The Wicker Man – Review
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. 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.
31 Days of Halloween
Halloween is nearly here. We are just a couple of days away. We have an enormous pumpkin ready for my partner to carve and a bunch of movies lined up to watch. It’s been a busy October and if you have been following our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature you will know why. We have been covering a horror movie each day for the entirety of October leading up to Halloween 2022.
I will be doing this feature every year so check back in 2023 for more. This is the first year I have actually worked on this site properly and 2023 is going to be packed full of reviews, Ending Explained articles and more. I aim to put together more featured months, as well, so keep an eye out for that. Next month is going to be Fall themed horror, just in time for the end of the Autumn season, so look out for that. While I won’t be reviewing a movie a day, there will be at least four reviews a week throughout November.
December, however, is the month I am seriously looking forward to. I am a big kid when it comes to Christmas. I love it and to get you all in the mood, I will be putting out an Awful Advent 25 Days of Christmas Horror feature. I’ll be looking at 25 different Christmas themed horror movies. Expect a new review every day of December leading up to Christmas Day itself.
The Wicker Man – Synopsis
The Wicker Man starts with Sergeant Neil Howie, played by the late Edward Woodward, arriving at the isolated Hebridean island of Summerisle via a seaplane. A young girl called Rowan has reportedly gone missing and Howie has been sent from the mainland to find out where she has gone.
The residents of the island appear to follow the beliefs of ancient Celtic religions and take part in Pagan rituals. Howie, a devout Christian, is shocked when he arrives and discovers a population seemingly unconcerned and unwilling to assist him in his investigation. Arriving at the Green Mill inn where he is due to stay, Howie walks in on the patrons dancing and singing. Noticing a number of pictures mounted on the wall featuring depictions of the recent May Day queens, it is apparent that one picture is missing from its spot. Howie asks what happened to it and is told it was broken. Suspicious, Howie accepts the man’s answer and goes to eat supper.
Before heading to bed, Howie decides to take a walk. While outside, he notices groups of people having sex out in the open. One woman appears to straddle a grave naked. Finding this incredibly strange, he heads back to the inn so he can retire to bed and carry on his investigation in the morning. While standing at his window, he hears Willow, played by Britt Ekland, the daughter of the inn’s landlord talking to the lord of Summerisle. Despite finding this curious, he goes to bed intending on visiting the school in the morning.
A Strange Disappearance – Synopsis Cont.
The next morning, Sergeant Howie visits the school that Rowan was a student at. On the way he notices children dancing around a maypole and singing a folk song seemingly about the cycle of life. Arriving at the school, Howie begins to question students about Rowan. The students all claim that they never knew a girl called Rowan. Howie demands to see the school register and finds Rowan’s name listed.
Believing the teacher is hiding something, Howie questions her. She tells him that the kids were technically correct as Rowan doesn’t exist anymore. She is dead, though they prefer not to refer to it as death. They believe people who die return to the environment. She directs Howie to the grave of Rowan. Howie visits the young girls grave but is not convinced that she is dead. He is suspicious of the people on the island and their motivations. Seeing increasingly bizarre behaviour, he becomes more determined to find out what is going on the island, whatever the cost.
A Horror Classic
The Wicker Man is a classic horror movie likely responsible for influencing generations of subsequent directors and filmmakers. Set on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, the Wicker Man uses belief systems and customs foreign to many viewers to elicit fear. The devoutly religious Neil Howie finds himself 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.
Howie gradually learns more and more about the island and the horrors grow with each additional piece of information that is revealed. The natural assumption of the viewer is to believe that the island has been cut off from the mainland and maintained Pagan beliefs. This proves to not be correct, however, and further undermines the viewer’s understanding of what is going on. This slow unravelling of the mystery and constant feeling of things not being as they seem adds massively to the tension of the movie.
The Unsettling Unfamiliar
The focus on the customs of the people of Summerisle serves to unsettle and keep you 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.
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.
Something that helps set The Wicker Man apart from other horror of the time was the use of song throughout. 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. 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, however. 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.
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.
There is something extremely unsettling about seeing groups of children singing songs about the phallic maypole. The lack of concern shown by the missing girl’s mother immediately imparts a sense of doom. The fact that Neil Howie feels completely isolated and as though he has entered a different world forces the viewer to share in his sense of dread. It is powerful stuff and it comes from writer Anthony Shaffer’s desire to create something completely different from typical horror. The Wicker Man did for Folk Horror what Alfred Hitchcock did for suspense.
The Wicker Man features some of the most iconic imagery in horror history. It is difficult to write a spoiler free review for a movie that is nearly 50 years old and not reference some of the scenes that made it so famous. It goes without saying, however, that the final shot, in particular, is one of the most memorable horror images of all time. Legitimately haunting and up there with one of the most disturbing scenes from horror. It is sure to stay with you for a long time. Without question, the movie deserves a watch just for its fantastic climax.
Scenes featuring the island’s children dancing around the maypole, a group of young girls dancing naked around a fire, Christopher Lee’s imposing figure as Lord Summerisle and Britt Ekland’s seductive dance inside the room next to Sgt. Howie’s are etched into the annuls of horror forever. Its impossible to not see the influence of The Wicker Man in many of the movies that come out today. Horror directors are all too aware of the impact that Pagan rituals and non-sexualised nudity can have. We likely have The Wicker Man to thank for this.
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.
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 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 actually detracts from the “fish out of water” feel that is supposed to come with Folk Horror.
Is It Still Scary?
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.
It still succeeds incredibly well at making the viewer feel uneasy. The twist at the end of the movie and the final scene are as powerful as they have ever been. I imagine some younger viewers may struggle with how old the movie feels. That is understandable. It can feel a little bit cheesy in parts. I really suggest sticking with it, however, as it is essential viewing for any horror fan. It is an important part of horror history and deserve people’s time.
Is it a Knockout?
The Wicker Man is a classic folk horror movie that inspired generations of filmmakers and basically created the blueprint for folk horror. Unsettling and completely original for the time, the movie doesn't try to scare the viewer with gore and violence. It aims to create unease by presenting a group of people who are entirely different from the given norm. Using bizarre rituals, nudity and sex to make the viewer uncomfortable, the tension builds from the very get go and never lets up.
Featuring an incredible performance by the late Edward Woodward, the movie has some of the most iconic scenes in the entirety of horror history. The ending is no less impactful today and remains one of the most important horror movie moments of all time. It very much looks its age at nearly 50 years old but it is no less effective at disturbing the viewer. Some may be put off by the lack of scares and some of the scenes seem a little cheesy when viewed with a modern eye. The Wicker Man is still essential horror viewing, however, and an absolute must see for all horror fans.