“The Wicker Man” (1973) still burns as brightly as ever…


“The Wicker Man” (1973) is one of those cult gems that I came to a lot later in life, having first seen the movie sometime in the early 2000s, after years of rumor and curiosity.  It did not disappoint.  While I find the film more fascinating than frightening, “The Wicker Man” has maintained its grip on my imagination from the day I first saw it.  Decades later, this pioneering ‘folk horror’ cult film inspired a few imitations, including the more grisly and graphic 2019 quasi-remake, “Midsommar.”

The missing Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper) is the ‘mystery’ that sets the story in motion…

For this 50th anniversary retrospective, I screened the 88-minute American theatrical version of the movie with my HD digital projector onto a 7 ft. (2 meter) screen in a darkened room for as close to a theatrical presentation as possible. I will mention some notable differences between the US version and the longer UK versions whenever possible, both during and after the synopsis.

I only wish I’d remembered to grab a delicious Summerisle apple to snack on during the show… 

“The Wicker Man” (1973)

The film opens cheekily with thanks given to “Lord Summerisle” and the locals of Summerisle who so graciously allowed the filmmakers to observe their religious practices. Who says the ‘found footage’ horror genre began with “The Blair Witch Project,” right?

“Have you seen John Connor?”
Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives by seaplane to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper).

A seaplane lands off the remote Hebridean island of “Summerisle.” Scottish police officer Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) uses a megaphone to call out for a dinghy to take him ashore.  The elderly harbormaster (ironically-named actor Russell Waters) shouts in reply that the locals aren’t too keen on uninvited guests.  Sgt. Howie claims to be conducting official police business, which grants him authority.  Reluctantly, the harbormaster rows his dinghy out to the seaplane and takes the uptight cop ashore.  Once there, a curious group gathers around the uniformed stranger as she shows them a photo of a missing girl named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper).  The old men feign foggy recollections, as none of them seem (willing) to recognize her until it’s pointed out that the girl’s mother is one May Morrison, a local shopkeeper.  With that, the harbormaster suddenly ‘remembers,’ but he and the other locals insist no one named Rowan lives on the island. 

Note: One significant difference between the 88-minute American cut and the original 99-minute (largely unseen) version is the omission of the original mainland prologue, which featured Sgt. Howie and his fiancée in church together, as well as a scene at Howie’s police station, where he first receives the anonymous letter reporting Rowan’s disappearance, along with her photo.  The American cut opens with footage of Howie’s seaplane landing off the island.

No help from the locals, as Sgt. Howie meets May Morrison (Irene Sunters), the missing girl’s mother… maybe?

Heading straight into the village, Sgt. Howie’s first stop is May Morrison’s store, which is easily identified by an outdoor sign.  Howie makes disdainful observance of the erotic cakes and other R-rated ‘treats’ in May’s shop window.  Keeping his personal disgust to himself for the moment, he meets May (Irene Sunters) and her young daughter, Myrtle (Jennifer Martin), who’s too absorbed in her painting of a hare (not to be confused with a rabbit, of course) to take notice of the cop who’s crashed their shop.  Howie is taken aback by May and Myrtle’s seeming disinterest with Rowan, whose existence they deny.  Picking up a paintbrush, Howie attempts to ingratiate himself with young Myrtle by helping her color her picture, but to no avail.  Frustrated once again, Howie leaves…

Feeling a bit overdressed…
Sgt. Howie tries to make a few inquiries at the local Inn.

Realizing he has a lot of work ahead of him, Howie seeks lodging at the “Green Man” tavern/inn, where he hopes to grab some dinner and a room for the night.  Upon arrival, he speaks to the landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp). Securing an upstairs room with the affable yet evasive MacGregor, Howie then bangs on the bar repeatedly, interrupting the revelry of the drunken tavern rats to pass around Rowan’s photo.  Of course, none of them knows the girl.  The patrons resume their festive drinking, as they sing a raunchy ballad about the landlord’s attractive blonde daughter and barmaid, Willow (Britt Ekland). Willow not only shows zero offense with the song, she beams a big smile, and joins in with the bawdy ballad…

Did you hear the one about the Innkeeper’s daughter?
Uptight Sgt. Howie meets the seductive Willow (Britt Ekland), a dirty joke waiting to happen.

Tired of playing games with the locals of this small community who stonewall him at every turn, Howie orders dinner from Willow (Britt Ekland), who is the daughter of the landlord.  Sipping some beer to wash down his lackluster meal, Howie orders some apple cider, for which the island is famous.  Willow says there are no apples, prompting a surprised reaction from Howie; no apples in an island famed for its apples?  Voicing his displeasure with his mediocre meal, Willow suggestively replies, “There are other things in life besides food, y’know.” 

Note: Swedish-born Britt Ekland was also in the 1974 James Bond film, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” which costarred her “Wicker Man” cast mate Christopher Lee in the role of Bond villain “Scaramanga.” Ekland also played a group of attractive clones in the 1978 “Battlestar Galactica” two-part episode “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero.” The former lover of legendary rock singer Rod Stewart appeared often on American TV, with appearances on “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

Willow has an inexplicable attraction to mediocre hotel room artwork…

The devoutly Christian Sgt. Howie, surrounded by these godless ‘heathens,’ retires to bed.  He prays solemnly at his bedside before turning in.  Before long, he’s stirred by a hand rapping on the neighboring wall, as Willow wonders aloud if the sergeant would like her to join him for the evening. After the engaged Howie refuses her offer, the nude Willow breaks into a wildly seductive song-and-dance just beyond the door separating their two rooms. Pressing his sweating face against the wall, the virginal Howie, who’s ‘saving himself for his fiancée,’ summons all of his willpower to resist the siren call of the ridiculously beautiful nude woman singing and dancing just beyond his door…

Note: Willow’s nude performance of “Willow’s Song” (written by the film’s folk composer, Paul Giovanni), which is shot and framed like a genuine musical number, was placed much later in the original British release, sometime after Howie’s first meeting with Lord Summerisle.  For some reason, the American version clumsily pushed this sequence much earlier in the movie. The scene was meant to be one of the final straws in breaking Howie’s will, but in the American release, it feels more gratuitous. Per her own admission, a full-nude body double was used for Britt Ekland, but only to shoot the actress from behind; the rest was true Britt. The song used vocals and instrumentation from by the Scottish group “Magnet.” 

Peter Brewis belts out “The Maypole Song,” in one of many sequences that make this folk horror film feel much like a musical.

The next morning, a fully-clothed Willow awakens the sleeping sergeant, disappointed that he turned down her offer (the dialogue of this scene sounds like it was likely dubbed in post-production for the American edit of the film).  Howie confesses both his engagement and virginity to her (TMI, Sarge), which she shrugs off before leaving.  Continuing his investigation into Rowan Morrison’s disappearance, Howie arrives to see a Mayday maypole celebration afoot, with children singing and dancing around the colorful pagan artifact, as a local man (Peter Brewis) merrily belts out a cheerful ode to the ancient Celtic phallic symbol of renewal…

Note: Composer Paul Giovanni created the songs for the movie’s folk soundtrack, which includes the song “Corn Rigs,” which is heard several times throughout the film to reinforce the rural lives of the villagers.  Director Robin Hardy half-kidded both during filming and in subsequent interviews for the movie’s 2000 DVD release that he deliberately shot the folk horror film much like a musical. This is not an exaggeration. 

“Give me that ol’ time religion…”
Sgt. Howie bullishly imposes his own values over the ancient pagan lessons of Miss Rose (Diane Cilentro) and her class.

Sgt. Howie overhears the song and locates a classroom nearby. Standing in the doorway, he overhears teacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilentro) giving her all-girl class a lesson on the phallic symbology of the maypole seen outside their window. Shocked to hear such things being taught to young girls, Howie asks for a word with Miss Rose. Expressing his disgust with her lesson plan, he returns to the classroom and demands a few moments of the girls’ time. Erasing part of the chalkboard’s writings, he writes the name of Rowan Morrison on the board.  Passing around her photo, he observes an empty desk.  Opening the wooden desk, he finds a black beetle tethered to a nail inside, walking in a panicked circle.  He finds the desk belonged to Rowan, whom Miss Rose insists is “no longer with us.”  Furious with the lying lot of them, the puritanical policeman promises to report everything he’s seen to the mainland authorities…

Note: Are we sure that Sgt. Howie isn’t a closeted, undercover American?  His puritanical beliefs and attitudes would be right at home in certain book-banning regions of the modern United States. In fact, the movie resonates very strongly with the pointless (and endless) culture wars currently being waged today across America, where abortion, the teaching of authentic Black history, and even public drag shows are now actively forbidden in many states.

Um…what if the person in the grave were Jewish, sergeant? 
Sgt. Howie actively ignores a breastfeeding local and her baby in the dilapidated churchyard cemetery, where he consecrates a pagan grave to Christianity. 

Inferring from Miss Rose that Rowan might be dead, Sgt. Howie continues his investigation into her disappearance by going to the local churchyard cemetery.  There he meets a creepily cheerful gravedigger (Aubrey Morris), who points Howie in the direction of Rowan’s grave, which is as-yet unmarked. Knowing he’ll need permission from the local government for an exhumation, Howie takes a look inside of a dilapidated crypt, where he takes offense at a young mother innocently and unashamedly breastfeeding her baby.  Triggered once again by the sight of pagan markings and some er, colorfully engraved tombstones, the fundamentalist Howie grabs a pair of wooden sticks to improvise a cross, which he places upon a pagan grave marker before leaving.

Note: Sgt. Howie’s offense at the sight of the young mother breastfeeding her baby in solitude speaks volumes to his rigid thinking. I’ve never understood those who express shock or disgust with breastfeeding; it’s one of the most natural and fundamental rites of motherhood.  Honestly, if a bare boob really puts you out so much, then just look away, for chrissakes…

Pilates class has been made a lot more interesting since they dropped the old dress code.

Sgt. Howie then takes a horse and buggy ride to the manor of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the leader of the community, who is descended from the original agrarian scientist who first founded the settlement. In the acreage outside of Summerisle’s home, Howie sees a group of nude women dancing around and over a fire pit near a collection of ancient Celtic pillars, similar to those at Stonehenge. The only visibly-clothed woman is pregnant, and she’s leading the other women in a song (“Fire Leap”) to her unborn baby. Sgt. Howie is escorted into the reception room of the Summerisle estate. As soon as he thinks he’s alone, Howie finds he can’t quite take his virginal eyes off the sight of the dancing young women…

Note: In some long shots, it looks as if some of the nude frolickers might (?) be wearing thin bodystockings. The fact it’s difficult to tell means they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.

“How’s the peeping Howie? How’s the peeping?”
Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) catches Howie at an–ahem–awkward moment.

Sgt. Howie’s peepshow is short-lived as Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) suddenly appears from behind a high-backed chair, glad to see that the constable is enjoying the ‘refreshing’ sight of the nude young women. Howie is aghast; “But they’re naked!” to which Summerisle deadpans, “Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on.”  When questioned on the purpose of the nude dancing, Summerisle explains that they’re celebrating parthenogenesis—reproduction without sex.  Howie’s incredulity has reached a boiling point, “Fake biology, fake religion! You should be teaching those children about Christ!”  Summerisle calmly retorts, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The conversation boils down to how and why the islanders took polytheism over Christianity. 

Note: There was extended theological debate in this scene in the original 99-minute and in the 91-minute Final Cut (2013), as well as references to specific omitted characters. However, the shortened US version still gives the gist of the conversation, at least.

Summerisle, on the subject of God:
“Oh, He’s dead…and he can’t complain.  In modern parlance, He had His chance and He blew it.”

When pressed on why they abandoned God, Summerisle explains, “Oh, He’s dead…and he can’t complain.  In modern parlance, He had His chance and He blew it.” Summerisle then takes Howie for a walk outside, as he explains how his atheist grandfather—a Victorian scientist—purchased the island and revitalized its agriculture by exploiting the volcanic soil and temperate climate. Over time, he encouraged belief in the old gods, whom the locals came for credit nature’s bounty. Seeing that such worship also created a thriving community, polytheist Celtic beliefs were encouraged.  Summerisle’s grandfather eventually became a believer himself, and he raised his grandson to admire and appreciate the colorful drama and pageantry that came with the old beliefs—making him the man he is today. “A pagan,” an aghast Sgt. Howie nearly spits. Summerisle takes his point, adding, “A heathen, conceivably. But not, I hope, an unenlightened one.”

Note: Anthony Schaffer’s elegant dialogue is so good in this scene that you don’t even notice or care that it’s full of exposition—this is how you work important plot/story information into dialogue, folks. I scarcely need to mention how incredible Christopher Lee is in this scene; it’s not surprising that Lord Summerisle was the actor’s personal favorite role in over 270 films.  

Neither hare nor there.
Lord Summerisle looks upon the sight of the dead hare dropped at his feet, while Sgt. Howie’s had about all he can take.

With permission for the exhumation granted, Sgt. Howie returns to the graveyard to dig up the body of Rowan Morrison.  Forcing open the coffin, he is greeted by the sight of a dead hare. Angered and tired of the games, he grabs the dead animal, and returns to the Summerisle estate, where the Summerisle is playing both host and piano for his lover, Miss Rose, who is lolling decadently on the floor.  Dropping the animal on Lord Summerisle’s fine rug, Howie exclaims that this is what he found in Rowan’s grave. Unperturbed, Summerisle jokingly whispers “Rowan did love hares.”  An enraged Howie threatens to report the whole matter to the mainland’s constabulary.  

That’s breaking and entering, officer…
Howie finds a photo of Rowan posing with empty apple baskets.

Picking the lock to May Morrison’s shop (yikes—no warrant much?), Sgt. Howie goes to the store’s photo lab and finds a picture of Rowan standing with empty apple baskets, similar to photos hanging in the bar of more bountiful recent harvests. Howie realizes that last season’s apple crop failed. The sergeant then takes a trip to the local library and researches pagan Mayday customs and rituals. He learns of the parades, in which participants dress as animals, with one of them designated to dress as Punch, the fool.  He also learns of the human sacrifice that is required should the crops fail, and surmises that Rowan might still be alive—awaiting execution after the parade.

Note: The town’s librarian is played by Ingrid Pitt; the longtime horror film veteran who costarred with Christopher Lee in Amicus Films’ horror anthology, “The House That Dripped Blood” (1971).

Despite the seaplane, Summerisle is no bloody Fantasy Island…

Making good on his promise to report the goings-on in Summerisle to the mainland authorities, Sgt. Howie orders the harbormaster to row him out to his seaplane.  Once there, he tries the ignition and propellers, but the plane won’t start; he also finds that the radio has been sabotaged. Meanwhile, many of the villagers are now wearing Mayday animal masks, as they get ready for the parade; their ‘animal’ faces seem to stare at the frustrated policeman, mockingly. He asks if he can catch a ferry back to the mainland, but the harbormaster tells him that the ferry captain is conveniently absent.

Something fishy going on here…
With his seaplane kaput and a local ferry down, Sgt. Howie is effectively stranded.

In a Hail Mary pass, Sgt. Howie returns to May Morrison’s shop and pleads with her on behalf of her daughter Rowan’s life, hoping to shake her and Myrtle out of their bizarre stupor, but to no avail.  With no options left, and fearing that Rowan will face execution soon, Sgt. Howie begins a door-to-door search for the girl throughout the village.  One by one, the villagers prank or misdirect him at every turn.  In one residence, he finds the librarian taking a bath.  In another, a young girl falls out of a closet—seemingly dead—until she begins giggling.  In the local mortuary, he finds a decorated corpse of a man in a coffin.  Boarding the boat he’d hoped would return him to the mainland, he finds it deserted—with only the mask of a fish remaining. 

Wake me up when the little hand hits five…

Returning to the Green Man Inn, an exhausted and frustrated Sgt. Howie orders a whiskey and returns to his room.  Feeling justifiably paranoid with the locals, Howie hears MacGregor and his daughter Willow whispering as they walk up to his room. Pretending to sleep, Howie then hears something placed at his bedside before they scurry back downstairs. Howie then turns in bed to see a severed human hand with the fingertips lit like candle wicks!  Forcing himself not to react at the ghastly sight, Howie quietly makes his way downstairs, creeping up on MacGregor, who is trying on his ‘Punch the Fool’ mask and costume for the Mayday parade…

Note: I remember seeing the image of Sgt. Howie awakening to the burning finger-tipped hand in a glossy old book of horror movies I’d owned as a kid.  It would be decades before I actually saw “The Wicker Man,” but that image stuck in my mind for many years. It is perhaps the only classically ‘horror’ image in the entire film. To this day, it’s surprisingly realistic and effective, too; quite an achievement for this reportedly low-budget film, on which many of the accomplished actors in the cast gladly worked for scale.  

“Everybody plays the Fool
There’s no exception to the rule…”

Hoping to infiltrate the parade, Sgt. Howie overpowers the distracted MacGregor and steals his Punch costume and fool’s mask.  He then hurries to catch up with the Mayday parade, which is being led by Lord Summerisle himself. As the parade marches along, Lord Summerisle is wearing a dress and long black wig with pale makeup; an image evocative of Mother Nature herself, perhaps. Summerisle notices that “Punch” is having difficulty keeping time with the marching band’s music, and wonders what’s wrong with “MacGregor.”  Thinking he’s outwitted the revelers of Summerisle, Howie keeps quiet and continues playing “the Fool” for as long as he can get away with it, in hopes of saving Rowan before the sacrifice can be made…

Note: Sgt. Howie seems blissfully unaware that he’s stepping into the role of the Fool, which was heavily foreshadowed in the very library book he’d read the previous night.

Christopher Lee dances as an in-drag Lord Summerisle leads the parade procession.

Next up on the parade route is the ‘chop’ saber dance, where assembled sword wielders form a tight quartet, as each person in the parade places their heads, one by one, into the open square between the four blades—a mechanical clocklike animal with wooden jaws randomly determines who gets beheaded or not.  Given what he’s seen in Summerisle to date, Howie has every reason to fear the eccentric habits and traditions of the locals.  One by one, they place their heads into the swordsmen’s square, only to be spared by the random movements of the wooden jaws. Not wanting to tip his hand before he’s found Rowan, “Punch” places his head into the space, but is also spared. The next participant is a young woman wearing an animal costume.  She places her large furry head in the saber square, before the mechanical jaws snap, and the blades lop off her head…which is only the hollowed animal head of her oversized costume.  Everyone, including the girl, laughs in joy at the bizarre game. Now, the time for the sacrifice has come. “Onto the beach,” orders Lord Summerisle…

Note: Incidentally, Christopher Lee would wear a long white wig a few years later in the “Space: 1999” episode “Earthbound,” where he played an almost kabuki-garbed alien who offered to take one of the stranded Alphans back to Earth.

“Punch” eventually finds Rowan, but, as with everything in this film, things aren’t quite what they seem.

At the beach, with the sun slowly setting, the time for sacrifice is at hand.  Sgt. Howie, still in his Punch costume and mask, finally sees a bound Rowan Morrison—the young girl he’s gone through all of this madness to find—standing on a cliff near a rocky cave in a white robe, seemingly awaiting her fate. “Punch” then tips his hand as he throws off his mask and runs to rescue the girl. Explaining to Rowan that he’s a policeman from the mainland, he takes her into the nearby cave, only a step or two ahead of their pursuers. Rowan sees light coming in from the other side of the cave, and leads Sgt. Howie through it.  Emerging from the other side of the cave, they see Lord Summerisle, out of costume and standing with Willow, Miss Rose, the librarian and others.  To Sgt. Howie’s great astonishment and horror, he then sees Rowan beaming an excited grin, as she ‘breaks character’ and gleefully runs up to Lord Summerisle. She then asks, “Did I do it right?” 

Note: A truly astonishing twist ending, worthy of Hitchcock…

Lord Summerisle and his band of merry followers ironically give Sgt. Howie something many early Christians might’ve aspired to; the chance to be a genuine Christian martyr.

“Welcome Fool,” says a smiling Lord Summerisle to his sacrifice, Sgt. Howie.  Lord Summerisle and his islanders staged this elaborate charade with the “missing” girl, Rowan Morrison; carefully providing clues and strategic misdirections that allowed Sgt. Howie to believe she was being held against her will. It would seem that Sgt. Howie’s choice of costume was more fitting than he’d realized. He fit the four ideal criteria for an optimal sacrifice; he came to the island of his own free will, he came with the authority of a king (the Scottish government), he was a virgin, and most recently, he was the fool.  Lord Summerisle offers Howie scant comfort by reminding him that, as a disciple of Christianity, he has a genuine chance to become a true Christian martyr—dying for his faith.  Sgt. Howie is then overpowered by the village strongman, before being seductively stripped of his clothing by the women of the group, and placed in a virginal white robe.  “Now,” commands Lord Summerisle, “it is time to keep your appointment with the wicker man.”

Note: Harry Waxman’s gorgeous cinematography deserves a mention. Shot autumn-for-spring, the movie’s climax betrays the intense chill felt at the beach during the time of year the final scene was filmed, around November of 1972.  The autumnal sun, arcing lower in the sky than it would in May, also feels a bit more appropriate for the mood of the scene than a spring sky might. Happy accidents such as these are what often make for great cinema.

Lord Summerisle is as certain of his convictions and beliefs as Howie is convinced of the eternal life guaranteed to him in his Christianity.  The film is more about a clash of immutable belief systems rather than a simple blood sacrifice.

Sgt. Howie, stripped of all remaining dignity, turns to face a large pagan ‘wicker man’ effigy-cage at the top of the beach’s hillside.  It is large enough to house himself, and already contains several animals intended for sacrifice to the old gods. Realizing that he is going to be burned alive in exchange for a bountiful harvest, Howie screams a bloodcurdling plea; “Oh God!  Oh Jesus Christ!!”  In desperation, he makes a last-minute appeal to the villagers of Summerisle, warning them that if the crops fail once more, they will need even greater sacrifices for appeasement, perhaps even Lord Summerisle himself.  To that, Summerisle shouts, “The crops will not fail!”  With that, Summerisle and the villagers begin to sing an ancient Celtic ballad, “Sumer is icumen in,” which translates to modern English as “Summer is Coming.”

Note: More than a simple pagan-cult blood sacrifice, this final scene is a clash of both faith and will; the unstoppable force that meets an immobile object. Such fundamentalist collisions often result in bloodshed.  

Howie’s final prayer to his God is deeply moving, even to an old atheist like myself.

As the giant wicker man is set ablaze, Howie is surrounded by the screams of goats, ducks and other animals, as he prays in earnest by singing Psalm 23 aloud: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Soon, the sun sets, and the flaming wicker man begins to disintegrate; its massive head collapsing on its body, just as the blood red sun sets below the sea…

The End.

Note: The final moments of the film, as Howie is being burned alive to the sounds of animals screaming in agony around him, is the single most horrific moment of the film. This is where the movie truly earns its horror credentials, despite a lack of more traditional ‘scares.’ 

Other Versions

For full disclosure, the version I own in my own library is the 88-minute “theatrical version” that Roger Corman bought for US distribution and from which 11 minutes were trimmed. The cuts included a mainland prologue sequence featuring Sgt. Howie in church with his fiancée, as well as his receiving the anonymous letter with Rowan’s photo. We also see barmaid Willow offering to deflower a local boy, intercut with shots of mating snails. There’s also more philosophical banter between Howie and Summerisle, along with more significance placed on the symbolism of the apples. The 99-minute original version also places Willow’s famed nude dance much later in the film, which makes more editorial sense, as it’s supposed to represent the decaying state of virginal Howie’s willpower.  

“Howie you doin’?”
Poor virginal Howie is driven half-mad with lust by the seductive Willow’s nude dance; a sequence that occurs much later in the original film than in the US theatrical cut. This is one example of the many subtle changes between the film’s different cuts.

Even with these many scenes and moments omitted or reshuffled, I still believe the 88-minute version does not alter the film on a fundamental level; the essential story remains intact, with enough nuances left in this leaner, meaner version not to be considered a merciless hatchet job.  An apt comparison would be the two versions of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”; the original 1973 film and the 11 minute-longer 2000 version—same story, told the same way, with just a few more finishing touches added.  For purists, the 2013 “Final Cut” of the movie, which runs at 91 minutes, is believed to be the closest to director Robin Hardy’s original vision.

The 2006 Remake

Far less successful in every way is the 2006 remake from director Neil LaBute, which stars Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn and Leelee Sobieski. The remake sees cop Edward Malus (Cage) getting news from his ex-fiancée that he has a daughter named Willow, who has now gone missing. Edward’s search for his kid leads him to an island off of Washington state, which is inhabited by a sisterhood of pagans renowned for their honey exports. Edward arrives, and learns from“Sister Summerisle” (Burstyn) that the mostly-female islanders are descended from persecuted New England witches.  As the wildly-overacting Nicolas Cage makes his way through a familiar series of misdirections, he eventually finds Willow, whom he learns is really the daughter of Sister Summerisle. 

Nicholas Cage takes overacting past the Shatner Red Line in 2006’s execrable remake of “The Wicker Man.”

From that point on, Edward Malus’ fate is more or less the same as Sgt. Howie’s when he’s set to burn alive inside of the giant wicker man effigy—but only after he’s covered in a bonnet full of bees, of course (“Not the bees!  NOT THE BEES!!!” ).  Nicolas Cage gives one of the hammiest, most over-the-top performances in his career (and that’s saying a lot).  Cage isn’t done any favors by his otherwise talented-costar Ellen Burstyn either, who seems to be doing her best impression of Marlon Brando from the 1996 version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”  As a teenager, actress Leelee Sobieski (“Sister Honey”) was excellent in 1998’s “Deep Impact,” though she gives a somewhat wooden performance in this ill-conceived remake.

Edward (Cage) confronts Sister Honey (Leelee Sobieski), whom he later dropkicks before stealing a bear suit–I kid you not.

The 2006 “Wicker Man” is less folk horror, and more accidental comedy.  Consider this a hit I’ve taken for you, valued readers.

“The Wicker Tree” (2011)

Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Dalia welcome a pair of Texans to their fold…

Several years before his death in 2016, original “Wicker Man” director Robin Hardy, wrote and directed a followup called “The Wicker Tree” (2011), based on Hardy’s original script/story “Cowboys For Christ.”  Original “Wicker Man” producer Peter Snell was also brought back to produce. The new story followed a pair of Christian musicians from Texas who’ve taken purity vows to remain celibate before marriage. The pair are met in Glasgow by Sir Lachlan Morrison, who invites them back to his small village of Tressock, where they meet his wife Dalia.  In short, the two Texans are being set up as breeders for the infertile village of pagans, as a nearby nuclear power plant has rendered the local men sterile.  Christopher Lee cameos. For full disclosure, I have not seen this film, though I hope to get my hands on it someday, possibly for a future review in this column (?).  After all, few things could be worse than the 2006 remake.

Summing Up “The Wicker Man” (1973)

This deservedly classic film is a cat-and-mouse game that is won well before it begins. Anthony Schaffer’s bold, witty screenplay and Robin Hardy’s quaintly rustic, yet unsettling direction allow the audience to witness the religious extremes of Sgt. Howie and the residents of Summerisle play out through a curiously objective lens.

“What? Do I have something on my lip?”
Edward Woodward gives a career-best performance as the unyielding Sgt. Neil Howie.

Both Edward Woodward (1930-2009) and Christopher Lee (1922-2015) give career best-performances, each representing the opposing poles of Christianity and paganism. Lee’s Lord Summerisle makes surprisingly sound and coolheaded arguments in favor of his religious practices which effortlessly outmaneuver Sgt. Howie’s shakier, more reactionary points.  The film’s uniquely eerie atmosphere—aided by Harry Waxman’s autumn-for-spring cinematography—is maintained uniformly throughout its running time.

Lord Summerisle toys with his future sacrifice in what is arguably Christopher Lee’s best performance in over 270 films.

As a beloved community leader, charismatic ‘villain’ Summerisle is doing what he believes to be necessary for the health of his community, while lone ‘hero’ Sgt. Howie’s bullying imposition of Christianity upon the locals (and overreach of his authority) is nearly as oppressive as the use of human sacrifice for a bountiful harvest. In the end, the residents of Summerisle render any theological debate moot by simply outsmarting their quarry—the hunter was the hunted all along. The islanders’ murder of Sgt. Howie (making him a genuine ‘Christian martyr’) ultimately swings the moral argument in Howie’s favor, though it doesn’t provide easy philosophical answers. That’s up to the viewer

“Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!!”
Woodward’s bloodcurdling pleas brings down the house as the “fool” finally learns of his fate.

The “The Wicker Man” is considered one of the greatest horror films of the past 50 years (arriving the same year as “The Exorcist,” and “The Legend of Hell House”), and it’s a truly outstanding and unforgettable movie. However, it’s not a traditional ‘horror film,’ per se; there are no ghouls, ghosts or slashers lurking about this remote Scottish island. The bulk of the film’s horror comes from the anguish of Sgt. Howie’s final moments, when he realizes he’s been an unwitting participant in his own demise (“Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!!”).

Fifty years later, “The Wicker Man” remains a witty, disturbing collision of faiths, with two radically opposing factions who each see themselves as the heroes of their stories. Haunting and unforgettable.

Where To Watch 

1973’s “The Wicker Man” is available for streaming rental & purchase via AppleTV (no pun intended), PrimeVideo, and YouTube Premium (prices vary). If you prefer physical media over streaming, several cuts of the movie are available on BluRay and DVD, including the 2013 “Final Cut” (prices vary by seller).  “The Wicker Tree” (2011) can also be purchased via Amazon. You can probably still find DVD copies of the 2006 version in flea markets, thrift shops and back alley dumpsters near you.

Images: Anchor Bay, British Lion Films, Warner Bros.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Happy 50th Anniversary for The Wicker Man and thank you for this article.

    1. Hope you enjoy the film as much as I do. 😉

      1. scifimike70 says:

        I remember seeing the film many years ago, thankfully long before the remake, and I was quite impacted by the ending. Particularly after first knowing Woodward as The Equalizer. The early 70s may have been quite revolutionary for horror films with my favorites in childhood including The Legend Of Hell House and Horror Express. This 50th Anniversary year for The Wicker Man and The Exorcist should make this year’s Halloween one of the most special.

      2. Oh yes! And “Legend of Hell House” is another favorite of mine as well; often underrated in the haunted house genre, though it’s easily one of the best.

      3. scifimike70 says:

        In this century I have found a refreshingly new appreciation for underrated or obscure horror and sci-fi films and shows of the last century. The Legend Of Hell House worked for me as a most thoughtful mix of horror and interesting human drama, which I came to appreciate at a good young age.

      4. It’s surprisingly faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel too (he wrote both), despite the location change from the US to the UK.

      5. scifimike70 says:

        I liked John Hough’s direction of the film. He provided a good sense of supernatural atmosphere as he also did to The Watcher In The Woods.

      6. Very atmospheric, yes.
        The director of photography on the film, Alan Hume, also shot “Return of the Jedi.”

  2. MovieFeast says:

    Great article, despite his stubbornness and refusal to accept others beliefs, I can’t help but feel sorry for Howie, he wasn’t a bad fella, he needed to loosen up a little. If only he’d bedded willow none of this may have happened

    1. He wasn’t such a bad guy, I agree, but you could say it was his own intolerance that ultimately did him in. He truly was “the Fool,” after all…

      1. MovieFeast says:

        Yes they truly stitched Howie up good and proper. Manipulating him masterfully.

  3. Sam J Harris says:

    Thank you for this good read.

    1. Much appreciated, Sam. Glad you enjoyed it!

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