Things are about to wander into very strange territory for nosey Christian copper Sergeant Howie when he arrives on the private island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl Rowan Morrison. After responding to an anonymous letter sent to him by one of the residents to attend the island, his cop instincts are sent into overdrive the minute he steps foot on Summerisle soil. No one appears to have heard of the girl. Even the woman Howie suspects to be Rowan’s mother claims to have no knowledge of the child. But there is something not quite right about the way people respond to his questions; this said there is something not quite right about Summerisle full-stop- at least not in Howie’s priggish eyes. Setting up camp in the Green Man Inn for the night the policeman finds he gets rather more than he bargained for. He discovers the community of Summerisle are rather unorthodox in their lifestyle choices; apparently opting en masse to throw away the moral constraints of conservative religion in favour of a free loving nature based system- one that allows them to frolic naked freely in public, indulge in drunken revelry and perform strange fertility rituals in the opulent grounds of island figure head Lord Summerisle’s stately home. This deeply disturbs the policeman; he a staunch protector of the Christian faith and all that represents. As he continues on his quest to find a girl who may or may not be missing- that is if she even exists- and the story unravels further, it becomes apparent that Summerisle is busy preparing for a May Day celebration with a pagan twist. Could this be the key to what Howie is looking for? With time running out will Howie’s pig-headed approach push him past the point of no return? And if so, will he realise he’s gone too far before it’s too late?
Cast and Crew.
It has been well documented that this project was envisioned from the outset as a vehicle for Christopher Lee to flex his acting muscles. The star hungered to be away from what he saw as his usual type-cast roles he performed for Hammer Studio, and Anthony Shaffer’s original script- based around cult mentality and ancient witchcraft menace- appeared to be perfect. Lee taking what was to become the iconic role of Lord Summerisle; a tweed clad community leader who loves to watch the naked young people dance in his garden and believes the way to a good harvest is through appeasement to the old Gods. Lee obviously relished the part. In investing in the rights to David Pinner’s novel Ritual- from which the film was eventually inspired- Lee, Shaffer and producer Peter Snell each pitched in a few grand; the rest is history. Lee didn’t even take a fee for his acting in the feature. It is not surprising on that note that it is a project he speaks highly of- in several interviews calling it the best role he has ever played- and you can see this evident in his performance. Lee’s usual uptight and brash standard presentation gives way to a lighter, more effervescent and fun Christopher Lee. A Christopher Lee who is not afraid to skip gaily in front of a procession of heathens decked in animal masks while he himself dons a dress and a woman’s wig- believe me if you haven’t seen this, it is as terrifying as it sounds. I would have to agree with the actor’s summing up of his performance in this, because it is true, it is up there with one of his best.
Then we get to Howie, a weighty role that contrasts to perfection with the free-spirit of Lord Summerisle, envisioned perfectly in the solid performance by Edward Woodward. The actor who was known at the time for playing a Scottish detective- Callan – on TV, gives an outstanding performance as the bustling irritated cop Howie. There is a lot of tongue in cheek sharp humour in Shaffer’s stellar script which spews perfectly from the irate tones of Woodward in his role. Woodward rolls out the gamut of human disgust and irritation to build a character who is not particularly sympathetic- as the script demands of course- but one that is wholly mesmerising. It becomes a huge source of entertainment every time the character stumbles upon some new facet of Summerisle culture to send him into a rampage of outraged moralism.
Among the residents of Summerisle we have the ever-lovely Ingrid Pitt in a small role as a nymphomaniac librarian- short but sweet role that is. She does have a chance to replay her bathtub moment from The Vampire Lovers (1970), this time with slightly more flesh on show- if that’s even possible. Mime artist and all round flamboyant performance artist Lindsay Kemp steps in as the kooky innkeeper Alder MacGregor, adding a bit of avant garde spice to the affair. While Britt Ekland plays the lusty Willow- MacGregor’s daughter and waitress at the inn- in a role she has publically vocalised her dislike for. Her main problems being, her resentment over the fact her strong Swedish accent was dubbed- by Scottish Jazz Singer Annie Ross- and also the fact director Hardy snuck in a body double for the Willow nude scenes. The scenes show Ekland topless, which she agreed to do, but then feature a local stripper in a dodgy wig for the full nude body shots from the back- as the character contorts her body in a seduction dance. Ekland was appalled that this was actioned without her consent and also not amused that for years she was bombarded with requests to sign photos of the other performer in her naked pose shown from the back.
Diane Cilento- who after divorcing Sean Connery went on to later marry writer Anthony Shaffer- steps in for the role of the local teacher; her prim and proper demeanour conflicting with the spicy lessons she teaches her class on the importance of the Maypole as a phallic symbol.
This was director Robin Hardy’s first feature length picture; although he had been involved for some years with Shaffer and their production company made advertisements and documentaries. Much has been said on the subject of how much of the final product was by Hardy’s directorial hand alone and how much was down to his experienced supporting crew. As the relationship between Hardy and Shaffer appears to have soured over the years you have to wonder how much of the stories which are out there is simply mudslinging. One thing is for sure, for Hardy as a director it could hardly have hurt him having one of the best British cult films ever made as an accolade- support from his team or not. Not that Hardy went on to have a completely prolific career, in fact the opposite. Sadly his 2011 follow-up The Wicker Tree– without the scribe Shaffer on writing duties- was considerably less popular with fans than this his magnificent debut.
Whole books have been written on the subject of the production behind The Wicker Man. Producer Peter Snell was dropped from his position at British Lion Films just before the film was released and as a result it has been said that his successors- Michael Deely and Barry Spikings- tried to bury the feature as a scapegoat to apparently prove his sacking was the right decision. One thing is clear, the film as a marketable property was a nightmare for distributors, given it didn’t comply to any of the stock standard tropes or narratives that were coming out of classic British horror at the time. The film was too forward thinking and transgressive in its message to appeal to a mainstream commercial market. So it was cut- partly on the advice of low-budget King of the B movies, Roger Corman, who didn’t end up buying it- to make it more palatable to the masses. It was eventually sent out on a double bill with another offbeat indie feature Don’t Look Now (1973); The Wicker Man relegated to a supporting feature. What short sighted distributors didn’t see was the film would later go on to attract such a beast of a cult following. After gaining positive attention on the American scene it went on to win fans all over the world- and thankfully has since been restored to, almost, its former glory when cut footage was located in Corman’s vault. The 40th Anniversary release, which followed the previous Director’s Cut DVD a few years previous, has now been restored to Hardy’s approval.
However distribution problems weren’t the only hardship The Wicker Man had to face before it could make its appointment with the public; when you consider the associated budget, the film is quite the masterpiece on technical terms. This becomes even more admirable when you factor in the fact filming took place over a large geographical location- with over 20 separate locations- all around the Scottish coast- for which the cast and crew had a narrow shooting schedule as well just to really amp up the pressure. Art director Seamus Flannery worked miracles turning Scottish winter into a blossoming spring- even decorating the trees with apple blossom to set the perfect tone; on this note there have been many anecdotes floating around about the harsh conditions for the actors who were all standing around in less than favourable conditions dressed only in springtime attire. What is even more amazing is the mind blowing design on the titular Wicker Man figure, which had to be constructed so it could be transported and erected on site. For that the film owes a huge debt to Flannery’s craftsman approach to delivering the right look and feel. In line with this Harry Waxman’s skilled cinematography also helps the film transcend its budgetary constraints.
I have never made any secret over the fact that The Wicker Man remains one of my favourite films of all time. I accept it has its detractors, the people who don’t get it, who can’t hack it’s rambling pace or lack of blood. I get that there are those who can’t abide Paul Giovanni’s prog/folk hippy drippy score that turns the proceedings partway into a warped musical. But it is a film that no matter how many times I return to it, each time I do it feels like I have come home.
For its time and place The Wicker Man was something people had never seen before. It was the claw behind the glove, its razor sharp teeth chewing through the usual good versus evil mortality lessons that came stuffed in the foundations of horror. Everything is inverted in The Wicker Man even the- almost unbreakable- enshrined horror film codes that involve the onus on characters usually being punished for indulging in sex or other lewd behaviour. It was forward thinking, fresh and innovative, and to this day outclasses most of its peers in terms of sheer ingenuity. By dipping into the aesthetic of both New Age hippy culture and quaint village life, while infusing a tone of brooding insanity, along with a quirky set design, the film is a wonderful example of fear and fantasy based horror that becomes something of an occasion to watch. Not to mention the outstanding performances by all those involved, including the two lead stars Lee and Woodward. But most of all it remains so amazingly British and camp, and now with the benefit of time has also gained a wonderful seventies folksy type glow- including the ripe fashions of the time- it’s hard not to keep falling in love with it.
Cinefantastique (1977, Vol. 6 No. 3) once called The Wicker Man the “Citizen Kane of Horror Movies” . I couldn’t have put it better myself. Retro perfection with a strong neo pagan edge