“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”
Even now, 43 years after its release, shocks are something Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man certainly provides. Speaking from personal experience, and from the experiences of others who know and respect the film, it remains shocking and powerful. It is a film that crawls under your skin; upon my first encounter with it, I was overcome by the placid sense of horror I experienced. Apart from the ending, there is little in the film that is outwardly horrific; it is very much a film of its time. Rather than provide cheap thrills, Hardy inflicts slow-burning terror on Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a law-abiding, God-fearing man. Subsequent viewings of this British classic reveal a complex labyrinth of horrors, a film that strikes fear through the ancient theme of faith and not through gore.
The Wicker Man‘s status as a classic British horror film is, by now, well established. Whereas older British horrors such as the Hammer films – some of which also starred Christopher Lee, who features here as Lord Summerisle – rely on classic horror tropes such as mummies, vampires, and werewolves, Hardy’s film instead finds its horrific roots in a small-town community of fishermen and teachers.
This film does not supply its horror through jump scares and stock characters. Instead, it is a social horror. When this film was first released in 1973 – the same year as American horror masterpiece The Exorcist – Britain was still a very traditional and actively Christian nation. The average man was a straight-laced worker who kept to his values most likely dictated by a Christian upbringing. Sergeant Howie is an everyman who is thrown into the case of a missing girl, Rowan, on the Summerisle of Scotland, and who must question the roots of his faith. This island is a foreign place to him both geographically and religiously. He quickly comes to witness depraved teachings and public sex, things that make his resolutely British stiff upper-lip sweat. His faith and resolve are soon tested by Willow (Britt Ekland), and as the sergeant faces a barrage of lies from mothers, children and Lord Summerisle himself, he realises that the world is perhaps not what it seems.
These themes are contributed to by the film’s active interest in folk traditions. Music plays a big part in establishing the culture and mood of the film. Eerie songs, led by teachers and sang by children, about sex and birth, are the major source of some of Sergeant Howie’s distress. These songs combine adult themes with endearing Celtic rhythms that instill indecent messages into their children, and dread into the audience. All of the music was beautifully arranged by Paul Giovanni and performed by the characters in the film, alongside Magnet, a purpose-assembled folk band. The wonderful track ‘Landlord’s Daughter‘ accompanies Willow as she is pawed at by drunken old men, a seemingly acceptable thing within this strange community. The musical scenes are vital to establishing the twisted world that Sergeant Howie has found himself in; their strangeness gives life to the strangeness that will ultimately destroy him.
Summerisle might well be a fictional place, but it is a location strongly rooted in the real world; the otherworldly Scottish locales, small villages in the rural highlands, construct a place that is both eerily familiar and distant at the same time. The film’s art direction and costume design are both equally exquisite; a beautiful array of props and costumes were created to bring the sacrificial cult to life – the wicker man itself is one of the most iconic and enduring images of all horror.
The Wicker Man digs deeper than most horror films; it starts slow, gets under the skin, and finally fills you with dread. Although I have said earlier that this film does not dwell on horrific images, the ending of this film is the exception to that claim. “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” cries poor Sergeant Howie in his final moments, a sacrifice for the harvest. These words will be etched into the minds of all who have witnessed this great, British horror.
Robin Hardy might have only made a few films, but what a thing to leave behind. He will certainly be missed.