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After 50 years, here is a re-release for that gamey satirical masterpiece of folk horror – although "prog horror" is perhaps a better description. Folk horror, like film noir, is a term that seems to have been first used by critics before film-makers themselves, but The Wicker Man is so much better and more distinctive than any film that comes under the folk-horror heading that it's virtually a one-movie genre in itself. It now appears billed as a "final cut": a restoration complete with the footage that was excised when it was released as a B-picture support to Don't Look Now in 1973.
It is a brilliant conspiracy-chiller set on May Day on a remote fictional island off the Scottish coast, ruled over by the haughty laird Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose inhabitants are devoted to sinister pagan observances to preserve the annual fruit harvest on which their economy depends. The Summerislanders are variously polite and insolent towards a thin-lipped young copper from the mainland who has been alerted to the disappearance of a teenage girl by an anonymous letter. This is the fiercely respectable Sgt Neil Howie, wonderfully played by Edward Woodward, a stickler for the Christian religion, saving himself for marriage to his demure fiancee, and outraged and yet also faintly excited by the sensual abandonment he sees around him.
The film is a genuinely scary adventure in group psychopathology, carried off by director Robin Hardy with an inspired seriousness and density of imagined folkloric detail. It is all clearly inspired by Ira Levin at some level, but adapted by Anthony Shaffer from the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner, an actor-turned-writer who originally developed the story for Michael Winner and whose cop protagonist may owe something to a part that Pinner played in the West End: Sgt Trotter, from Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. (Like TS Eliot's The Waste Land, incidentally, The Wicker Man is indebted to the images of death and rebirth from James Frazer's The Golden Bough.)
Apart from everything else, The Wicker Man has the greatest pub-going-silent-when-a-stranger-comes-in scene in cinema history. The local hostelry The Green Man subsides into mutinous, hostile quiet at Sgt Howie's appearance and then, when the sneering landlord MacGregor (played by dancer and choreographer Lindsay Kemp) sends Sgt Howie up to his room accompanied by his comely daughter Willow (Britt Ekland), the drinkers erupt into an extraordinary smutty song accompanied by a gaggle of musicians. Every shot from this amazing sequence could be a prog album cover. The image of the local postmistress May Morrison (Irene Sunter) putting a frog into her daughter's mouth to cure her sore throat will never leave anyone who sees this film, and the same goes for the maypole song and the young woman Howie sees in the ruined churchyard, smiling blankly at him, breastfeeding a child while enigmatically holding an egg.
The Wicker Man is often compared to movies that emerged at around the same time, such as Piers Haggard's The Blood on Satan's Claw in 1971 and Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General in 1968, although for me the element of pure folk ritual and mystery that is paramount in The Wicker Man isn't there, quite, in the others. The closer comparison is with Peter Watkins, particularly his docu-realist nightmare Punishment Park from 1971.
In the end Sgt Howie meets his terrible destiny without quite appreciating the ironic parallel with the service of communion in which he solemnly partakes at the beginning: the blood and body of Christ. And it was only having watched this film again that a new thought struck me. The anonymous letter's author or authors addressed the missive to Howie by name: how exactly did they know about him and his situation in the first place? An informant in Howie's congregation? His fiancee perhaps?— Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Fri October 27, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United Kingdom, 1973, in English, 94 min • official site
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, Director: Robin Hardy, Novel: David Pinner, Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento