At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Wicker Man “73”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Folk Horror/ Stars:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunter, Jennifer Martin, Donald Eccles, Walter Carr, Roy Boyd, Peter Brewis, Geraldine Cowper, John Young, Myra Forsyth, Alison Hughes, Barbara Rafferty/ Runtime: 87 minutes (theatrical cut), 99 minutes (original version), and 95 minutes (director’s cut)

I guess I should start this review off by asking you a question dear reader: what in the heck is it about pagan or cult-like religions that is so terrifying that has thus enabled the horror genre of filmmaking to make it into its own subgenre? I mean from so cheesy yet so good at the same time films such as The Devil’s Rain back in 1975 all the way to more “modern fare” such as 2019’s critically praised Midsommar, horror has always found a way to make those religions that always seem to exist on the fringe edges of our more *ahem “polite and civilized” society (if such a thing truly exists) seem like they are no more and no less than the essence of pure and absolute evil and dead set on either annihilating anyone who doesn’t believe in what they preach or using your body as a vessel for whatever entity they have devoted their lives to worshipping. Yet for all the films made that deal with this particular subject matter, I feel few are as truly in equal measure noteworthy and notorious as 1973’s The Wicker Man. Yes a lot of you may only know about this film because of the atrocious, body-numbingly awful “remake” with Nicolas Cage hamming it up and then some in the lead role from 2006, and you know what? I am so sorry for that. I say that because that…..”film” is nowhere even close to how brilliant this film is. Indeed is The Wicker Man terrifying? Honestly not really. More surreal if anything. Is it haunting? You could easily say that. Is it a riveting piece of cinema that deserves a whole lot more attention from a modern audience? Oh god yes and then some. Yes it may not contain even an ounce of blood, but if you want a very unnerving, skin-crawling, and riveting tale about what happens when 2 faiths dangerously collide at perhaps the worse time possible then this film is definitely for you.

The plot is as follows: The Wicker Man begins its haunting yet alluringly riveting nightmare by introducing us to a man by the name of Neil Howie as he makes his way via boat to a remote Scottish island known as Summerisle. Howie, we soon enough learn, is a policeman who has been sent to the island due to reports of a young girl that has gone missing and is now…somewhere on the island. Yet, upon his arrival, Howie discovers that not only can virtually no one on the island seem to recall the little girl that he is searching for, but that everyone seems determined to keep something from him. Compounding and frustrating matters for our exasperated investigator however is the culture of the place. You see dear reader I did forget to insert one key significant detail about both our hero and the place where his investigation is being conducted and that is a matter of faith. By that I mean our investigator is a devout man in regards to his Christianity and the island and her denizens……well they most certainly are not to put it lightly. Yet just how far removed from the preferred religion of our protagonist I will leave you to discover for yourself. This is because it isn’t long before you, along with our beleaguered hero, will discover that there is something seemingly….off about the island and the people who call her home. Thus from there dear reader you, along with Howie, will learn that sometimes there are some investigations you might just want to call quits on before you get ahead of yourself and find yourself walking straight smack dab into the middle of a surreally riveting yet truly terrifying nightmare…..

Now despite being highly regarded for above all else an astonishing yet co-starring in every sense of the word role from the iconic thespian that was Christopher Lee, this film is also noteworthy as an iconic example on how to conjure up a seamless entry in the world of horror. Indeed film helmer Robin Hardy at a point in time actually felt that this film would never be conjured up for audiences to enjoy. An opinion that actually makes sense when taking into account that not only was he coerced to working with a miniscule budget, a very expedient shooting schedule, but the studio distributing the film was on the verge of shutting its doors for good and actually did just a few months following the conclusion of filming on this very movie. Ultimately though this film was seen to the end and, despite the mixed reception it got at the beginning, is now seen as one of the finer efforts in its particular genre to come from that wild time known as the 1970s. To that end, the first thing that makes this film so wonderful is how intelligently it was put to paper initially by one Anthony Shaffer. Indeed Shafer does a brilliant job of not only keeping things going at a decent enough pace, but also in his insertion of quite subtle hints thrown here and there for you to discover should you choose to go back and watch this film again. That and Shaffer endeavored to make this film feel as authentic as possible to actual pagan religions and some of the practices that they observe. As a result, the film is made even more spine-tingling and bone curdling because of the fact that a lot of what goes on in terms of the rituals and customs the denizens of Summerisle actually both look and feel frighteningly real in nature.

Now the second ingredient in the fiendishly delightful unholy trinity that makes this film the stuff that fans of horror have never been able to truly forget is some of the more technical aspects that went into making it possible. For starters, this film has a truly riveting, engaging, and quite alluring in an odd way soundtrack that does a magnificent job of, like the main character, luring you further and further until it is sadly much too late. Also despite the fact that the complex narrative and the phenomenal performances, which I shall cover next, managing to conjure up feelings of unease and suspense within the viewer, there is also a distinct playful and whimsical vibe brought by the film’s soundtrack thus making it even more difficult to ascertain if there really is any nefarious shenanigans afoot on this island. Indeed you can most certainly be forgiven dear reader for not knowing when watching this for the first time just where the heck this film is planning to go, but make no mistake this film’s narrative has a quality to that will draw you in from the word go and then keep you riveted all the way to this film’s truly haunting resolution. An end that as the credits appear showcases an image that is now forever with me due to all the anguish and desperation attached to. Indeed as the proverbial curtain finally begins to fall on everything you had just witnessed, it is not that hard to really question just what you saw, but honestly that’s what the film wants you to do. Make no mistake: the conclusion may be certain, but the answers to the questions that the conclusion leaves you with are anything but.

Finally the third ingredient in the delightfully fiendish unholy trinity that makes this film into something truly special would have to be the performances that this film offers up, and in regards to those they are all absolutely top-notch in every sense of the word. Indeed in the lead role, we have Edward Woodward of the 80s hit TV show The Equalizer and here he manages to give us a truly fantastic lead turn gives a tremendous performance as the increasingly puzzled and exasperated by what he witnesses on the island Sgt. Howie. Indeed Woodward does a wonderful job of portraying both the character and his slow but steady realizing of just what the heck is going on that is manages to add a fair amount of realism to the overall film.  Just as crucial however is the fact that Woodward in this film is able to take a character that may be a figure of loathing, eye rolling, exasperation, or all of the above due in no small part to his overwhelming and stubbornly steadfast religious beliefs in another entry in the horror genre, and actually make the people who choose to watch this film actually feel a fairly significant degree of empathy towards him and the set of circumstances that he finds himself becoming embroiled in as the movie goes on. Yet, and as I stated earlier in this review, it is perennial screen icon Christopher Lee who manages to walk away quite easily with the film in small yet incredibly significant role of the defacto head of the island’s inhabitants Lord Summerisle. Indeed Lee always, be it here or as Count Dooku in 2 of the Star Wars prequel films among many other titles this legend appeared in, always managed to be truly glorious and magnificent whenever he was on screen and this film is no exception. More than that however, there is also an eerily hypnotic quality about his role in this that makes it so potent and iconic that you would be forgiven if you had forgotten, like I had, that he only has about 30 minutes of screen time in this tops, but just goes to show that when an actor this great is given a role it doesn’t matter how big the part is and that’s because you know they will make it one to remember. Finally we also get a very siren-like performance in this from Britt Ekland as a young woman on Summerisle by the name of Willow. Indeed her alluring, and very revealing dance (though I hear that are parts of it where they did utilize the aid of a double) is easily one of the more sensual moments in the history of horror cinema and also really aided in adding further intrigue yet also unease to the film overall to say nothing of the moments of interaction between her and Howie which also help to add to the overall suspense factor of the film. Suffice it to say then that this is one film in the horror genre that realized that it is never enough to just offer up scares; rather you also need good performances from your cast in order to make the scares that much more frightening and in that regard this film succeeds quite admirably.

All in all I am pleased to tell you that in regards to operating as an entry in the subsection of horror known as Gothic horror, then The Wicker Man manages to triumph quite admirably. Indeed here is a film that, in addition to the aforementioned positives with particular kudos going once more to Christopher Lee’s performance, manages to blend together quite beautifully the eerie with the bizarre and quite unusual whilst also coming equipped with a distinct vibe of unease and dread layered on top. Yes there is quite a fair amount of that delightful substance known as ambiguity all about during the course of this film’s runtime, but that just helps to make the mystery at the heart of the tale that much more riveting and its resolution that much more of a stunner that trust me when I say you will most assuredly not see coming. Suffice it to say then that if you can hunt down The Wicker Man then definitely do so, but just remember to keep an open mind and always remember that sometimes the quest for answers does come with quite the hefty price tag….On a scale of 1-5 I give The Wicker Man “73” a solid 4 out of 5.