the hard way in The Wicker Man, the iconic British folk horror released in 1973, now celebrating its 50-year anniversary with a return to cinemas.
If you’ve never seen Robin Hardy’s classic, then the time is now because it remains just as whimsically menacing, with one of the greatest final scenes in cinematic history. If you have seen it, then it’s the perfect time for a rewatch to remind you just how influential its thematic tone, folksy misdirection and joyous masquerade has influenced many a filmmaker since. The Wicker Man walked so that Ari Aster’s Midsommar could run off a cliff.
Inspired by David Pinner’s novel Ritual, Anthony Shaffer delivers a self-contained, psychologically potent horror disguised as an erotic crime thriller. Sergeant Neil Howie arrives by plane to the isolated Scottish island after receiving an anonymous letter about the disappearance of a young girl called Rowan Morrison. Howie is our way into the story; he’s a devoutly Christian police officer whose rigid expectations, as a man of the law, are frustrated the moment he sets foot on Summerisle.
The audience is kept in the dark along with the protagonist as we watch his attempts to investigate and interrogate the island’s withholding inhabitants as they prepare for a pagan celebration. No one on the island claims to know Rowan Morrison, not even May Morrison, her mother-apparent who runs the post office and sweet shop. As Howie scopes out the local pub, school house and library, it becomes clear they are hiding something as their stories shape-shift. The plain sight of pageantry, feting and public shagging also suggests there is something more suspicious going on.
Howie is the perfect outsider; his unbending morals and indignant manner are at odds with the eccentric ways of this community who have long denounced Christianity in favour of ancient pagan rituals. He hears school children being taught about the phallic imagery of the maypole; sees a group of young people copulating outside at night; and watches naked women jump across fire between a Stonehenge-looking rock formation.
Then there’s the music.
The Wicker Man could well be regarded as a musical given how many times these residents burst into song. Composer Paul Giovanni and Magnet (a band formed for the film) serve up folksy musical numbers, mixed with classic ditties, to push the plot forward. From ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ and ‘Maypole Song’ to ‘Fire Leap’ and ‘Willow’s Song’, the soundtrack is lulling you into a false sense of security as the residents sing lyrics that lay out the more traditional inklings of this Celtic coterie. When the Summerislanders sing who they are, believe them.
This sensual yet ominous musical landscape is emboldened by the film’s vibrant aesthetic. Shot on location in Dumfries and Galloway, the production and costume design is colourfully rendered to contrast with the black and white outlook of Howie’s increasingly distressed police officer. Summerisle might look like a bright and welcoming place, but for Howie this is not a safe space and his stiff uniform offers no form of protection.
Both Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, who plays Lord Summerisle, have said The Wicker Man is their best film and their performances live up to it. Woodward’s stern demeanour and clipped line delivery lends itself excellently to Howie’s haughty personality. Every time the police officer is confronted by a beautiful woman – from Britt Ekland’s Willow MacGregor and Diane Cilento’s Miss Rose – his wide eyes and pursed lips give away the sexual frustration of a man clinging onto his chaste belief system. Yet Howie is so sure of himself, of his power, that he can’t see that he lost control of the situation the minute he landed on this fair isle.
Lee, on the other hand, is perfectly charismatic as the island’s cult-like leader. The late actor established himself as a formidable screen antagonist, thanks to his iconic performances as Dracula, and he brings some of that dark poise to the flamboyant Lord Summerisle. Lee actually did the job for free and it seems clear that, despite the tumultuous production, he had a lot of fun doing it because his performance is priceless. As is Woodward’s, especially in the final act when the truth reveals itself in a fiery end sequence involving the titular construction.
The Wicker Man is a brazen, hypnotic and hilarious piece of cinema that, as with masterpieces like It’s A Wonderful Life, Heathers and Shawshank Redemption, wasn’t recognised as such by audiences in its time. Fifty years on, its iconic status has been cemented for years to come.
Don’t keep The Wicker Man waiting.
Visit our screenings page for our full film schedule across the Houses.