The Wicker Man | 1973 | Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee,

The Wicker Man | 1973 | Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee,

Robin Hardy’s ultra-strange movie, best described as a "psychedelic pagan horror", endured all manner of indignities prior to its release. It was cut down and butchered mercilessly by studio execs at British Lion Films. All the same, this powerful and lurid slice of neo-paganism has grown and grown in reputation since its release. It’s now a cult classic, and ranked as one of the most original, powerful and disturbing horror stories ever to grace the big screen.

The premise is from hell: a schoolgirl has mysteriously disappeared, amid rumours of ritual killing, but the islanders are either blithely unaware of her fate, or, after a while, happy to admit she was sacrificed to the pagan gods (turned into a hare, no less). This emerges as a policeman from the Scottish mainland – the uptight, virginal Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) – investigates.

Howie’s the polar opposite of the carefree, sexed-up pagans, and it’s to Woodward’s credit that he creates a peculiarly sympathetic character out of what could easily have been a one-note performance of presbyterian outrage. While he believes himself invulnerable, with all the power of the law behind him, Howie is, in fact, an innocent abroad, unable to discern his woeful predicament. It’s this lack of insight that seals his fate.

Strangely, however, the story is played equally for laughs and whimsy. There’s naked cavortings, frequent detours into song, dance and surrealism: the islanders wear badger and hare masks and peep over walls like Beatrix Potter characters. Howe’s a stolid, unimaginative copper from the mainland to make sense of all this?

Audiences gleefully embraced these perhaps contradictory elements: helped by the casting of Christopher Lee as the charming Lord Summerisle and the lissom Britt Ekland as the come-hitherish publican’s daughter Willow, who’s intent on dispensing (highly desirable) sexual favours. But despite the lyric touches in the paganism, The Wicker Man is ultimately a terribly dark film. There isn’t a hint of redemption or salvation for Howie. When the "joyous" practices of the old religion are finally, proved to be pure, bestial savagery, he is forced to face up to a fate that is truly awful, and judged by the workaday standards of the Gothic horror of the time, quite unsurpassed.

cast
Edward Woodward as Sergeant Neil Howie
Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
Britt Ekland as Willow MacGreagor
Ingrid Pitt as Librarian
Diane Cilento as Miss Rose
Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGreagor
Aubrey Morris as Old Gardener / Gravedigger
Russell Waters as Harbour Master
Irene Sunters as May Morrison
Roy Boyd as Broome
Ian Campbell as Oak
Walter Carr as School Master
John Hallam as McTaggert
Barbara Rafferty as Woman with Baby
Tony Roper as Postman
John Sharp as Doctor Ewan
Donald Eccles as T.H. Lennox
Robin Hardy as Minister (uncredited)
Gerry Cowper as Rowan Morrison
Jennifer Martin as Myrtle Morrison
Richard Wren as Ash Buchanan
Fiona Kennedy as Holly
Lesley Mackie as Daisy
Myra Forsyth as Mrs Grimmond
Penny Cluer as Gillie
Peter Brewis as Musician
Leslie Blackater as Hairdresser
Juliet Cadzow as Villager
Helen Norman as Villager
Lorraine Peters as Girl on Grave
Ross Campbell as Communicant
Ian Wilson as Communicant
Alison Hughes as Fiancée to Howie
Charles Kearney as Butcher
John McGregor as Baker
Jimmy Mackenzie as Briar
John Young as Fishmonger
Kevin Collins as Old Fisherman
Elizabeth Sinclair as Villager
Muriel Greenslade as Old Woman in Library (uncredited)

crew
Art Direction: Seamus Flannery
Director Of Photography: Harry Waxman
Costume Design: Sue Yelland
Hairstylist: Jan Dorman
Makeup Artist: W.T. Partleton
Director: Robin Hardy
Editor: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Producer: Peter Snell
Casting: Maggie Cartier
Original Music Composer: Paul Giovanni
Sound: Robin Gregory
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer
Novel: David Pinner

UK | 88 minutes | 1973

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