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Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Directed by: Robin Hardy

Premise: A British policeman (Edward Woodward) travels to an isolated Scottish island in search of a missing girl. Upon arriving he discovers that the islanders have embraced ancient paganism.

What Works: The Wicker Man is a British horror film made at a time in which the Hammer studio dominated that market with gothic horror flicks and lurid (for the time) retellings of Victorian-era stories like Horror of Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. Released in 1973, as the Hammer output started to sag, the filmmakers of The Wicker Man utilized some of the familiar faces of the Hammer brand, including actors Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, and then cast them in a story that attempted to give British horror a new spin, one that was thoughtful and was predicated more on suspense than on outrageous thrills. The resulting film was unique both then and now and is frequently cited as one of the greatest British horror pictures ever made. The Wicker Man is an offbeat and frequently bizarre movie and the most important thing to understand about The Wicker Man is that its strangeness is intentional. The film has an eccentric tone that isn’t recognizably horrific in the style of a gothic horror tale or a contemporary slasher or torture picture. Rather, this film is a mature version of fairy tales like Alice in Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel in which a character from the “normal” world enters a foreign land where traditional values and ideals have been inverted. One of those inversions is in the islanders’ sexuality and this is among The Wicker Man’s most usual qualities. There is sexual imagery all over this film although much of it is implicit. As the islanders explain it, they have rejected a guilt-based notion of their bodies and embrace a more holistic approach to sexuality that is in keeping with their pagan traditions. The sexuality of The Wicker Man becomes a key source of tension between the islanders and the policeman but the filmmakers do not side with the islanders’ pagan idealism or the police officer’s Judeo-Christian puritanism. Instead that tension is allowed to play out ambiguously and one of the more thoughtful aspects of The Wicker Man is the way this film depicts a struggle between different sets of values. That struggle is found in the character of the police officer and actor Edward Woodward is terrific in the role. His struggle to defend traditional standards and the way those values are gradually overwhelmed creates sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic character. Like a lot of fairytales, The Wicker Man is a human sacrifice story and this film is very cleverly written and it plays on viewer expectations, upending those expectations at the right moments. That cleverness is substantiated in the camerawork and The Wicker Man is very well shot. Images are often construed from unusual angles and the action is staged in a way that enhances the creepiness of the film. The Wicker Man is also unusual in its music and here too the moviemakers play against audience expectations. Instead of a brooding score, the soundtrack of The Wicker Man uses folk music, a lot of it quite cheerful and that cheerfulness is distressing because it contrasts with the dread of the movie. That unexpected contrast is key to the way this film works. The Wicker Man is not scary in the way viewers typically imagine a horror film to be, but it is the kind of movie that haunts the viewer after it has ended. The filmmakers capitalize on the awkwardness of being a stranger in a strange land and the nervousness achieved by the simple act of being stared at, and especially being stared at by a large group of people. The horror of The Wicker Man is not about biological terror or fear of the unknown but rather how frightening large groups of stupid people can be.

What Doesn’t: The Wicker Man is very much a movie of the early 1970s and it has significantly dated in both its style and sensibility. The clothes and haircuts are sometimes distractingly of their time, especially in the case of Christopher Lee’s character. The police detective also comes across as anachronistic to modern eyes but in a different way. The character is a rude, puritanical ass; for an audience that was much more religiously unified and had a narrower idea of religious and spiritual possibilities, the character’s behavior might come across as a rational reaction. But for an audience raised in a more diverse and tolerant culture the policeman is frequently as abrasive as the villagers are strange. The sexual aspects of this film are similarly anachronistic. At the time in which The Wicker Man was made the overt sexuality of this film was shocking and for a certain audience that may still be the case, but for contemporary viewers the attitudes of the villagers are less outrageous, even though their behaviors are still peculiar. The Wicker Man is a horror film but it is not really a scary movie, at least not in the way that audiences would think of a film like The Exorcist as scary. The Wicker Man is a creepy film and the ending is especially effective but viewers who come to the picture expecting traditional thrills and chills are bound to be puzzled by it if not outright disappointed.

DVD extras: There are multiple cuts of The Wicker Man. The DVD released by Lionsgate features an 88 minute version that also includes trailers, radio spots, and a featurette. A longer version, referred to as The Wicker Man: The Final Cut, has recently been discovered and is being prepared for release.

Bottom Line: The Wicker Man ranks with Dawn of the Dead, Pink Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show among the classic cult movies of all time. Contemporary mainstream viewers are likely to be confused by the movie but that does not diminish the accomplishments of the picture. The appeal of cult cinema is in its singular style and the way it plays against the mainstream and The Wicker Man certainly does that.

Episode: #460 (October 13, 2013)