In recent years The Wicker Man may be synonymous with Nicholas Cage and the terror of bees. But the original 1973 classic directed by Robin Hardy is one of my all time favourite films and in general it remains a cornerstone of British horror with its influence on the genre still being felt to this day.
Set on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle the film follows Police Sergeant Neil Howie (expertly played by Edward Woodward) as he investigates the disappearance of a young girl and an obvious conspiracy amongst the island’s inhabitants.
What follows is a bizarre mix of pagan rituals, timeless character dynamics, dark Scottish humour and a few twisted songs thrown in for good measure culminating in what makes for one of the greatest horror movies of all time. So, if you’re in the mood for some classic folk horror, this is the best place to start.
The film does not follow your typical horror tropes and this is best seen through the characters in the film.
Our lead is no troubled hero or damsel in distress, instead he is a police officer, a man with authority and as such he’s the most antagonistic and unlikeable character in the film.
What I love about Woodward’s character is that he spends the whole film bossing people around, trying to impose his own views of biology and religion onto the island’s inhabitants. Yet the islanders don’t recognise his authority, making for some really funny moments.
Whilst the locals of the island such as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle are all charming and likeable they also partake in some really strange pagan beliefs that horrify the very much conservative Neil Howie and also leave the audience feeling uncomfortable.
It’s the contrast between the locals’ child-like logic and Howie’s authoritarianism that creates the real conflict of the story and gives it a timeless feeling of the battle between the old and new. Whilst we can clearly recognise Howie’s modern-day morals and logic, the way he forces them upon others comes across as so hostile that we are left with no other option but to emphasise with the Paganists.
Whilst this isn’t ‘hide behind the sofa’ sort of horror it can be very unnerving as you often feel alone in the film with no clear character to root for. What the film lacks in blood and jump scares, it makes up for in its ability to create a truly uncomfortable atmosphere which lasts well after the credits have rolled.
Again, whilst the film doesn’t play into all the typical horror tropes, it does surprise you with a few other twisted treats. Instead of constant jump scares, we are treated to outbursts of cheerfully creepy and twisted songs.
Everything from sacrifice to reproduction is the focus of the islanders’ old-fashioned tunes which are certain to make your stomach turn. In fact, there are so many musical numbers in the film you could probably class it as a horror musical.
Along with the music, the traditions of the islanders are certain to make you uneasy. They’re very literal people, curing sore throats with frogs and saying what they feel whenever they want, no matter how awkward it is (if a tavern full of older men confessing their love to the landlord’s daughter all at once doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then I don’t know what will.)
And of course, it comes equipped with some pretty famous horror iconography.
Without giving anything away, I couldn’t not mention the iconic Wicker Man statue that bookends the film. The whole end sequence of the movie is an explosion of dread and a masterclass of build-up and tension, no matter your opinion on the rest of the film, the climax is a must watch for any horror fan.
The burning of the Wicker Man not only serves as an iconic image of horror but it also acts as the conclusion to some truly haunting character work that leaves you questioning your views of the characters for some time to come. The true horror of the movie is unveiled as how and who we emphasise with, which I find just as haunting as any blood or jump scares.
With that being said, The Wicker Man is a film that comes in all different shapes and sizes, with there being over four re-edits of the film after the original cut was meddled with in 1973 to reach a tight 90 minute runtime.
Out of all the different cuts, I would recommend the third version which is the one streaming on Amazon Prime and available at most DVD shops. It also seems to be the most mainstream version of the film so it’s a good place to start.
Alongside the film, there is the American remake with Nicholas Cage.
Whilst it’s nowhere near as effective as the original, it’s still a fun watch if you’re in the mood for rubbish.
As well as the re-edits, remakes and sequels the Wicker Man still influences modern day horror films. I really doubt movies such as Midsommar (2019) would have been made were it not for the Wicker Man blowing the doors open for folk and daytime horror films.
Overall, if you’re looking for a different type of horror this Halloween, I would strongly recommend this folk classic which is sure to leave you feeling uncomfortable even if you watch it with the lights on!
Feature Image Credit: British Lion Film corporation / Studiocanal
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