The Wicker Man (1973)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Twins of Evil

The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Horror Express

The Wicker Man

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Some Things In Their Natural State Have the Most Vivid Colors

Welcome to Summerisle,
where every day is Halloween.
The Wicker Man is a little known British horror movie that really deserves a bigger audience. All of the action takes place on a small island somewhere off the British coast, a peaceful and rustic setting (it would seem).

Sgt. Howie (played by Edward Woodward, probably best known for The Equalizer TV series), a policeman, arrives on the island of Summerisle to investigate an anonymous report of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. When Howie arrives on the island by sea plane he is given a cold reception, and none of the village people have ever seen the girl in question. However, her family name is shared by a family on the island. Howie visits them, and is surprised when the Mrs. Morrison claims to not recognize a picture of Rowan. Morrison's daughter claims the picture is of her sister, who now runs through the fields as a hare. This is enough for Howie to decide to stay the night.

Soon, Howie realizes something very strange is going on. At the local inn, the Green Man, people openly sing bawdy songs about the innkeeper's daughter Willow (Brit Ekland) while she is present. The very moral and Christian Howie is also shocked to see people having sex out in the open, among other strange things. Howie is not even safe in his room at the inn, as Willow attempts to seduce him from the next room using song and erotic dance. It is hard to describe precisely, but it a truly stunning scene.

Do Sit Down, Shocks Are So Much Better Absorbed With The Knees Bent

Hey... anybody else feel a breeze?
The next day Howie continues his investigation. He uncovers a lot. He finds out that Rowan did exist, and that she died a few months ago. He asks the town's teacher (who, to his sensibilities, is teaching shockingly sexual paganism to the children) if Rowan is buried in the churchyard. She's not sure how to answer that. "The building attached to the ground in which the body lies is no longer used for Christian worship, so whether it is still a churchyard is debatable," she explains.

Howie goes to the island's patriarch, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Summerisle is frank and unapologetic about his paganism. It was started by his grandfather, who found that the local population responded well to the revivification of the Old Gods. In one telling exchange, Howie protests that a group of girls are dancing naked over a fire in what is a fertility rite:

Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.

Sgt. Howie: But they are... are naked!

Lord Summerisle: Naturally! It's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on.

Summerisle assures Howie that nothing illegal has happened, and gives him permission to exhume the body of Rowan. Howie finds nothing but the body of a rabbit.

All that has happened, plus the fact that Lord Summerisle seems keen to get rid of Howie by May Day, leads Howie to do some research into the rites of May Day. He is not prepared for the truth he discovers -- and that pales compared to the truth he doesn't discover!

You'll Simply Never Understand The True Nature of Sacrifice

The Wicker Man is one of the most original and unusual horror movies you will ever see. It doesn't really have any scares, only a steadily climbing sense of dread as it builds towards climax. The film also avoids the usual conventions of horror movies. For instance, most of the film takes place during the day, and there is no blood or any dismembered body parts, though there is plenty of symbolism. The horror of Summerisle is found in Lord Summerisle's benign smile and the jocular singing of the townspeople, in the dancing and garish costume wearing of the May Day celebration.

One truly standout element of the movie is the music. Paul Giovanni composed a slew of original folk songs, all bawdy and all maddeningly catchy, for the townspeople to sing. Our favorites include Brit Ekland's song of seduction, and a humorous 'circle of life' song sung to a lone fiddle while dancing around the May pole. We would almost say The Wicker Man is a horror musical, but this would invite comparison to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies. And no one wants that.

Most of the cast is made up of unknowns, but there are some very familiar faces. If you go to the video stores to get a horror movie and ignore the movies with a number in the title, about half of the remaining films will star Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (and sometimes both). Christopher Lee was Hammer Studios' point man on monster movies, he played Dracula in a number of films, and Frankenstein's monster on occasion. He lent his name to probably more horror movies than just about anyone else in the history of movies. Lee plays the role of the civilized heathen Summerisle subtly and with style. In other words, he fits in perfectly with the rest of the movie.

Fans of The Equalizer will probably be surprised at how strong Woodward's Scottish accent is throughout the movie. He also seems kind of whiny and petty at times, but Woodward does an excellent job of portraying a man who is disgusted by the lifestyle he sees, yet attracted to it against his better nature.

The Wicker Man is a movie you will remember long after you have stopped watching it. That's why it's a shame that this movie is very hard to find on video. We saw a cheap EP sell-through copy, with a running time of 85 minutes, while most sources suggest the movie had a theatrical running time of closer to 95 minutes, and there are rumors of an 105 minute version. The difference between the various running times is probably made up of a combination of scenes featuring villagers' hedonism and scenes between Howie and Summerisle. Whatever version you can find, though, this is a movie well worth watching and owning.

Own it!

Review date: 10/30/1997

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