So much has been written over the years about the film often dubbed by modern day critics as "The Citizen Kane of horror movies'. The production, the low-key cinematic release, the initial critical mauling and the subsequent rise to it's much loved modern day status meant that I did wonder about adding further of value to the existing body of work on the subject.
However, I quickly realised that even if nothing new or original came from my musings I still needed to talk about, perhaps my favourite movie of all time.
Often Pigeon-holed as a horror movie, The Wicker Man is more than that. Yes it does have moments of horror - the ending IS genuinely horrific….but more of that later. It's also
an earnest and articulate thriller about paganism in a modern day society, indeed many modern Pagans have embraced the lifestyle suggestions of the movie for providing an idealised manifestation of Pagan culture that showed the Island inhabitants as happy, cheerful, and well-adjusted! The ending of the movie does seem to have escaped them however…...
The Wicker man was written by Anthony Shaffer whose excellent script provided a cunning mixture of comedy, a gradual feeling in the audience of an ever increasing dread, and a genuinely horrific climax.
The film begins when we are introduced to a policeman from the mainland, Sergeant Neil Howie , who receives an anonymous letter requesting his presence on Summerisle, a remote Scottish island noted for its plentiful fruit produce, to investigate the disappearance of a young local girl named Rowan Morrison.
Rowan?…..never heard of her.
A soon as Howie reaches the island we see that the residents of Summerisle are friendly but curiously distant, and in some cases not particularly welcoming. Immediately there is the undercurrent of feeling that all is not what it appears. Howie (a stunning performance from Edward Woodward) is treated as an outsider by the Islanders as he encounters difficulty in getting any information from them. Indeed, they claim never to have heard of the missing girl Rowan, even her own mother insists Rowan does not exist.
Howie's search eventually brings him into contact with the island's community leader, Laird Summerisle (played by the always, always, ALWAYS wonderful Christopher Lee) describes to Howie the island's recent history and culture. Summerisle's grandfather was a scientist who formulated a number of new strains of fruit that he believed could prosper in the Scottish climate as long as they were accompanied by the 'correct' growing conditions.
The Laird goes on to explain that these 'correct' growing conditions were, his Grandfather introducing a belief in the local population that the older gods were in fact genuine and worshipping them by farming the new crop strains would deliver them from their meagre livelihood. The crops did indeed go on to bear plentiful harvests of fruit and the island's Christian clergy were forced away, with the population now completely embracing the pagan philosophy.
The delicious Ingrid Pitt getting all down and Pagan
The repressed policeman, a devout and celibate christian is constantly tempted and appalled in equal measures by the island's seductive atmosphere, With phallic symbols and hypnotic music seemingly everywhere. The numerous pagan ceremonies, often in the form of multiple sexual acts, are are prevelant at every opportunity with the biggest temptation being completely conveyed by the Pub landlord's daughter (Britt Ekland), who overloads Sargent Howie with barely containable sexual desire.
Oh go on then Willow, if I must……
However, the problem of the missing girl remains, with ever more numerous indications that hint at a darker reality beneath the colourful local customs. When that reality is ultimately discovered, Howie becomes the crucial element in the islanders' most elaborate and ultimately horrific ritual.
Laird Summerisle explains to Howie that he was enticed to the island by the islanders themselves, who have all conspired to persuade him that a missing girl was being held captive. The Laird admits to the Sargent that the previous year's harvest failed disastrously. Their pagan religion requires sacrifice to be made to the sun god. Howie's devout Christian lifestyle and his job as a police officer mean that he is suitably pure in heart and innocent enough to be sacrificed to placate the sun god and provide a successful harvest.
"Oh god! Oh Jesus Christ!!!"
Despite the protests of the now terrified policeman that the crops failed because fruit was not meant to grow on these islands, Howie is stripped naked, dressed in ceremonial robes and led to the summit of a cliff with his hands tied. He is horrified to find a giant, wooden Wicker man statue containing a range of animals, in which he is then locked inside. The statue is set ablaze…….
The stunning end scene of The Wicker Man
The movie soundtrack
An essential and sometimes overlooked component to the film is the accompanying soundtrack, which here provides a principle part of the story narrative. There are a number of superlative songs and pieces of musical score that accompany a number important scenes, such as the plane's arrival, Willow's dancing, the maypole dance, the girls jumping through fire, the search of the houses, the procession, and the final burning scene. Indeed, according to folklore, the director announced to a clearly surprised cast halfway through filming that they were actually making a musical!
Some of the movies songs were original compositions, arranged and recorded by Paul Giovanni. On occasion the soundtrack contains folk songs performed by characters in the film. The songs vary between traditional songs, original Giovanni compositions.
The Maypole song
"Willow's Song" has been covered or sampled by various rock music bands.
The musical score to this day remains one of the most unusual in the entire genre: an assemblage of original, authentic folk songs and instrumental underscore that bring to mind a long forgotten, hauntingly discomfiting sense of displaced time and place. A form of folk-pop informed by ancient forces of nature and pagan belief. Long a holy grail among soundtrack aficionados.