The Wicker Man (1973) Movie Review - Stunning Daylight Horror Classic

Folk Horror, Mystery | 88 Min
The Wicker Man (1973) Review
  • Director: Robin Hardy
  • Actors: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Christopher Lee
  • Writers: Anthony Shaffer, David Pinner
  • Producers: Peter Snell
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Language: English
  • Parental: Female Nudity, Sex, Sexual References, Violence To Animals, Upsetting Scenes
  • Folk Horror, Mystery | 88 Min

A puritan Police Sergeant arrives in a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl who the Pagan locals claim never existed.

It’s day 29 of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature and today we are taking a look at Robin Hardy’s absolute horror classic The Wicker Man from 1973. I suppose if I wanted something truly horrific I should have done the Nick Cage remake but I don’t think I could handle the sheer terror of watching it again.

The Wicker Man is one of the best folk horror movies ever made but to call it folk horror is almost doing it a disservice. This is a horror movie that is almost undefinable. The best way to describe it would be as a Daylight Horror movie. Set on a remote Scottish Island, it follows the story of a police sergeant investigating the disappearance of a young girl amidst strange goings on. Without further ado, let’s take a look. I will offer a quick, spoiler free, breakdown of the movie, as always, which you can skip if you like.

A Horror Classic

The Wicker Man’s story is fairly simple. Sergeant Neil Howie, played by the late Edward Woodward, is tasked with finding the location of a girl who has gone missing from the Hebridean island of Summerisle. When he arrives, he is greeted by a number of strange individuals. Realising that this is no ordinary island. It soon becomes clear to Howie that he has the gargantuan task of uncovering the secrets hidden by the residents of the island. Residents who follow ancient pagan rituals and aren’t at all interested in accommodating a nosey Sergeant from the mainland.

The Wicker Man (1973) Review

The Wicker Man is a classic horror movie responsible for influencing generations of subsequent directors and filmmakers. Despite being set in the United Kingdom. The Wicker Man uses belief systems and customs foreign to many viewers to elicit fear. The devoutly religious Neil Howie plays avatar for the viewer. Finding himself completely lost and out of place on an island full of people taking part in Pagan rituals and eschewing Christian beliefs. Horrified at what he sees, he is immediately suspicious which leads to digging himself deeper and deeper into the secrets of the island.

Featuring a slow burn plot, The Wicker Man ventures to places horror movies had never gone before. Straddling multiple genres; the movie acts as a combination of a horror, a thriller, a mystery and even a musical. It’s a head spinning mix that works to keep the viewer feeling off base and unsure of what will happen next. On Summerisle, we are Sergeant Howie. Completely out of place, completely foreign and completely unwelcome. It is legitimately fantastic stuff.

The Unsettling Unfamiliar

The focus on the customs of the people of Summerisle serves to unsettle the viewer and keep them on edge. Sexual references and nudity are used to create a feeling of unease. People casually copulate out in the open. Residents are dismissive of Howie’s authority. The islander’s have bizarre ways of dealing with illness. All of this ensures that the viewer is in no doubt as to how different these people are. 

The Wicker Man (1973) Review

Whereas, nowadays, this is akin to your average “Burning Man” festival, back then it was nightmare fuel. Howie’s devout Christian beliefs are reflected in absolute horror and disgust at what he sees. He firmly believes that something must be going on and his suspicions mean he forces himself into situations that only elevate the horror aspect. Despite the progression of time, this movie is still unsettling to this day. Much of that is down to the use of music.

At times, the film feels almost like a horror musical. This works surprisingly well to keep the viewer feeling uneasy. There is something incredibly unnerving about a group of people breaking out into song; seemingly ignorant to the plight of the missing girl and Howie’s investigation. The characters are dismissive of the horror here and that is unsettling in itself. Songs about Willow’s sexual proclivity, the cycle of life, and so on feel almost out of place with their light whimsy. They remain some of the more striking parts of the movie. It also helps that a couple of them are real ear worms that stick in your head for ages.

A Folk Horror Legend

The Wicker Man, along with The Witchfinder General and a few others, would go on to, basically, set the blueprint for the Folk Horror genre. Its influence can still be clearly seen today in movies such as Midsommar and its unique approach to horror went on to inspire movie makers for generations to come. Foregoing more traditional methods of scaring people such as blood and gore. Folk horror takes a far more nuanced approach. Working in the realm of suggestion, it plays at a person’s innate unease with things that seem different and bizarre.

This is daylight horror. We don’t need things hiding in the shadows. Everything scary here is in plain site and brightly lit. The folk horror genre often attempts to scare the viewer by exposing them to a society that is unfamiliar. Foreign customs that seem either obscene or barbaric and greater openness to sex or nudity are themes often seen in the genre. The Wicker Man, essentially, defined this and utilises these things to great effect to make the viewer uncomfortable. It works incredibly well and, despite attitudes towards sex and alternate lifestyles becoming more open, it is still impactful today.

Incredible Acting

Acting in The Wicker Man is stellar throughout. Keeping up something of a trend in British cinema at the time. Everyone, with the exception of one or two performances, is exceptional. Edward Woodward as Sgt. Howie is pitch perfect. A number of big names were considered for this role. It is difficult, in hindsight, to imagine anyone doing a better job. He portrays the prudish, puritan Howie in an entirely believable manner. His constant disgust and shock at the events taking place is never anything other than totally convincing. He feels almost like an alien in this world he has been placed in. Woodward plays the part as if the events are actually happening to him. Truly one of the most iconic horror acting performances of all time.

The Wicker Man (1973) Review

Christopher Lee’s short turn as Lord Summerisle is fantastic to see. A classic horror actor, the last scenes featuring him are particularly powerful. Tell me you can see Christopher Lee in a long black wig and not be terrified! Another classic British horror staple, Ingrid Pitt, makes an appearance and is typically great. The entire cast of islanders are completely convincing. Everyone does a great job of giving the impression of an isolated community full of secrets.

Britt Ekland, as Willow, is a difficult actor to rate when it comes to The Wicker Man. She absolutely stands out against the rest of the cast for her beauty and unique look. Apparently having her entire voice redubbed for the release. I can only imagine her accent was too strong or her delivery poor. Britt Ekland was something of a sex symbol at the time. While a capable actor, I imagine the filmmakers were more concerned with how she would look dancing naked in a bedroom than how well she could act. Its something of a pity that these attitudes prevail today. Both male and female actors are cast for looks over performance. The pay off here, however, was very apparent. That particular scene is one of the most widely remember horror scenes of all time.

How Does It Hold Up?

First and foremost, this is a British low budget horror movie from nearly 50 years ago. It, visually, looks every bit of its age. It is grainy, dull and the softness of the picture is not done any favours by the recent 1080p HD releases. Night time scenes and dimly lit indoor scenes take a particularly big hit when it comes to visual fidelity. The vast majority of the camera shots are tightly framed. Outside of some stunning opening shots, there is a limited desire to take in the scenery. This is very much a case of working with what was available at the time. That doesn’t, however stop the movie from having some genuinely memorable shots.

The Wicker Man (1973) Review

The poor visual quality, when considered from today’s perspective, actually adds to the feeling of unease. The aged appearance of the movie works perfectly with the subject matter at hand. It almost makes the viewer feel even more alienated. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is not a movie aiming to scare the person watching with blood, guts, and jump scares. It wants to get into your head and, for that, the visual style works fantastically. The cleanness of a movie like Midsommar detracts from the “fish out of water” feel that is supposed to come with Folk Horror.

As far as scares go, The Wicker Man never tried to scare people in the same manner a normal horror movie would. Compared to modern methods used, it isn’t something you would describe as scary. It is, however, deeply unsettling. That hasn’t changed much over time. This is not traditional horror and it wants to make you feel uncomfortable more than anything. The fact that horror movies are still appearing today using the same techniques that The Wicker Man used are a testament to how effective it was.

Should You Watch The Wicker Man?

Yes, any fan of horror should definitely watch The Wicker Man. It is, unquestionably, one of the most important horror movies of all time. It straddles numerous genres, scares you in ways that other movies don’t and does it all while singing at the top of its voice repeatedly. This is the movie that kicked off the daylight horror genre and folk horror movies have been inspired by it ever since. Still creepy and unsettling to this day and full of iconic horror imagery. The Wicker Man is one of the best horror movies of all time and a must watch.

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