Wednesday, July 05, 2023

The Wicker Man: 50 Years a Folk Horror Classic

It is a place of free love and folk music, where people are keenly attuned to nature. The remote Scottish Summerisle is also a profoundly evil place. Sergeant Neil Howey, an outsider investigating the reported disappearance of a local teenaged girl, will discover just how sinister in Robin Hardy’s folk horror classic The Wicker Man, which opens Friday in New York, marking its 50th anniversary.

Sgt. Howey is a righteous God-fearing Chistian, as we can see from the early prologue (depending on which cut you are watching—they all end the same way). He has come to isolated Summerisle via the police department’s seaplane, to investigate an anonymous letter claiming a teenaged girl, Rowan Morrison, is in peril.

At first, nobody acknowledges knowing Rowan, not even her mother. However, as he unearths evidence of her existence, they change their tune. The girl is actually dead, and therefore gone, according to their Pagan beliefs, so there is no Morrison left for them to speak of.

As Howey explores the tiny isle, he is shocked by the openly hedonistic behavior he sees. However, he is outraged to find the schoolteacher opens teaching witchcraft and paganism. Technically, Lord Summerisle rejects the term “Pagan.” He essentially preaches a licentious version of New Age mysticism that retain many of the “old” deities. Howey will not be swayed, nor will he be tempted into sin by Willow MacGregor, the lusty innkeeper’s daughter.

The Wicker Man is one of the few horror films that is even scarier after you have already seen it. You might already guess where it is all headed—probably Howey is the only one who cannot. Even if you can’t, there is no way to miss the overwhelming atmosphere of impending doom Hardy realizes. It is powerfully accentuated by all the unnerving little occult easter eggs incorporated into the richly detailed set and production design. The film deserves its reputation as the greatest folk horror film of all time.

It also features one of Sir Christopher Lee’s most distinctive villains, the hippy-like Lord Summerisle (sporting an unkempt Beatle-style coif). Even though
Wicker Man co-stars both Lee and the great Ingrid Pitt (as the Librarian), nobody ever confuses it with Hammer Films (like fans often do with Amicus releases, such as The Skull). Pitt and Diane Cilento (the Schoolteacher) are also great as supporting villains, who definitely help wind up Howey. Of course, nobody does so more than Britt Ekland as MacGregor. This must be Ekland’s greatest screen performance, even though her voice was dubbed by jazz vocalist Annie Ross (of Lambert Hendricks & Ross).

Yet, Edward Woodward is truly the film’s one truly irreplaceable star. He vividly expresses Howey’s faith and also his unyielding commitment to justice, which will directly contribute to his downfall.
The Wicker Man also would not be the same without Paul Giovanni’s arrangements and performances of traditional poetry and folk songs (such as Robert Burns’ “Corn Rigs”), which sound massively creepy accompanying Summerisle’s carnal paganism. There is no question The Wicker Man is the only successful non-comedic horror film that could also be arguably classified as a musical.

No matter what Hardy or screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (the
Sleuth playwright) intended, The Wicker Man derives all its terror from the excessive indulgences of the late 1960s/early 1970s counter-culture and its hostility to mainstream Western values. Summerisle is like a case-study of a community that abandons the rule of law and Abrahamic religious traditions.  It is terrifying. Very highly recommended, the newly restored The Wicker Man opens this Friday (7/7) in New York, at the IFC Center.