As The Wicker Man celebrates its 40th anniversary, curator William Fowler count the wonders of this tale of paganism in the Scottish islands.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is rereleased nationwide on 27 September.
It will also screen later in the year as part of Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, a major four-month film season at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
A friend of mine said he could watch John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) every day for a year. He managed 28 days. Would I – could I – do the same with The Wicker Man (1973)? Or even better him? Maybe. It’s a truly terrific film, with so much to savour and love – even long after you’ve had that shocking first encounter. It’s filled with bright, startling details – phallic-shaped flowers, pickled organs in the chemist’s and the woman breast-feeding in a ruined church, to name just a few. And the dialogue is sharp and entertaining: “Cut some capers, man”; “now for our more dreadful sacrifice.” These are among the lines that have – for me – become almost as memorable as the terrific, eerie songs that Paul Giovanni contributed to this folk-horror ‘musical’.
Christopher Lee, who considers the film to be one of his very best, dispatches his lines with gusto. He plays Lord Summerisle – the ruler of the strange island that Howie, a police sergeant, has come to investigate. Paganism and all its associated rituals, symbols and eccentricities reign once again in this isolated locale.
Lee, with his hair standing erect in the Scottish winds, speaks with relaxed, assured authority – like someone who really could command an island full of heathens. One detail of his appearance that I always enjoy is the sight of the Converse-style sneakers peeking out from the bottom of his ‘man-woman’ dress. Folkloric ritual merges with hipster chic, the contemporary and the ancient piling up on top of each other.
He and many of his fellow islanders manage to look simultaneously ridiculous and deadly serious in the film’s climactic procession. The man seen earlier talking about the missing Rowan Morrison’s umbilical cord – “why, it’s her naval string” – is particularly unnerving. Grinning forcefully and swinging his tightly clenched fists, he appears truly uplifted not just by the prospect of ritual death but by its ‘reality’. Strong stuff.
And then there’s Edward Woodward, as po-faced Sergeant Howie. There’s something so serious and emotionally involving about his performance. He barks disapproval at those oversexed pagans and yet sweats with conviction when the comely Britt Ekland teases and taunts him with her writhing body. He may be just what the islanders call “king for a day” – and who but a fool would be a king for a day, as Lord Summerisle reminds us – but he’s brilliant. If you repeat his lines as I have been known do, it’s hard not to imagine his indignant face.
The camera works well with him too, showing us the often bizarre practices of the island and then his reactions. On first viewing, while perhaps you don’t exactly side with him, you at least understand him. On repeated viewings, you start to untangle the dynamic of his personality and the intricacies of the conspiracy. In this film, nothing is what it seems and power – even Lord Summerisle’s – is revealed to be just a mixture of might and illusion.
But The Wicker Man plays with reality. In its opening credits it thanks the people of Summerisle “for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the making of this film”, a note that has always reminded me of the text and nods to authenticity that open The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). And soon after the film gets underway, we are taken across the sea in Howie’s plane to a distant and yet familiar land: Summerisle itself. We go away from Britain of the 1970s only to return to it, reimagined. The corner shop, the pub, the people and their costumes – they all look much as they should and yet also somehow different. It’s a Britain that could have been or might be. It reminds me of the Cornwall village where I grew up and a witchy forgotten past that seeps through our culture despite many attempts to stop it.
The Wicker Man has great, entertaining dialogue but it’s not like other highly quotable cult movies. It’s about something alien and yet close by. And it changed music, art and film when fans rediscovered it en masse in the 1990s. You need to see it if you haven’t already, and if you have – watch it again. It never gets tired.