This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Sometimes named the greatest British horror ever made, day eight is The Wicker Man.
Christopher Lee was already well known to horror cinema when he freely took the role of Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s directorial debut. For all his work with Hammer that preceded The Wicker Man, and over his later Lord of the Rings renown, it was this Lee considered among his best work. With the film boasting a folky record to pagan ritual, subtly thrilling mystery and terrific climax, it’s not hard to see why. This is slow burn horror but when the flames rise, they blister.
The film’s core is a tricky mystery, that concerning the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison, daughter of the Post Mistress. It is this absence that draws poor, pious Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) from mainland Scotland to the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle and drives him to that iconic fate. On his arrival to Summerisle, Howie finds a pagan populous, a social anti-Eden dominated by crude, psychosexual tradition and ritual. Day and night, the locals parade their land in naked dances and unabashed orgies. They chant, dress up and – crucially – entirely deny the existence of any Rowan Morrison.
Later known for his starring role in CBS TV show The Equalizer, Woodward is terrific throughout as the staid polar opposite to the free spirits around him. Particularly effective is the nighttime dalliance sequence he almost shares with Britt Ekland’s beguiling Willow – who has the voice of Annie Ross and posterior of a Glaswegian stripper. Howie arrives on the island as an outsider and it is not long before his initial shock graduates to divine outrage: ‘Have these children never heard of Jesus?’
But, in channeling his energies to this end, Howie underestimates the obvious, that which all but the least discerning must notice at once: there is far more evil on this island than the subjective crime of heresy. The clues are all up for the taking; hidden in the missing entry to the local pub’s photographic history of the island’s annual harvest, in the school classroom’s spare desk and in the repeated warnings from residents that Howie will not like what comes ahead: ‘You wouldn’t want to be around here on May Day.’
The lead up to the island’s pagan festivities is measured and loaded with brilliantly choreographed – if a touch over indulgent – musical sequences. An air of disquiet builds throughout, whilst the naturalistic approach of the production allows Summerisle to feel all too plausible as a hellish community. Scotland, supported by areal shots of South Africa in the opening, provides a perfectly arid backdrop, gifting the film both an atmosphere of both isolation and ungodly beauty.
When the film’s climax arrives no number of repeat viewings can strip it of its jaw dropping affect on audiences. Not only brilliantly conceived, the sequence is captured with style and slick, blackly comic pleasure. As the Wicker Man’s head drops, a stunning sunset is revealed. You see, the issue with sacrificial paganism is that it is a cyclical process. The sun will rise again and this evil will continue.