wickermanThe Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer (Frenzy, the brilliant Sleuth), has long been a cult favourite amongst horror fans.

For those not already familiar with it, the story concerns a devout Christian policeman (played by the Equalizer himself, Edward Woodward) who receives an anonymous letter from the nearby island of Summerisle, a letter that claims a young girl named Rowan Morrison has gone missing. 

He travels to the island, only to be met by resistant locals who claim that the girl never existed. In the course of his investigation, Sergeant Howie finds that the islanders are all practicing Pagans, led by the mysterious Lord Summerisle (played – in he what subsequently referred to as the role of his career – by the ever intimidating Christopher Lee).

Film buffs have long regarded The Wicker Man as the greatest British horror movie of all time, citing its unsettling depictions of ancient rituals and rugged Scottish locations as key ingredients in this “gripping occult horror” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 2007). As a self-confessed movie-buff myself then, the films reputation has always been a point of contention with me; I just didn’t get it. I found the pagan rituals to be, well, a bit naff, the ever-present folk soundtrack (by Paul Giovanni) twee and annoying and the film itself cheap-looking and decidedly uncreepy. 

My opinion of the films lack of merit has gotten me into numerous conversations over the years with other film-buffs, all of whom conceded… Well, they conceded nothing actually; I was wrong and that was that. And nowhere was this conversation played out more often than in my own home; my girlfriend is a big fan of the film and was constantly advising me to “give it another go”, the implication being – once again – that I had been wrong before and that surely I was smart enough to be able to see that now. And so, with Halloween here once again, I decided that I would indeed revisit it (although I have seen it two or three times, the last time I watched it was – by my reckoning – at least ten or twelve years ago) and – if need be – re-evaluate my position on The Wicker Man as a deeply flawed and silly film. Well… It’s all cued up and I’m off to watch it. Don’t go away; I’ll be back in a bit…


wickerOK… Here I am. Well… Ahem. There’s nothing harder than admitting you were wrong, is there? OK, OK,  calm down, I’m not saying that it’s the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy it.

Woodward’s performance in particular was the film’s strength, I think, his commitment to uncovering the truth and his growing sense that something is very wrong on Summerisle, occasionally giving way to his disgust at the islanders lascivious, un-Christian practices and his rage at their seeming indifference to the fate of the missing child. 

Christopher Lee, however, just still strikes me as a weird presence. A living legend, no doubt, but as an actor (controversy alert!), I’ve never really believed in him. Even when he’s very good – which,admittedly, is most of the time – he’s still Christopher Lee; he’s never been a disappear-into-a-role kind of actor, he’s too big for that. Now, that’s not always a bad thing, plenty of my favourite actors operate this way (has George Clooney ever been anything other than gorgeous George?) but in this film I found it to be ever so slightly distracting; I realised that I had been pulled out of the action at various points, busy wondering how they had managed to get Christopher Lee into a kilt or a dress and a Cher-wig.

I still found the music overused and, at times, just plain appalling (I really don’t do folk), but when the masks come out, their blank expressionless faces leave you in no doubt that something weird is about to come down on the head of our staunch hero, Howie. I can still see how the younger me wouldn’t have got along with this film; its soft focus shots of Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt are annoying in a unique-to-the-70’s way and (sorry to mention it again) the music would’ve done my youthful, grunge-addled mind in (and no way would I have admitted to liking a film that included a maypole sequence).

Having said all that, I will re-iterate (for those in the back) that I was impressed. The dialogue was real sounding (the first stumbling block for 99% of all horror films), time never dragged (it pretty much belts along at just under 100 minutes) and, as the final sequence unfolds and leads us towards that admittedly nightmarish ending, you can almost feel Howie’s panic setting in. 

Even so, the greatest British horror film of all time? Not in my book. What about Alien? Or Peeping Tom? Or even The Omen (American director and cast, I know, I know). There’s a point in Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes (the scene with suitcase; you know what I’m talking about…) where I realised that I had no idea how far the film was prepared to go or even in what direction; the potential for horrific violence and complete unpredictability? That was a thought I found utterly chilling. These are all horror films that I love and, crucially,they are actually scary. Eerie, at times, The Wicker Man was; a bit creepy, a bit weird, but scary? I don’t think so, not for me.

So. Have I learned to love The Wicker Man? Just about. It’s certainly a much better film than the one I had in my head when I remembered it. Does it deserve its classic status? I’d say so. It’s unique, if dated, and features a great performance from the late Woodward. Is it the greatest British horror film of all time?

The jury’s still out on that one, I’m afraid.

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