The Wicker Man (1973)
written by Anthony Shaffer
based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner
directed by Robin Hardy
I was pretty confused as I watched The Wicker Man. I rented it thinking it was a horror film, but it didn’t seem scary. It had a lot of scenes of people singing and dancing, but the music was pretty bad. It seemed like a detective story, but the details of the investigation were taking too long and didn’t make a lot of sense. There were a lot of jokes – so many that for a second I thought I had rented a comedy. But of one thing I was certain… I couldn’t stop watching it.
In The Wicker Man, a policeman (Edward Woodward) arrives at a small town in a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. It’s a place with perhaps no more than 150 people, where everyone knows each other. How is it that not a single person, including the teen’s mother, seems to care what happened?
The sergeant is in his mid-thirties, deeply Christian, and a virgin. He decides to stay in town until he can solve the mystery. He’ll be seduced via erotic dance by the very sexy Britt Eckland (a sequence that’s still pretty hot today). He’ll be witness to couples making love outdoors, behind a church. He’ll go to a school where girls are taught to venerate the penis. In short, he will find a pagan community that practices rituals he’s not equipped to deal with.
In The Wicker Man the characters sing and have fun – all but the stupefied cop. The pagans are manipulating him. He knows it, and because of that he’s obsessed with finding out the truth. In time he starts to suspect human sacrifice. Is that what the community is trying to hide? In reality, the whole movie is one big game where the details seem preposterous… until the grand finale when it all finally makes sense. And what a finale.
As The Wicker Man progresses, the police officer meets many colorful characters. The most important of them is Christopher Lee as the charismatic, imposing leader of the island. However, a couple of days after watching the film, I realized something. There are only two characters in the story: The cop and the island. All the supporting characters – and the terrifying atmosphere of the island itself – form one big antagonist, taunting the cop, manipulating him with songs, sex, jokes, fear… all to get him exactly where he needs to be by film’s end.
The film is brilliantly directed by Robin Hardy (if his intent was to get away from conventional scares and make you feel uncomfortable), with a smart script from Anthony Schaffer (if his intent was to keep you confused and disoriented until the final twist). It was produced by a group of English filmmakers who – tired of the “horrors” of the Hammer era, with their Draculas and Frankensteins – decided to shock the audience with something smarter and different. One of them was Christopher Lee himself, iconic actor of several Hammer films. In fact, he didn’t charge anything for his work on The Wicker Man, considering it the best film of his career.
If I were to analyze the themes of the film, I would probably mention the nature of obsession (the cop’s) and the clash between Christianity and paganism. The Wicker Man explores the idea that “official” religions and heretic practices are not so different from each other – what was a cult before could now be a popularly accepted faith. In the end, they’re certainly driven by the same things: Blind belief and fear of God, nature, and death. But who knows? I’m not sure the film has a specific or intentional theme.
So, is The Wicker Man a musical? Comedy? Detective story? Horror film? Erotic thriller? It’s all of these and none. It’s a mix of styles that created one of the best – or at least most interesting – films you could ever watch.
You will love it or hate it, but you won’t be indifferent to it. This is essential viewing.