The Wicker Man Review (1973)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Wicker Man Review (1973)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on October 30th, 2018 | Movie Review | Cult, Drama, Psychological, Thriller, Mystery

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It’s about a policeman who visits a secluded island to investigate the disappearance of a child, only to discover that the island is a Pagan cult.

The Wicker Man was directed by Robin Hardy (who also directed The Fantasist and The Wicker Tree) and stars Edward Woodward (from Incense for the Damned), Christopher Lee (from Extraordinary Tales) and Britt Ekland (from The Monster Club).

Flesh to touch... Flesh to burn! Don't keep the Wicker Man waiting!

The Wicker Man Review

“Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”

On the eve of Halloween, destiny has brought us to reverent presence upon the shores of this sacred island to review one of the landmark movies of the horror genre. We have come here of our own free will, with the power of a king, but as a fool. Maybe some of you geekier fans have come here as virgins too, who knows. That dinghy left the harbor for the Present Author many moons ago.

The Wicker Man (1973) is a movie distinguished by reverence on all sides. The late Sir Christopher Lee considered it his best film with his role as Lord Summerisle. Lee starred in - according to our own database - 46 movies in the horror genre alone and counting, so that’s really saying something. Cinefantastique magazine called The Wicker Man “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.” It has been honored and celebrated by taste-makers and critics on every hand, even to being called one of the greatest UK movies, of any genre.

And Present Author, who has succumbed to temptation to tip overrated movies off their pedestal now and again, will this time stay my hand. I agree: This is one of the greatest movies ever made, certainly in my Top Ten Horror Movies list. As you might guess, a lowly mortal such as myself is in no place to do anything so crude as to commit a review upon this masterpiece. It’s been reviewed, it’s been spoiled, it’s been chewed and ruminated for decades. Next December marks the 45th anniversary of The Wicker Man, so if you don’t know about this movie by now, it’s your own fault.

We have much deeper ground to drill than a mere review, fortunately...

“I think I could turn and live with animals.”

The Wicker Man is distinguished by posing some of the most compelling philosophical questions ever filmed. Questions which resonate today. Do you, dear reader, regard our own society as perfect? Chances are you don’t. So what is wrong with the way the human race manages its own affairs, and how do we fix it? Ah, your answer here is not so ready, is it? At the end of the day, whether it’s through war, famine, pestilence, or judgment, somebody dies. There is suffering, there is injustice, and everything we try to do doesn’t seem to help much. It seems that if humans were capable of inventing the perfect government for themselves, they would therefore have no need of governing.

Ignoring the whole sacrificing-humans thing, Lord Summerisle makes one hell of a devil’s advocate case every time he opens his mouth. He is the master of the last word and the deflecting answer. Every time Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) argues a case for crown and cross, the bastion of civilization he knows, Summerisle shuts him down with a Zen Buddhist koan that makes Howie sound like the savage one.

We hate to bring up politics, but The Wicker Man drags us into them by the hair whether we like it or not. So, regardless of whether you’re talking about England, the United States, the EU, Australia, whatever, the chief struggle of politics seems to be pitted as a struggle between established conservative dogma and experimental progressivism. Between Howie and Summerisle, we don’t have to tell you who’s the holdout. Howie staggers through the movie in a state of shock, pitifully defending his (and mainland civilization’s) way of life, literally to his last breath.

But he loses. He never had a chance. So the movie grimly confronts us with the central conundrums of its themes: How best should mankind make peace with nature? Through a patriarch deity who moderates for us while we hope for the best? Or through directly manipulating nature, even if we have to break a few eggs to make an omelet? How do you define a successful civilization? The citizens of Summerisle seem to be outrageously jolly, don’t they? Sergeant Howie acts as if his whole life were that of denial of self, in deference to his precious restrictive society. If you judge nations and religions by the common good, who wins here?

And if you choose to champion Howie’s King-James translation of Christianity, what of the horrors of THAT religion and its various sects? The Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Catholic priest abuse scandals, the Branch Davidians who died in the Waco siege, the snake handlers and speaking in tongues? If you think Paganism is scary, go watch Jesus Camp, then come back and tell me how Summerisle’s system is worse.

“You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”

Note that The Wicker Man doesn’t follow most of the rules of horror movies. It’s played out as an old-fashioned mystery, by definition a police procedural. The monsters are all human, the scares are subtle, and some of the deepest psychological horror comes from scenes like Willow (Britt Ekland) tormenting Howie by a dancing ritual from the next room, rubbing his nose in his piousness and laughing at his staunch refusal to succumb to temptation. It isn’t until the ending that we really understand its status as a horror movie. Good. God. That. Ending!

The creepy atmosphere establishes the rules of the movie from the start. The citizens of Summerisle dourly watch Howie land by pontoon boat and ask for a dinghy transport to shore, but they stay in their huddle and say they’ll have to check with the boss first. His authority is challenged before he even sets foot on the island, and it gets worse from there. The paranoid environment never lets up, with everyone down to the youngest child seemingly in on the joke, scoffing and rebutting Howie’s mission at every turn.

It’s the subtle flavors of this movie which made any attempt at a remake doomed no matter what. So it’s all the more hilarious that such blasphemy was attempted in that other movie with such flamboyant gall, now seen as one of the worst movies even made. Nicholas Cage is still doing penance in the corner with a dunce cap for it, though he’s slowly working his way back into good graces. Even a sequel’s pretty tough, but the Wicker Tree attempt drew less scorn via being a meek companion piece.

But the movie itself is influential enough that it inspired a stage adaptation, an Iron Maiden song, and a roller coaster - you heard me - at Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire England. Stills from the movie are unmistakable, nothing else looks like it. It gives us so many memorable scenes, so many artistic touches, that it takes less time to simply watch the movie than it does to discuss them.

The Wicker Man is so distinguished that, unlike other movies of its stature, it did NOT found a genre of imitators. You could make some argument for cult horror and folk horror, but those genres were around before and didn’t show much of a spike off this movie. It wasn’t a box-office blowout at the time; it made back its extremely modest budget and has only grown its lofty reputation over the years in retrospect. What the hell, it even works as a musical, with the cheery Pagan songs and bawdy pub ballads, or as a comedy, between Lord Summerisle’s put-downs and the other-worldly costume parade, which Howie must join dressed as, of all characters, Punch. Which turns out to be step number infinity in the islander’s Rube Goldberg plan of manipulation of the perfect sacrifice victim!

The movie ends up being as monolithic as its foreboding title structure. It is not copied, not even that easily referenced. And some of it might be lost on modern audiences, because it's not that accessible and is certainly dated. Yep, just like Citizen Kane, alright.

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