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The Wicker Man Retrospective: A Burning Passion

The Wicker Man

 

 

When I first saw The Wicker Man back in the mid ‘90s, I was fortunate enough to go in blind. I had no idea what the title referred to and, after 80 mildly creepy minutes, I sat there completely aghast as (spoiler alert!) our protagonist dies horribly in a burning sacrificial pyre. The film stuck with me for a while and I owned it on VHS, but I never really thought about it that much beyond the occasional viewing.

That changed around 20 years later when I came to it from a totally different angle. By that time, I’d moved abroad to the Czech Republic after years of trying to get out. I’d left England under a bit of a cloud and I would have quite gladly never set foot on the miserable little island again if it wasn’t for family and a few old friends. But then, out of the blue, folk horror completely changed my attitude.

It started with a chance find. I stumbled upon the BBC’s wonderfully eerie adaptation of M.R. James’s A Warning to the Curious, which struck me with a deep sense of familiarity. The film was shot on the coast of my home county, Suffolk, and it evoked the feeling of wandering those lonely beaches with that big open East Anglian sky above you. It made me yearn for home soil and it took me down a rabbit hole of folk horror, where The Wicker Man now reigned as the figurehead.

 

The BBC's A Warning To The Curious (1973)

The BBC's A Warning To The Curious (1973)

 

By and large, folk horror is stark, unsettling, and invariably ends on a grim note, but the British strain of the genre gave me the same sense of longing as that first viewing of A Warning to the Curious - these were films that I could feel in my soul. Folk horror, in its strange way, helped me reconcile my feelings with my country. No longer were my trips back mired in a bittersweet mixture of fond memories and regret. I saw my home through different eyes now.

The Wicker Man’s status has changed significantly over the years. It suffered an ignominious release in 1973 and was only just re-emerging as a cult classic when I first saw it in the ‘90s. Now, it has even gained respectability, hailed as one of the finest British horror movies ever made.

By the 2010s, folk horror was starting to bewitch viewers again in a way it hadn’t since its heyday in the ‘70s. A key figure in this revival was Mark Gatiss, who popularised the term “folk horror” in his three-part BBC documentary, A History of Horror. He also identified three films as the core texts: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). Six years later, folk horror expert Adam Scovell referred to them as the “Unholy Trinity” in an article for the BFI, which has stuck as the commonly accepted term.

 

An original movie poster for the film Witchfinder General An original movie poster for the film The Blood On Satan's Claws

 

Of the three, The Wicker Man now stands proud as the totemic film of the entire folk horror genre, influencing a new wave of movies such as Kill List (2013), The Apostle (2018), and Midsommar (2019). 50 years after its first release, Robin Hardy’s seminal work is arguably more popular than ever. But how did this singular film come about, and why does it still speak to us half a century later?


The UK one sheet movie poster for the film The Wicker Man

 

There was something in the air, or the earth, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that gave rise to the amorphous subgenre we now know as folk horror. While it is generally regarded as a chiefly British phenomenon, examples of similarly-themed movies were popping up all over the world as audiences suddenly became fascinated with witchcraft, the occult, and strange rituals. 

From Czechoslovakia, you had Witchhammer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (both 1970) with their handy allegories for the abuse of authority, while Japan gave us Elichi Yamamoto’s animated head trip Belladonna of Sadness (1973). Even the Soviet Union got in on the act early with Viy (1967) one of the few horror movies officially released in the USSR. In the United States, there were also two big box office hits that, while not regarded as folk horror, are at least adjacent to the genre: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).

 

An original movie poster for the film Rosemary's Baby An original movie poster for the film The Exorcist

 

Ground zero for the burgeoning folk horror scene was Britain. 1968 was the key year with the release of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and the BBC’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Although we often think of it as a cinematic genre, several key works of the British canon were made for TV: The Owl Service (1969), Robin Redbreast (1970), Penda’s Fen (1974), Children of the Stones (1977), plus the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978). 

Around the same time you had two cornerstones of folk horror’s citybound cousin, Urban Wyrd, both from the pen of Nigel Kneale: Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Stone Tape (1972). On top of all that, there are artefacts that almost certainly weren’t intended as horror but have nevertheless found themselves claimed by folk horror aficionados, such as the notoriously bleak public information film Lonely Water (1973) and the children’s TV show Bagpuss (1974).

 

 

Clearly something was happening, but what exactly? Piers Haggard, director of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, perhaps summed it up best when talking to Mark Gatiss on A History of Horror:


"The nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields, the ploughing, the labour, the sense of the soil, was something I tried to bring into the picture… I was trying to make a folk horror in a way, because we were all a bit interested in witchcraft, we were all a bit interested in free love. The rules of the cinema were changing and nudity became possible; indeed, altogether over-prevalent. The lid had slightly been taken off."


In other words, many of the same forces that gave rise to the American New Wave and the auteur-led movies of the ‘70s also freed another set of filmmakers to found folk horror. The genre took its cue from an upsurge in interest in witchcraft and the occult that stemmed from the counterculture ‘60s as many people’s trust in the established old order of government and religion became increasingly eroded. It was a tumultuous decade for the United States with a string of high-profile political assassinations, race riots, the disastrous Vietnam War, Altamont, the civil rights movement, the Stonewall riots. After all that, the Watergate scandal in the early ‘70s played out like a final sour note that finally buried the optimism of the Summer of Love and the progressive movements of the previous decade. 

There was also discontent around the world; 1968 saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, major civil unrest in France, and the ill-fated Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia. All this provided fertile soil for folk horror, films with dark and troubling themes that often ended on downbeat, if not outright bleak, conclusions. Eli Roth, director of Hostel, described it as “The darkening of the ideals of the ‘60s,” but the relevance of the genre wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time. 

Of the Unholy Trinity, only Witchfinder General was a success on first release. Launched in the States, Blood on Satan’s Claw only lasted a week on a double bill with The Beast in the Cellar before both movies were pulled and shipped out to the drive-in circuit. By the time Hardy completed The Wicker Man, British Lion studios had been bought out by EMI, and doubts about the horrifying ending and the film’s marketability across the pond resulted in a series of cuts. In the UK, distributors released it as the B-picture on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. It was a sheepish start for a film that would become a classic.

 


The Wicker Man / Don't Look Now Double Bill

Studio Canal paid homage to the original double bill with a 2023 showing at Hackney cinema, 'The Rio'

 

The Wicker Man came about after playwright and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer read Ritual, a 1967 novel by David Pinner. The story concerned a Christian copper dispatched to a remote Cornish village to investigate the ritualistic murder of a child, but ends up falling foul of the locals and their ancient pagan practices. It was exactly what we now regard as the basic template for a folk horror movie when all other definitions for the tricky genre come up short.

After the Tony-award winning success of Shaffer’s play Sleuth, he teamed up with producer Peter Snell and Christopher Lee to buy the film rights in 1971. The screenwriter then approached his regular collaborator Robin Hardy, who was working in the States making television films, to return to the UK and direct an adaptation. The creative process was a joint effort between Hardy and Shaffer, who thought it would be fun to dispense with the hokey tropes of Hammer films and imagine a realistic contemporary pagan society.

Shaffer’s screenplay switched the location from an isolated Cornish village to a remote Scottish island, which had two major benefits for the story. Separated from the mainland, it was more feasible that a pagan cult could develop and take root in the community over several decades without any interference. Secondly, a haven for the islanders could, with a little sabotage to our protagonist’s aeroplane, convincingly become a trap with no means of escape.

Shaffer really did his homework during the writing process, delving into folklore and mythology to convincingly create a pagan society. One of the great pleasures of the film is spotting all the little details that work cumulatively to generate a sense of deep strangeness and unease. He took his references from a variety of sources, from James Frazer’s landmark The Golden Bough to Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. In the latter, Shaffer stumbled upon the film’s most iconic and terrifying image: the barbaric practice of burning human sacrifices in a vast wicker effigy.

 

The Wicker Man

 

The Wicker Man was a labour of love for its creators. To help keep the cost down, Shaffer, Snell, and Christopher Lee all agreed to work for nothing. For his part, Hardy took a fraction of his usual fee. Lee was a shoo-in for the major role of Lord Summerisle, the imposing yet charming cult leader. At the time, Lee was still spinning his wheels playing Dracula for Hammer and relished the opportunity to play a more complex role. He was effusive about the screenplay, calling it the finest he’d ever had at his disposal. Lee was also an enthusiastic cheerleader for the film, championing it at every available opportunity and playing a large part in rescuing it from obscurity after its initial box office failure. Until the end of his life, Lee maintained that Lord Summerisle was his best role, and it’s hard to disagree.

 

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man

 

Casting the protagonist was a touch more difficult. After Michael York and David Hemmings both rejected the part, Hardy turned to Edward Woodward, who was well-known in Britain for playing a tough but sympathetic secret agent in the TV show Callan

Sergeant Neil Howie was a very different part for Woodward, but he pulled it off with aplomb. We fully believe that Howie is a devoted police officer who will stop at nothing to uncover the fate of the missing girl once he is lured to Summerisle by an anonymous letter. He is brave and upstanding, but he is also a priggish and headstrong killjoy who is so blinkered by his devout Christianity that he blunders straight into Lord Summerisle’s trap.

 

Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man

 

The clash of beliefs sets up a weird dichotomy for the viewer. While we should be rooting for Howie to save the girl and get back to the mainland safely, it is also hard not to side with the merry islanders as they gleefully prick Howie’s sense of righteous indignation and each play their part in ensnaring him further. That is the genius of Shaffer’s screenplay; while the hero is presented as stern and unbending, the cunning Islanders are a jolly bunch who boisterously enjoy singing, dancing, boozing, and plenty of free love. As an agnostic with an interest in paganism, I certainly know which looks more like the society I’d like to live in… just maybe without the human sacrifice part.

Not everyone views it that way, of course. The film was popular in the United States with Evangelical Christians who were impressed by Howie’s determination to stick with his faith, even as the flames consumed him.

The rest of the cast was populated with shrewd choices. Hardy tempted Diane Cilento out of semi-retirement to play the community’s schoolmistress while Hammer Horror icon Ingrid Pitt took a small role as the librarian. Lindsay Kemp brought a touch of camp to his portrayal of Alder MacGregor, the insinuating landlord of The Green Man Inn and father of the local beauty, barmaid, and seductress, Willow.

For this key character, Hardy cast Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland. She certainly looked the part, although Hardy knew from the get-go that it would be necessary to dub her heavy accent. Annie Ross and Rachel Verney took care of the speaking and singing in a more appropriate Scottish dialect.

In this respect, Willow is actually played by four different actors. Ekland was pregnant at the time and, while she was okay with appearing on film topless, she was uncomfortable with the full-length nudity in the “Willow’s Song” sequence where her character attempts to seduce Howie. Hardy rectified the problem by hiring Lorraine Peters, a nightclub dancer from Glasgow to double for Ekland in the scene. It is rumoured that Rod Stewart, Ekland’s later boyfriend, tried to buy up all the negatives of the film so no-one could see her in the buff… even though that’s not all her on screen.

 

Britt Ekland in The Wicker Man

 

Although Robin Hardy had a great screenplay and a strong cast, The Wicker Man still had troubled beginnings. The studio in charge, British Lion, was ailing financially and rushed the film into production to stave off doubts that its new owner, John Bentley, wasn’t just intent on asset-stripping the company. As a result, Hardy and his cast and crew headed off to Scotland in October 1972 to film a story that is very crucially set around May Day. 

Scotland isn’t generally known for great weather but either the Christian God or the old Pagan ones were smiling on the production. Hardy was blessed with unseasonably sunny weather, although it was necessary to stick leaves and blossoms onto trees to complete the illusion of spring. It was so chilly that the extras had to put ice in their mouths between takes to prevent their breath from misting on film.

Hardy was also lucky with the film’s final shot. As the flames engulf the wicker effigy and its head collapses from view, cinematographer Harry Waxman was able to capture a full setting sun dipping towards the sea.

The autumnal shoot for a tale set in spring definitely contributes to the peculiar atmosphere. Unusually for a horror film, much of the action takes place in bright sunshine as the islanders prepare for their May Day celebrations. Everything looks in order at first glance but, on closer inspection, there is something off about the light and shadows, captured as each day was dwindling towards winter rather than lengthening towards summer.


The Wicker Man final scene


After The Wicker Man was unceremoniously cut for its original release, legend has it that reels of footage ended up buried under the M3 motorway near Shepperton Studios. A Director’s Cut in 2001 undid some of the damage, but Hardy had given up hope of fully restoring the film to his and Shaffer’s vision. That was until 2013 when a 92-minute print of his original cut was discovered, resulting in the Final Cut version.

It is shorter than the previous Director’s Cuts but longer than the butchered Theatrical Cut, restoring many incidental bits of business and giving the viewer more time to soak up the atmosphere of Summerisle. Of the chopped footage, the two biggest bonuses are the restoration of scenes on the mainland before Howie’s flight to the island, and the wonderful “Gently Johnny” musical number.

Set the night before Willow’s attempted seduction of Howie, the scene gives us an earlier introduction to Lord Summerisle. Resplendent in his kilt, the laird calls up to her window with an offering: a young lad in need of deflowering. Howie overhears the exchange and, as Willow beckons the kid up, a group of musicians in the pub start playing “Gently Johnny.” As they gaze upwards towards Willow’s room, Lord Summerisle is standing outside, waxing lyrical about the blissful innocence of the animal kingdom as he watches two snails mate. Meanwhile, in the room next door to Willow’s, Howie is tying himself in knots overhearing the sounds of love-making through the wall.

 

 

It is a bewitching sequence in which we get more Christopher Lee (never a bad thing) and learn that Willow’s role in the community is relieving young lads of their virginity, setting up her temptation of Howie the following night. In truth, it somewhat doubles up on the famous “Willow’s Song” scene, which is perhaps why it was cut from the theatrical version. Yet chopping it deprived viewers of one of the most beautiful songs in the film, performed so wistfully by Paul Giovanni, the man responsible for the incredible folk soundtrack.

The songs of The Wicker Man are integral to what makes it so special, essentially making the film a horror musical. Although Giovanni couldn’t read music himself, he seamlessly blended original compositions with centuries-old folk songs and nursery rhymes to breathe life into the sinister and joyous traditions of Summerisle. The effect is startling; when I first saw the film, I couldn’t get my head around why characters in a horror movie kept breaking into song. I’ve shown the movie to many other people since and it’s always the same baffled reaction: What on earth is going on here? Yet that is what makes The Wicker Man so unique; while it has its imitators, nothing still looks, feels, and sounds like Hardy’s peculiar film.



The sound track vinyl LP for the film The Wicker Man


So why is The Wicker Man so popular today? Perhaps part of it is that the themes still play so strongly now. It stands as a warning against blind zealotry and falling under the spell of a charismatic cult leader, something that rings especially true when the divide between left and right is so intensely polarised. 

Crucially, Shaffer’s screenplay avoids taking sides. Neither Howie’s Christianity nor Lord Summerisle’s paganism wins, with both men pledging allegiance to their faiths to the bitter end. One of my favourite moments is the brief flicker of hesitancy in Summerisle’s eyes when Howie warns that his followers will come for him next if their crops fail - which of course they will, because science.

We’re never quite sure how high on his own supply Lord Summerisle is, which is another great element of Shaffer’s screenplay. He knows the history of the island and the practical reasons why his grandfather re-introduced the old pre-Christian Gods to his workforce, but he also seems like a dedicated adherent of the belief system himself. What we can probably take from that moment of hesitancy is that, deep inside, Lord Summerisle knows Howie is right… before he doubles down on his assurances that Howie’s death will guarantee a fruitful harvest. 

It’s a pessimistic ending, but one that trusts the viewer with the maturity and intelligence to go away and mull it over for themselves. Film critic Stirling Smith, who interviewed Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee in 1977, was ahead of the game in appreciating this powerful aspect of The Wicker Man:


"It has a way of making people uncomfortable, in a good and healthy kind of way. It provokes a thought process, an examination of oneself, and where one’s at."


That’s all well and good, but there are plenty of prescient older films that don’t quite inspire the same level of devotion among fans as The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy had a theory on that:


"[The Wicker Man] awakes in people a kind of tribal memory. It’s full of echoes from our past, from our childhood, from the very things that are around us in the everyday… People are fascinated by [their] collective past, particularly when they can find it all around them in the present."


This leads us back to the film’s towering place in folk horror, and what that genre means to people. I follow several folk horror groups and it is almost a lifestyle choice for some. The deeper you go, the less it’s about just movies: Folk horror overlaps with urban wyrd, myths and legends, folk songs and ballads, ancient rituals and practices, fringe concepts like hauntology, psychogeography, and naturalism, and many other forms of esoterica. 

That might sound a bit macabre if you’re not into it, but don’t worry: It doesn’t mean folk horror fans fantasize about dancing and singing merrily while making human sacrifices (most of us, anyway). Folk horror examines the tension between the past and the present, the modern and the old, giving us a chance to examine our personal and collective histories without the distorting lens of nostalgia. That’s why the genre is so important to me personally - The Wicker Man and folk horror helped me towards returning home and seeing everything with a fresh set of eyes.


The US movie poster for the film The Wicker Man

 

So there you have it, our retrospective on The Wicker Man and its place in the folk horror genre. What are your thoughts? Are you a fan? Let us know!

 

 

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