The Wicker Man
(SPOILERS) There’s a strange kind of alchemy taking place in The Wicker Man, perhaps appropriate to a picture exploring the systems and structures of belief that inform our reality. Somehow it is transmuted into much more than its constituent parts. That may merely be a function of the era in which it was made, influences in the prevailing air coalescing, fusing, and forming something unique, but such an event could hardly be seen as commonplace even then.
Whenever a picture is described as bearing a similarity to The Wicker Man, it’s usually nothing of the sort (the latest example being the oeuvre of self-confessed Wicker-fan Ben Wheatley). First time viewers are oft mystified that it is even designated a horror movie, as it isn’t scary in a traditional sense, and what tension there is has more to do with the unveiling of Sergeant Howie’s ensnarement than anything overtly gripping or pulse-pounding. Yet it very much is a horror film, feeding directly into our own existential insecurities, ones we usually try to ease by indulging beliefs or espousing tenets that may ultimately be arbitrary, and certainly can’t be counted on as universal.
You’d be hard pressed to suggest the film has been “well” directed by Robin Hardy, who made two further features, one a “spiritual sequel” (attempted cash-in) The Wicker Tree, that no one rates at all. Which makes The Wicker Man’s “Citizen Kane of horror films” banner line (as garlanded by Cinefantastique and quoted by Alex Cox in his introduction to the Moviedrome screening; the BBC2 series was, along with many a cult classic, my first encounter with the film) sound rather disproportionate, particularly given the doubts raised over its genre heritage. The Magnificent Ambersons might be a fairer comparison, given the following The Wicker Man’s following is probably as much concerned with the fate of its original cut and the various different definitive-or-not versions (of which more in a bit) as the lustre of the film itself.
Harry Waxman’s cinematography (he also lensed Brighton Rock, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Swiss Family Robinson) certainly lends the picture something, including the occasional flash of the sublime (the toppling of the man to reveal the setting Sun is absolute perfection), but there’s a general sense that its effectiveness is the result of an unconscious verité approach on Hardy’s part, even if at times his instincts are evidently in gear (most memorably with the use of handheld camera and point-of-view in Howie’s procession to sacrifice). The lack of finesse or clear style, right down to the scrappy tableaux that crop up at intervals, lends the picture a certain rawness and immediacy, for all the comfort of seeing Hammer veterans or familiar TV faces in roles. In that sense, it might be compared to a very different horror offering of the following year, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s a picture I’d be hard-pressed to describe as exhibiting artistic flair, but one possessed of an undeniably unsettling quality its director Tobe Hooper has failed to even remotely muster since. Which leads me to think it was fluke.
The score, in contrast, is expertly delivered, and fundamental to the film’s effectiveness. I’d go as far as saying The Wicker Man’s legacy hinges of the way in which Paul Giovanni’s compositions furnish, embellish and coax the visual material into something more profound and resonant. That’s a result of both his by turns playful and sinister orchestral accompaniment, and the songs he wrote, recorded by band Magnet (to which he also contributed guitar and vocals), pregnant as they are with ribaldry and libidinous vigour.
You’d be forgiven for thinking The Wicker Man is a very strange, twisted musical at points, so crucial is the soundtrack to its existence; indeed, Hardy reportedly saw it that way during the filming. Whole scenes are given to the songs and their content, and the picture stands still for them to play out and their oddness to sink in. They represent much more of a slap in the face to the beliefs of God-fearing Christian Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) than any of the intellectual proselytising of Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the corruptive teachings of school mistress Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), or the bacchanalian acts Hardy peek-a-boos every time the policeman peeks his head round a corner.
It’s a bawdy pub shanty that first signals to Howie the extent of the “depravity” of the island. Another tune accompanies the most memorable of scenes in the picture (to any viewer of an impressionable age first encountering the film at any rate) as Britt Ekland, and her body and voice doubles, works herself into an erotic lather while Howie, on the other side of the wall separating them, prays for a sudden cold shower. And it’s a tune that serenades the most chilling moment – the one that really earns it the horror epithet – as the residents of Summerisle cheerfully singalong while their human sacrifice burns. The Wicker Man soundtrack stands alone as a classic every bit as much as the film itself, eerie, vulgar, hilarious and catchy, a wonderfully evocative piece of pagan folk rock that probably approximates the real thing (Giovanni was American) better than the real thing, whatever that may be.
While The Wicker Man is ostensibly the tale of a priggish, self-righteous and repressed man hoisted by the petard of his own assumed authority and staunchest beliefs, the overt parallels and distinctions it draws between at variance beliefs, codes and practices reveal it as very much a commentary on the indebtedness of all to a presiding paradigm, one that moulds morality and illusions of acceptable or justified behaviour. We arrive on Summerisle with Howie, so we are essentially aligned with him as the outsider in a strange land, but his path of unutterable prudishness and blinkered lack of awareness and self-awareness quickly paints him as remote, inaccessible and unsympathetic.
His devotion to his religion, and concordant purity of mind and body, have made him the ideal subject for the trap laid, and so it is revealed that “you have accepted the role of fool for a day, and who but a fool would do that?” Howie’s searches high and low and questionings of the islanders are utterly ineffectual, so he should sensibly have regrouped and reconsidered, but he is too stubborn, too aggressive in his own assumed rectitude, and besides, his own repressed desires impel him to remain for the May Day celebrations, repeatedly offered as lude and improper bait he cannot resist.
Howie’s espousal of belief is less committed when it comes to the crunch, suggested by his desperate, fearful appeals to God in the final moments, and his cursing of the population. But he inhabits, essentially, an inverted model of the one he recognises in the islanders. They have fully embraced the traditional pagan ways, led by their feudal lord and authority figure, just as Howie has been indoctrinated by the church establishment and his belief in the supreme nature of his office. Lord Summerisle, at the end of their first meeting, slyly mocks him with “It’s a great pleasure meeting a Christian copper’, implying that upholding the law and honouring God are, in the normal course, “never the twain shall meets” (as evidenced by the Director’s Cut and Howie’s unpopularity with his colleagues).
The residents are only nominally free, uninhibited by Christian morals but as fettered by their own specific beliefs and rituals as Howie. They do the bidding of their lord and master without question. A lord and master who is, notably, a patriarch, from a line of patriarchs (regardless of his voiced appreciation for the female form and her esteemed status in their sect); it isn’t too difficult to see where Neil LaBute got his none-too-inspired inspiration for the remake.
Summerisle has his eyes sufficiently open to manipulate the peasants to do his bidding, in his dry, erudite, intellectual way (“A heathen conceivably, but I hope not an unenlightened one”). Where he may have stumbled is in insufficiently considering the emotional weight of the religion he has, if not incorporated then certainly continued. He doesn’t count on Howie slipping in the knife, when the copper’s eyes are fully opened to the reality of Summerisle. The sergeant decrees that, should the crops fail again, next year “Your people will kill you on May Day!” And you can see the flicker of doubt in Summerisle’s eyes as he denies the possibility.
Lord Summerisle: And now, for our more dreadful sacrifice.
The smooth urbanity of Lee’s Summerisle – not for nothing did he regard it as his favourite role, as he’s a delight, coming on like Jason King if he was an English teacher believing he’s down with the kids – is persuasive, naturally. As the outsiders we might, like Howie, baulk at the prospect of human sacrifice while all around not just blithely but cheerfully goes along with it, but that’s the lesson of Schaeffer’s screenplay; our capacity to have our scruples and internal moral compass distorted or determined, be it through indoctrination or going with the crowd. Which is something that applies equally to those sacrificing and the sacrificial; self-deception cannot be underestimated, be it at the level of the closed community or the nation state. Summerisle poses as a religious leader, but he’s actually a politician, with all the wiles and capacity to engineer his own downfall that entails.
Scheffer’s given doctrine is admittedly rather arbitrary and incomplete, apparently picking and choosing whatever sounds good and vaguely pagan to accomplish his intended effect; reincarnation is a simple fact (up and down the chain of living things, except it seems in the good sergeant’s case; Howie won’t be reborn, the crops will instead). One wonders how long, if Summerisle is serious when he suggests a child is a better sacrifice than animals, his particular system could survive if it came to the test, marrying as it does the comforts of civilisation with a capacity for ordained violence so undermining his assertion that “We don’t commit murder up here. We’re a deeply religious people”. But again, it goes to emphasise that it’s the clash of uncanny with the everyday in the picture that make it so transfixing. This opposition of elements, that shouldn’t co-exist, beguiles.
Woodward is note-perfect as the pompous puritan mocked at every turn for his holier-than-thou remonstrations, be it by the settlement’s lusty women or Summerisle tackling him on a purely rational level (when Howie ranges against the belief in pathogenesis, Summerisle is quick to dismiss his own religious quirks, and belief in a saviour “himself the son of a virgin, impregnated by a ghost, I believe”). As noted, Howie really is treated as the fool, accorded no respect as a sacrifice even as he is led to the slaughter; “You call that dancing?” inquires Summerisle of Macgregor, and soon after the trio of titillating temptresses congregate on Howie’s Punch, slapping him provocatively. The ultimate mockery of his chasteness is their drying his cleansed body with their hair, as he silently prays away his impure thoughts.
It’s at the climax that Woodward really comes into his own, though, his palpable terror at his fate proving impossible not to feel, and it’s here that Hardy’s unadorned approach is at is zenith. This is stark, harsh and inescapable, a reality from which there is no turning away or retreating.
Howie: But they are naked!
Summerisle: Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on.
Summerisle: Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on.
With Woodward essaying such a zipped-up, buttoned-down figure, Lee is the perfect antidote, cut loose to be marvellously jolly, debonair and charismatic, in contrast to the severe roles for which he was typecast. He’s particularly amusing sashaying in a frock and long haired wig, and decked out in a kilt, tinkling the ivories. While Summerisle is de facto in charge and calling the shots, he actually has as little freewill as anyone, and Lee conveys that, beneath the detachment, there really are personal stakes, even greater ones since he can’t buy into all that he has taught his flock (screenwriter Anthony Schaffer asserts that Summerisle is a true believer, like Howie, but I’ve never come away with that impression. And, since Shaffer wrote a screenplay for a sequel in which Howie survives his wicker overcoat, I’m not sure the author should necessarily be the last word on the matter in this case).
The likes of Aubrey Morris and Lindsay Kemp make strong impressions also, but it’s the unlikely presence of three Exotic Nordic types (one of whom is Australian, and another Polish, but why split hairs?) on a remote Scottish isle that adds another striking key to the film’s allure (there isn’t a ginger among them). Hardy’s picture may be full of rickets, from the dubbing of Willow (Britt Ekland), and her unlikely arse-double, to the flesh-coloured body stockings of the schoolgirls indulging rites at the stone circle (“I trust the sight of young people refreshes you”), but the essential incongruity of the trio of Ekland, Ingrid Pitt and Diane Cilento (ex Mrs Connery) entirely works.
As for the different cuts, on this occasion I revisited the most recent “Final Cut”, but in future I may go back to the 84-minute version. It may simply be a case of familiarity leading me to favour the “original”, but I also genuinely appreciate its economy. I consider the island sequence in the Director’s Cut actively unnecessary, offering superfluous detail we don’t need in order to appreciate Howie’s character (as if we wouldn’t have realised his sanctimony without it). More damagingly, it severs the hermetic impact of the picture starting and ending with the island; there is no escape. As such, I don’t even think the Final Cut’s communion scene in the church is needed; we understand Howie’s religious zeal from his behaviour towards the islanders, and it creates a slightly trite symmetry with the conclusion – Jesus’ martyrdom and Howie’s – that is served better through omission.
It’s nice to see more of Lee, but his speech regarding the animals and how “They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”, mocking Christian strictures, is again, merely emphasising what is abundantly clear in the shorter version. The compression too, whereby Howie now remains on the island for only one night works in the film’s favour, as it imbues sense of inexorable escalation to his plight and fate. All that said, Willow’s seduction scene admittedly makes much more sense where it is in the non-theatrical cuts. I should emphasise that I used to love the holy grail prospect of longer, “more perfect” versions of favourite films, but more isn’t always more, even with something like this or The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.
The Wicker Man attains the status of masterpiece in spite of itself. Undoubtedly, Schaffer’s literate screenplay contributes enormously as a solid underpinning, but it isn’t often a picture merits such an accolade when it has been so indifferently – to put it charitably – directed. It’s the combination of word, image, performance and soundtrack that make the film a classic, imbuing it with a haunting imperfection, making you feel you have actually been privy to, and complicit in, unholy events on some not-so-distant shore. And that they aren’t, perhaps, quite so unlikely or far-fetched as they might at first seem.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.