It’s a long time since I last saw Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man, and that was in its “Director’s Cut” form, so, while I could clearly remember that ending and the basic plot I did come to this new cut of the film, the so-called Final Cut, relatively fresh.
From the start the film has an odd tone, setting up our supposed hero, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), as a Godly man and, clearly, an extremely devout one, as well as a policeman of the highest reliability. This brief introduction uses its shorthand to brilliant set up the character, meaning we get to the mysterious Summerisle within the first five minutes and from here on in the film is something of descent (or ascent, depending on your view) into a different world.
The island is given an otherworldly feel, first from the ariel shots of Howie’s seaplane arriving which sets it up as being remote and different from “the mainland” and then by the attitude of the locals. Upon first meeting them Howie is faced with what seems to be a wall of silence, but throughout there is a feeling of something more sinister behind it.
This feeling is developed as we see the island through Howie’s eyes, from the raucous pub, where folk music is set up as the antithesis of the hymn, to the teaching of Mayday celebrations in the local school and the perceived desecration of the island’s former church.
Alongside this we also get the more physical interpretation of the island’s difference from “the mainland” as Howie encounters a side of human sexuality he has never experienced and, as a Christian he sees this, alongside with the other aspects, as a work of evil and it is in relation to this that we are first introduced to Lord Summerisle himself (Christopher Lee) shrouded in shadow and, seemingly, directly addressing Howie and his view of the island.
This is where the films horror element grows and it feels like a real watershed of a film in this regard. Lee is, of course, famed for his work as both Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster in the Hammer movies of the 1950s and 60s, and here a sense of that style is combined with a more naturalistic feeling to create something that, at the time, I can only imagine was very new and very different to what had come before – as opposed to the generally more lighthearted and campy nature of the horror in Hammer’s films, what we have here has a much more serious feeling alongside the genuinely surreal.
This surreal aspect is really (for the most part) where the horror comes in as we see Howie go from straight-laced policeman to a paranoid wreck chasing ghosts. In this sense it reminded me a little of the recently released Filth, but in a very different way.
This surrealism is tied in tightly with the films depiction of the “heathen” or “pagan” religion of Summerisle and its here I found a slight oddness in my relationship with the movie. The impression I got was that when the film was released the character was meant to relate, for the most part, to Howie and follow his journey and find horror in that. For me though I found myself more drawn to the islanders so, while I still saw the horror of Howie’s story, it was somehow with more of a disconnect, even in the film’s climax – maybe this comes from being an islander and devout non-Christian myself?
As well as the films use of imagery and pulling together of folk rites the real highlight of the film came with its use of music. Drawing from traditional folk music and tying it into almost every scene adds to the island’s feeling of otherness, and Howie’s separation from it, while developing a sense of the tradition on which Summerisle’s religion is based.
Lee and Woodward are both excellent in their roles as antagonist and protagonist respectively, both delivering truly believable performances and anchoring the naturalist side of the film in the face of the surreal side and, in the end, coming across as something of two sides of the same coin.
Over 40 years much has been discussed about The Wicker Man and for me, this cut gives us a non-stop story that never slows from the start as we see an investigation develop into something very other while creating a new direction for horror cinema that is still being referenced today.