The Wicker Man mesmerizing 40 years later

The Wicker Man mesmerizing 40 years later

“O, God! O, Jesus Christ!”  This is the terror that Sergeant Neil Howie expressed at seeing the towering wicker man; a real, sacrificial device used by the Druids and Celts, at the hill’s precipice leading to the climax of British film The Wicker Man. Initially released in the UK back in 1973, the film celebrated its fortieth anniversary in the USA on June 5, 2015.  This hybrid Horror/Musical directed by Robin Hardy (The Fantasist 1986, The Wicker Tree 2011), and written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth 1972, Death on the Nile 1978), features late legendary actor Christopher Lee (The Curse of Frankenstein 1957, Dracula 1958) who prodded Shaffer to read the novel Ritual by David Pinner. He did so, inspiring him to write a screenplay based on the novel, and The Wicker Man was the result.

Still from The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man

In this British film, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper: The Bill series 1988-2000, Law & Order: UK series 2014) is missing, and Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward: Who Dares Win 1982, Soccer Shoot-Out 1990) has to go to the far-off island of Summerisle to try to find her.  When he gets there, the first thing he does is question some of the fisherman on the dock, who denies knowing Rowan when he passes a picture of Rowan around. He questions one of her friends, who says she likes laying in the corn.  When Howie checks into The Green Man Inn, it is the proverbial record scratch followed by crickets as the patrons quietly eye the outsider before continuing their rabble rousing (“The Landlord’s Daughter”) headed by the Harbour Master (Russell Waters: And Mother Makes Five series 1976, Robin’s Nest series 1978).  On the bar wall, there are pictures of every harvest featuring the May Queen…except the most recent.  He thinks that is odd, so he asks, and the landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp: The Vampire Lovers 1970, Jubilee 1977) says, “It was broken.”  While Howie is trying to investigate, MacGregor’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland: High Velocity 1976, Slavers 1978) is coming onto him.  He leaves, casually walking around, and sees there is an orgy out in the open.  A devout Christian (in flashback), Howie is taken aback. That night, Howie hears Willow singing through his walls (“Willow’s Song”), trying to seduce him to lay with her.  Although she gets under his skin, he denies her.

The next morning, as Howie tours the island, he sees the islanders setting up a Maypole (“Maypole”) as he is going to their schoolhouse to question the teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento: Negatives 1968, Duet for Four 1982). He is astonished that children are taught the sexual connotations of the May Day celebrations as well as putting frogs down their throats when they are sore.  Miss Rose explains to Howie they do not believe in death when he point blank asks her if Rowan is dead. Howie learns Rowan’s mom, May (Irene Sunter: The Anatomist 1956, The Steamie 1988) is part of the Pagan cult.  She goes so far as to deny Rowan even exists.  Then, Howie makes his way to the cemetery where he finds a woman nursing a baby (Barbara Rafferty: Tutti Frutti series 1987, Taggart series 1988), which shows there is a tombstone with empty crates on it; he is perplexed.  He finds the Gravedigger, (Aubrey Morris: A Clockwork Orange 1971, My Girl 2 1994) who points out Rowan’s grave.  He insists on meeting the person in charge of the community, but is taken to an office where he demands to see the death ledger.  From there, he is referred to the photographer, T.H. Lennox (Donald Eccles: A Taste of Money 1960, The Dresser 1983), where he asks about the missing Mayday picture. He gets nowhere, and is taken to a mansion where he is to wait.  While he waits, Howie watches a fertility ceremony (“Fire Leap) as a pregnant lady in a gown and several nude ladies dance around a fire.  Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) interrupts him, explaining the history of the island and why his grandfather settled there.

Still from The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man

Summerisle explains, as they walk through the gardens, the philosophy that the gods would use strains of fruit his grandfather invented to make the island prosper.  With the help of the gravedigger, Howie exhumes Rowan’s grave, and what he finds is surprising.  He confronts Lord Summerisle about his findings and says he is going to return to England to report said findings, which Summerisle grants.  Before leaving, Howie gets to investigate alone, and finds the missing harvest pic, which has Rowan posed with a bunch of empty boxes.  Further investigation shows Howie a constitution of sorts in which is said that when the harvest is bad, there must be a sacrifice to appease the gods.  Howie sets out for his plane to report to his superiors, but is detained, so he sets out to solve the mystery himself, searching everywhere.  He devises a plan to knock out Willow’s father and use the costume to infiltrate the May Day ceremony.  After the parade (“Procession), Howie witnesses the community play a form of Russian roulette (“Chop Chop)…and he sees Rowan.  Losing all pretense, he grabs her, and a cat and mouse chase ensues, ending in a twist that will change Howie’s and Rowan’s lives forever.

Still from The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man

At the time The Wicker Man was released cults were in the headline news with Jim Jones’ Jonestown in its heyday, which might have helped it and hurt it in that some might have been more curious. On the other hand, others might have been turned off from overexposure to the subject, thus resulting in the film’s initial moderate success.  The Wicker Man’s content might have also turned away, or even drawn, the audience it had, some with its nudity and some depictions of torture.  However, at the 1974 Festival of Fantastic Films, the film won first place. In 1977, The Wicker Man was called the Citizen Kane of Horror by the magazine Cinefantastique, which cemented it in the hallowed halls of cult film status such as 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show the following year.  Back in 1989 Shaffer also wrote treatment for a direct sequel titled The Loathsome Lambton Worm, but it was never produced.  Instead, the script can be found in the book, Inside the “Wicker Man.”

Still from The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man

In the music world, Marilyn Manson paid homage to The Wicker Man perfectly, recreating the procession sequence in his 1996 video for “Man that You Fear.”  In addition, back in 2003 a three-day conference was hosted by Dumfries and Galloway at Crichton Campus of the University of Glasgow on The Wicker Man.  The film’s influence does not stop there, Bravo rated it 45th in their 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 2006.  In that same year a remake was made with Nicholas Cage with marked changes to many key aspects to the original story, and the newer edition received almost universal negative reviews.  The late great Christopher Lee considers The Wicker Man his best film, and with his extensive resume, that is an impressive statement. Edward Woodward, himself, said it was one of his favorite films and Howie was the best part he ever played before his death in 2009.  In 2010, Wicker Man was finally classified under within a short-lived sub-genre dubbed Folk Horror, which included 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Keeping the film’s legacy alive, in 2011, The Wicker Tree, directed by Hardy was released and featured a cameo by Lee, “but is not a sequel,” according to Lee.  As late as two years ago Hardy wanted to make a graphic novel based on his own storyboards and a third sequel titled The Wrath of the Gods to finish the trilogy, and as of 2015 the film is in pre-production.  It is astounding to see the cult status The Wicker Man has sustained after four decades and it has without a question earned its place as a classic.

British Lion Films
British Lion Films

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Jason Rhode
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Jason, a Horror and Children Story writer and artist specializing in alternative art, was adopted from the Bronx, NY, and currently lives in Midland, TX with his wife, Joey, and their two dogs, Chewy and Hollywood.

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