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Best of British

The Wicker Man: 40 years of horror

By David Miller | 182 days ago

Britain’s greatest horror film is back for its anniversary with an extended Blu-ray special. Horror film expert David Miller takes a look at just what makes The Wicker Man the cult film that it is…

 

Human Sacrifice
Released 40 years ago in 1973, The Wicker Man is recognised as one of the finest British horror films, and one of the finest British films, period. Beautifully shot with a lingering unsettling power, it draws the unsuspecting viewer into its vortex of pagan weirdness like a beetle tied to a pin.

 

The premise, for anyone who hasn’t seen it or absorbed it by osmosis, sees an upright, uptight policeman, Sergeant Howie, investigating the disappearance of a young girl on Summerisle, a remote island off the Scottish coast. Charismatic Laird, Lord Summerisle, rules the island and calmly explains to Howie that the locals have embraced the old religions and celebrate the joy of nature. But as May Day approaches, Howie fears they’re preparing for a more dreadful rite…

 

The Wicker Man is a genre all of its own. The film’s director Robin Hardy had previously worked in commercials with writer Anthony Shaffer and they set out to make a horror film that wasn’t a horror film, tapping into the wealth of pagan mythology that lurked in the British psyche – Mr Punch, the Maypole, the iconic Wicker Man itself.

 

Shaffer, who also wrote the play Sleuth and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, created a poetic and unexpectedly funny script, with an ahead-of-its-time take on the place of theology in the modern world. Hardy’s direction mixes eerie bleakness with sun-dappled pastoral tranquillity, not easy when shooting in a chilly October in the Scottish highlands.

 

Get to the point
Edward Woodward, the star of ITV’s spy drama Callan (and later The Equalizer) is strong and credible as the unsuspecting ‘Christian copper’ Sergeant Howie, while Christopher Lee, the screen’s finest Dracula, bewitches as Lord Summerisle – and regards the role as the finest of his career. (It is almost certainly the best written.) Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt and Diane Cilento brought glamour to the proceedings and composer Paul Giovanni researched the history of British and Celtic folk music for the score, giving a haunting authentic background to the pagan celebrations.

 

But then the story gets complicated. British Lion, the company that backed the film, was on the brink of ruin. Producer Michael Deeley came in to turn the company around and, unimpressed with the slow burn of Hardy’s 100-minute film, ordered it chopped to 84 minutes. In the UK, The Wicker Man was released in a double bill with Nic Roeg’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, which, as Hardy himself admitted, must have made for a harrowing evening.

 

Inspring the future
It took until 1977 for The Wicker Man – in a longer version – to be released in America, where it became a surprise hit. There were queues round the block in some cities and the film acquired a devoted following. Cinefantastique magazine called it ‘The Citizen Kane of Horror Films’.

 

Today, the film is a rich source of inspiration to creative types, particularly musicians (covers of the soundtrack can be found in almost every genre) and filmmakers. Director Ben Wheatley (who is helming the first Doctor Who episodes for Peter Capaldi) cites The Wicker Man as a significant influence – particularly on his film Kill List that features ritual sacrifice – and the bleakly comic Sightseers.

 

 

Director Julian Richards’ 1996 film Darklands, which featured post-industrial paganism in the Vale of Glamorgan, was inevitably dubbed ‘The Welsh Wicker Man’.

 

In comedy, The League of Gentlemen – Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson – used The Wicker Man as a touchstone for their most bizarre scenarios, joyously referencing lines in some of their sketches. As all four have since gone on to blockbusting success, the film was something of a lucky charm, unless, of course, there was some kind of pagan sacrifice involved.

 

 

Hits and misses
Other big name fans include directors Eli Roth (there are several references in his film Hostel) and Tim Burton, there’s even a Wicker Lisa in The Simpsons. Edgar Wright, another self-confessed child of the Wicker Man, put a generous dollop of Summerisle strangeness into his film Hot Fuzz, with Simon Pegg in the role of the by-the-book copper.

 

It’s not all good, though. Nicolas Cage, a fan of the original film, produced and starred in a frankly disastrous remake in 2006 (don’t even bother) while Robin Hardy directed a long-awaited kind-of-sequel The Wicker Tree to decidedly mixed reviews in 2010.

 

 

But there’s no beating the original. This week The Wicker Man is on Blu-ray in the longer American cut, restored to its original glory using material from the Harvard University archive. If you’ve never seen it, there can be no better place to start. Settle down for a trip to Summerisle, and keep your appointment with The Wicker Man.

 

 

David Miller writes for Stuff magazine and is the author of Peter Cushing: A Life in Film

 

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