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Film Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

“Police Sergeant Neil Howie arrives on a Scottish island looking for a missing teenager girl, Rowan Morrison. The place belongs to Lord Summerisle and is famous because of their plantation of apples and other fruits and their harvest. Sergeant Howie realises that the locals are pagans, practicing old rituals, and Rowan is probably alive and being prepared to be sacrificed. The end of the story is a tragic surprise.” (courtesy IMDB)

The seventies were breakthrough years for horror in the cinema. The success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) had something to do with this, and many good horror films were made right through the seventies, but the biggest commercial breakthrough was that of The Exorcist (1973). Before that, most horror films were the product of comparatively small production companies like New World, American International, Hammer and Amicus. After 1973 the big boys began to get into the act.

By 1983 the boom seemed to be subsiding, but for the previous decade audiences were inundated with monstrous children in The Omen (1976), Eraserhead (1977), To The Devil A Daughter (1976) – possessed houses in Burnt Offerings (1976), The Shining (1980), Inferno (1980) – doomed psychics in Don’t Look Now (1973), The Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978) – lurking lycanthropes in An American Werewolf In London (1981), The Howling (1981), Cat People (1982), Wolfen (1981) – bloodthirsty ghouls in House By The Cemetery (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) – and plain old monsters in Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), Jaws (1975). The late seventies were the years of visceral horror, more graphic than anything that had previously appeared on the screen, and the result (especially in Britain) was a great deal of public concern, though very little informed debate. So our story begins with the slow death of the costume Gothic.

The British Gothic cinema was still active in the late sixties but there were signs that it was losing heart. Most of these films were costume dramas set in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, but after Rosemary’s Baby the public was beginning to demand its horror films set in the here-and-now, and mostly urban settings at that. Considering the enormous popularity (in their time) of books about pagan fertility rituals (Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult In Western Europe, etc.) and considering the vast spin-off of this interest in the form of occult-based novels, it’s surprising how seldom the theme of pagan rituals in modern times has entered the cinema.

The Wicker Man (1973) was so hacked about and badly distributed that it almost seems to have been suppressed by influential witches. With a screenplay by well-known playwright Anthony Schaffer, one might have expected that the film would be aimed at the art-house audience, but instead it was cut from 102 minutes to 87 minutes, pushed down-market and instantly sunk from sight for many years. The result was that its very invisibility magnified its virtues and it developed a cult reputation as one of the greatest of modern horror films. Now that the film can be viewed complete on DVD, it can be judged more coolly as ‘Interesting But Flawed’.

Edward Woodward plays the policeman called to a remote island off the Scottish coast to investigate the case of a missing girl. A virginal, puritanical, middle-aged Christian, he is both attracted to and appalled by the easy-going life on the island, presided over by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in what is probably his best role) and slowly realises the bawdy songs, the naked dancers, the odd touches of ritual mean that the islanders are pagans. He suspects that the missing girl may be intended as a human sacrifice (everybody denies knowing her). Eventually he finds her (having joined a May-Day procession dressed as The Fool), but it is he, it turns out, who is to be sacrificed and the girl was merely the lure. Suspended in a giant man-shaped wicker cage, he is burned to bring fertility to the island and ensure a good harvest.

It is a genuinely shocking ending to an otherwise fairly quiet film. Visually the film has conviction in many nice small touches, and the islanders seem quite real, they don’t look as if they’ve come from Central Casting. But the ironies are a little too obvious, as both the policeman’s faith and the islanders’ faith are weighed in the balance, and both found wanting. Unlike most films about witches, this one does not suggest that somewhere a genuine Satan is manipulating events (the Devil is never mentioned), or a genuine God, if it comes to that. It is a rather cruel film, only fantastic in its imagery (Jungian rather than Freudian) and in its suggestion that sacrificial rituals are so close to the surface of human consciousness, perhaps in the form of a race memory, that they may erupt again at any time.

Few anthropologists believe any longer that a witch or mother-goddess fertility cult ever existed in Europe in historical times, but the idea of witchcraft as a genuine religion has become a potent modern myth, in both books and films, and belief in the powers of witchcraft is now trendy, almost even respectable. And it’s with that thought in mind I bid you farewell, and please join me again next week as we see what the postman leaves on my doorstep – and sets on fire – for Horror News! Toodles!

The Wicker Man (1973)

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