The Wicker Man (1973) earns its classic status not by tearing up the rules but by forging ahead without any.
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) has one of the great shock endings in horror. I’m guessing that you already know what it is, preferably because you’ve had the pleasure of seeing it. Or maybe someone in your life has spoiled it for you—whether that’s forgivable, you’ll have to decide. I hope it’s not because you watched the 2006 remake.
It’s also unusual among horror films, in that adhering to Puritanical moral standards is no guarantee that you’ll survive to the end of it. Audiences have been savvy to the rules of horror since at least Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), but the formula goes back to the roots of the genre: If you play too cute with rightful authority, be it your parents, the church, or society at large, by deliberately engaging in forbidden behavior, you’re giving the horror movie a reason to murder you. But in the case of The Wicker Man, loose living and licentious acts might actually improve your chances.
The role of the purehearted in this morality drama falls on the square and sturdy shoulders of one Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), Christian soldier of the onward-marching sort and earthly representative of the West Highland Police. He’s come all the way from the Scottish mainland to the quaint, rustic paradise of Summerisle, renowned for its apples and harvest festivals and permissive ideas about dancing on the sabbath, to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), a girl on the cusp of her teenage years. Sergeant Howie has received an anonymous letter, apparently written by a resident of the island, warning him that Rowan has been missing for months and that no one, not even her mother, will speak of it.
Hail to the Queen, Baby
All roles lead to Jamie Lee Curtis. Here’s a path from Edward Woodward to the reigning scream queen.
The investigation goes about as well as you’d expect. It’s not just that the townsfolk won’t discuss Rowan Morrison, which they won’t, or that they flatly deny her existence despite photographic evidence to the contrary, which they do. It’s also the striking (and obscene) local color. A pub filled with lecherous perverts singing boozy odes to the landlord’s daughter. Mass copulation in the open fields. Sundry lunatics wandering the churchyard, watering graves or weeping over them naked. And that’s just the first night, before bedtime, even. I kept waiting for someone to give the password Fidelio.
It’s hardly a secret on Summerisle that the people turned away from the stingy god of the Christians to re-embrace the ancient religion of solar kings and the goddess of the orchards, where Homo sapiens is just another animal, no morally better, but no morally worse, and a good deal less honest about its desires, fated to die, but to return to the elements and become the food for new life. Soon Sergeant Howie is up to his britches with the schoolmarm Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) and the town registrar (the great Ingrid Pitt)—to say nothing of Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord’s daughter herself—and May Morrison (Irene Sunters), Rowan’s mother, who cures illnesses with frogs: formidable pagan enchantresses all who might have once bedeviled the likes of Sir Launcelot, only they’re here, in the pre-disco seventies, and none of them are in much of a mood to cooperate, at least not with official business.
The source of the degeneracy, to use Sergeant Howie’s word, and the beast of this particular coven, is Lord Summerisle, played by the incomparable Christopher Lee in full movie-star mode with full movie-star wattage, as virile here as Sean Connery’s Bond. You can well believe that he draws down the moon simply by the size of his maypole. He attributes the abundance of Summerisle’s harvests to the speculative science of his Victorian forebears but also to the favor that he has curried from his gods. It’s a more fickle favor than Jehovah’s, maybe, but if it is lost—if a crop should fail—it can be won back by an acceptable sacrifice. A sacrifice like Rowan Morrison.
The Wicker Man is a very good film and one that horror is lucky to have, although it’s nobody’s textbook example of the form, and not just because it approves of killing virgins. It doesn’t traffic with any of the conventions of the genre. I’m actually not sure that it’s aware what they are. It certainly doesn’t look that way, with its off-kilter pacing and disinterest in tension. Much of it isn’t frightening at all, and more than a little of it plays like a farce. Woodward’s performance is never far from a double take or some self-righteous bluster at the “bloody heathens,” perfectly timed and expertly delivered. You’re meant to laugh at Sergeant Howie, and you will. But once the mummers’ masks come out and the town’s odd behavior starts to feel more like mockery, the laughs begin to catch in the throat.
There are also what I can only call musical numbers, as in cast members singing with instrumental accompaniment. Nobody is riverdancing if that’s the image that you’ve conjured. But given any particular scene, if there’s a one percent chance for someone in it to be singing, the movie treats it as an absolute certainty, including for the marquee talent. So we get a few bars of Lee’s basso profundo amid the fiddles, bagpipes, keening voices, and songs about traditional Scottish themes like loss of income and farm animals.
Entwining the story with the music like this creates a distinct sense of place for Summerisle—a time-lost, fey, otherworldly place far removed from the stoic mainland, but the net effect is debatable, if only because roughly half the soundtrack is so aggressively mediocre. I’m sure that Magnet, the movie’s house band, is doing what it can with what it has. But imagine what Jimmy Page would have done, or Steeleye Span, or Fairport Convention, or the dozens of other bona fide folk warlocks who by 1973 had already peaked and would have worked on a film score for a crate or two of apples. You feel stuck with the movie when the music isn’t working, but when it is working, it’s working magnificently. It gives us, for example, the lust-magic seduction spell that Willow sings to Sergeant Howie, an utterly bewitching piece of filmmaking and an acceptable alternate answer to the question, “What is best in life?” from Conan the Barbarian (1982). If the price for that song is a reprise about corn rigs, send me the bill. I’ll gladly pay.
Now, about that shock ending. If somehow you don’t know what it is, don’t read another word of anything, and don’t speak with another human being until you’ve watched the movie—alone. Don’t trust anyone who’s already seen it. Don’t trust anyone who says that they haven’t. And whatever you do, avoid the remake like you would anything else starring Nicolas Cage.1
1. Except for Mandy (2018).