Easily one of the best horror movies of the ’70s, if only because its literary texture and offbeat subject matter differentiate it from more conventional shockers, The Wicker Man is a disturbing story about the murderous aspects of religion. Set on a remote island off the Scottish coast, the picture begins as a standard mystery, because a mainland policeman follows up on reports of a missing young girl. Then The Wicker Man escalates into something perverse. On first viewing, the picture seems completely bizarre, but after prolonged exposure the classicism of the film’s structure becomes more evident. This is horror cinema of the most elegant sort, in which an emotionally relatable protagonist encounters a situation beyond his understanding. The Wicker Man also contains some of the most disquieting images of the ’70s, so even though it doesn’t generate many jolts—the filmmakers’ methodology is far too subtle for that—The Wicker Man leaves an indelible impression. However, it’s no surprise that the film’s content was far too weird for mainstream acceptance during The Wicker Man’s original release; shown as a B-movie in England and the US, the picture eventually gained critical acclaim and cult-classic status. Even today, it remains something of an obscurity.
Loosely based on a novel by David Pinner called Ritual, the picture was written by the clever Anthony Schaffer (best known for his play and screenplay Sleuth) and directed by impressive first-timer Robin Hardy. At the opening of the story, uptight policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) files by seaplane to remote Summerisle, where he’s greeted with suspicion. Howie had received a note stating that a young girl was missing, but the locals all claim no knowledge of the girl, with the local schoolteacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), enigmatically claiming the girl doesn’t exist anymore. Meanwhile, Howie witnesses all sorts of odd behavior among the islanders, including nude outdoor rituals and the open display of such gruesome wares as a jar of foreskins at the drugstore. All of this tests Howie’s character, because he’s a devout Christian. In one of the film’s signature scenes, sexy barmaid Willow (Britt Ekland) does an intense nude dance in the hotel room next to Howie’s while singing a mesmerizing song, and the scene is intercut with Howie’s sweaty reactions as he responds to—but resists—her supernatural siren call. Eventually, Howie learns that the islanders are pagans who believe in regeneration and sacrifice, but revealing anything more of the plot would diminish the experience.
Hardy and Shaffer fill The Wicker Man with evocative glimpses into the strange world of ancient religious practices, so the picture features elaborate costumes, hypnotic music, and masks in the form of animal heads. Tension is generated by watching Howie’s sanity challenged when he sees inexplicable visions, and by the question of whether an outsider can survive in an environment where human life has a different value than it possesses in the modern world. Complementing a supporting cast filled with colorful eccentrics, the movie features horror veteran Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, the leader of the island’s pagan sect; even when wearing outlandish wigs (and, in one scene, full drag!), Lee gives one of his career-best performances. Ekland is powerfully erotic, and Woodward’s intense portrayal of a man who wears Christianity like a shield against the mysteries of the world is forceful and haunting. Best of all is the movie’s unforgettable ending.
The Wicker Man: RIGHT ON