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Wicker Man, The (1973)


Main image of Wicker Man, The (1973)
DirectorRobin Hardy
Production CompanyBritish Lion Film Corporation
ProducerPeter Snell
Director of PhotographyHarry Waxman
ScreenplayAnthony Shaffer

Cast: Edward Woodward (Sergeant Neil Howie); Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle); Britt Ekland (Willow MacGregor); Diane Cilento (Miss Rose); Ingrid Pitt (librarian)

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Investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, a police sergeant goes to a Scottish island, an isolated community whose ancient religious beliefs run totally counter to his strongly-held Christian faith.

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Although marketed as a horror film, The Wicker Man (d. Robin Hardy, 1973) is a genre misfit, equally resembling a detective thriller, a religious allegory, even a musical. It flouts horror-movie conventions by having no unambigously 'good' or 'evil' characters and no supernatural elements. It also tackles a very unfamiliar subject for British horror: paganism.

At its heart is a clash of beliefs between Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a priggish 'Christian copper' from the mainland, and the suave heathen Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, clearly relishing his newfound freedom from playing vampires). Summerisle and his fellow-islanders believe that their apple harvest is sustained by 'Old Gods', and the film is punctuated by colourful scenes of ritual and superstition in which Howie's escalating moral outrage is humourously evident. In further contravention of horror's usual moral code, it is chastity, not promiscuity, which is punished.

In his screenplay, Anthony Shaffer (author of stage thriller Sleuth, filmed the same year) incorporated details of early Britons' fertility worship, drawing on sources such as Frazer's The Golden Bough. As the pantheon of rural gods and goddesses was replaced by a single deity, annual pagan festivals were displaced by Christian equivalents (for example, winter solstice eventually became Christmas). But on Summerisle, the Old Gods have been reintroduced to motivate the islanders. The film's haunting soundtrack, too, is derived from traditional folk songs.

The film was rushed into production by the ailing British Lion in late 1972, partly to convince the film unions of the studio's commitment to domestic production. Unusually, it was filmed entirely on location, with disparate areas of Dumfries and Galloway standing in for Summerisle and late Autumn standing in for Spring. Plastic apple blossom was specially imported to enhance the mood of fertility.

It languished in post-production for nearly a year; British Lion and its new Managing Director, Michael Deeley, considered the finished film overlong and unmarketable. Supposedly on advice from US horror entrepreneur Roger Corman, it was eventually trimmed by over ten minutes to hasten and simplify the narrative and released as a second feature to the studio's Don't Look Now (d. Nicolas Roeg) in December 1973.

Despite this, and ironically for a film about worship, it remains a cult favourite. A counterpoint to the flamboyant excesses of the Hammer tradition, and an uncategorisable one-off, The Wicker Man has nonetheless become a byword for cerebral British horror.

James Donohue

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Video Clips
1. Howie's arrival (1:54)
2. Traditional values (3:04)
3. Summerisle explains (5:41)
4. The procession (0:59)
Original poster
Production stills
Nothing But The Night (1972)
Ekland, Britt (1942-)
Hardy, Robin (1929-)
Lee, Christopher (1922-)
Pitt, Ingrid (1937-2010)
Shaffer, Anthony (1926-2001)
Waxman, Harry (1912-1984)
Woodward, Edward (1930-2009)