“Well, I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We’re a deeply religious people,” says Lord Summerisle to Sergeant Neil Howie. “Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests…and children dancing naked!” responds Howie. “They do love their divinity lessons.” “But they are…are naked!” “Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on!”
I first saw Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man in my Horror Film class several years ago. It was the 88-minute version that was released in the U.S., and I had never even heard of it until it appeared on the syllabus. By the time I finished watching the DVD with my class, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen (and this is coming from a guy who’s seen quite a number of horror films). I guess it was because I hadn’t prepared myself for it, but it was nevertheless one of the best horror films I’d ever seen. There was no blood and no guts, and yet it still managed to create one of the most horrific images ever committed to celluloid. Although there was already a 100-minute director’s cut available on DVD, the extra footage in that cut came from a broadcast tape that was in less-than-stellar condition. Earlier this year, StudioCanal launched a Facebook campaign to recover the missing footage in 35mm form. A 92-minute version of the film was discovered in the Harvard Film Archive, which was subsequently scanned and sent to London, where it was inspected and approved by director Robin Hardy. I recently had the chance to see the final cut of The Wicker Man at the IFC Center in its fully digitally restored glory.
Inspired by David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, 1973’s The Wicker Man centers on Police Sergeant Neil Howie’s visit to the isolated island of Summerisle (off the western coast of Scotland), where he investigates the disappearance of a girl named Rowan Morrison. Howie, who is a devout Christian, is shocked to find that the island’s inhabitants engage in a form of Celtic paganism. He is also disturbed that no one even acknowledges the existence of the girl, including her own mother. Howie eventually meets Lord Summerisle, who explains to him the island’s history and how the previous year’s harvest had failed. Howie’s continued investigation leads him to realize that Morrison is still alive. He believes that the island’s inhabitants intend to sacrifice her to their gods as part of their May Day celebration so that their next harvest will be plentiful.
The two standout performances on display here are from Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. Lee is phenomenal as Lord Summerisle, the island’s leader who has a hand in everything that happens on the island. Woodward is just as terrific as the deeply religious Sergeant Howie, who is relentless in his investigation and whose beliefs are put to the test during the course of the film. Britt Ekland is stunning as Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter (her voice was dubbed by Annie Ross). One of the film’s highlights is the sequence where she attempts to seduce Howie, singing “Willow’s Song” while doing a nude dance (I was disappointed when I found out that a nude double was used in the wide shots where she’s seen from behind; the reason for that was that Ekland was pregnant at the time, which is why she’s only nude from the waist up). Ingrid Pitt also shows up in a small role as the librarian.
Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay was terrific, using the basic outline of Pinner’s novel and adding the pagan and sacrifice elements. Hardy’s direction is solid, crafting a terrific, suspenseful mystery. Sue Yelland’s costume designs were outstanding, particularly the various pagan celebration costumes. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is top-notch, shooting the gorgeous yet Gothic Scottish locales through an unsuspecting bright lens. Paul Giovanni wrote the hauntingly memorable music; a mix of traditional-sounding songs were used along with completely original Giovanni compositions. The horror and tension in this film is subtle; it slowly builds until the chilling and extremely memorable finale. It isn’t surprising that Christopher Lee considers this to be his best film (and Summerisle as his best role), since this is no doubt one of the best horror films of all time (let’s all continue to ignore the incredibly awful 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage).