Robin Hardy's iconic nightmare is back for its fiftieth anniversary, reaffirming its status as a singular entry in the horror canon
The apex of folk horror is back. Fifty years after its first release, Robin Hardy's seminal The Wicker Man is still the first movie that springs to mind at mere mention of this sub-genre, and for good reason: no film since has bettered the weird, ritualistic verve of what we call folk horror, creating many of the genre's distinct tropes in the process. It now returns to reaffirm its place as one of the best British horror films, but also one of the best British films outright – not bad for a movie that was considered unwatchable by its studio, and who sought to bury it beneath the release of Don't Look Now, another horror masterpiece also released in 1973.
To this day, to speak of “the Wicker Man” out loud is still to send a chill down your spine: visions of that great, eerie structure rising on the hill, and a testament to the sense of uneasiness this film brilliantly creates right from the start– all the way to one of the most chilling, and hopeless, endings in horror cinema. This is a work that thrives on a feeling of pure “offness,” as Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) is tasked with finding a missing girl on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, and in his attempt is made an unwilling participant in a cruel game he never had a chance at winning in the first place.
The film is a melting pot of themes and allegories, about divided Britain and also, of course, religion – Howie's Christianity is no less ridiculous than the islander's unusual, sex-heavy pagan rituals, of which he repeatedly calls a “fake religion,” though any irony in the claim is lost on him. But it's also a great work about otherness and the distrust of others, while – in Christopher Lee's villainous but spritely aristocrat, Lord Summerisle – it also touches on the ways the wealthy wield the poor to their own selfish ends. None of the subtex feels heavy-handed; the movie works with or without probing into the subtext.
Howie is a unique and interesting protagonist in the sense that we don't quite like or sympathise with him – at least in the beginning. Woodward plays him as a killjoy, a buttoned-up jobsworth who clashes with the locals and rightly inspires their annoyance with his lines of questioning. But as he is repeatedly prodded at and ridiculed, led round in circles and lied to, we eventually begin feel sorry for him. Woodward proves excellent at showcasing his mounting frustrating and, behind that, his subtle temptations, especially in the film's crucial moment of realisation: that he has been made to look a fool, both intellectually and sexually.
The movie's strangeness is increased by the near relentless pile-on of upbeat folk songs, which help to create the bizarre mood of a not-quite-musical, but also a tone that seems to encourage our laughter, too. In fact, this rewatch emphasised how funny The Wicker Man is: the movie has a tricksy sense of humour to match the citizens of Summerisle, which in fact works to prevent it all from seeming entirely po-faced and therefore ridiculous; a close-up of a jar labelled “foreskins”; Howie smacking away two dolls who've been put in the missionary position; Christopher Lee frolicking through the countryside in a silly black wig.
This “Final Cut” version (the same one from 2013) makes a few unnecessary changes that for most will go unnoticed – mainly in adding a short prologue of Howie at church on the mainland, which appears before the credits. But even with these inclusions, what a brisk, tight 93 minute experience this is, and so singular in its weird execution – comedy? horror? musical? – that it feels unlike any film ever made. Robin Hardy never directed anything that resonated or even caught the public attention again. But one film can be enough to create a sizeable legacy; fifty years later, few horror films are still burning quite so brightly.
The Wicker Man is re-released in UK cinemas from 21 June.Where to watch