Again with the genre-bending: While The Wicker Man (1973) is wildly hailed as one of the greatest “horror movies” ever made, I think it also deserves praise as a twisty crime thriller and hilarious musical comedy!
For those who don’t know (and shame on you for that!), this cult classic stars Edward Woodward as ‘Sergeant Howie’, a rather priggish “Christian copper”, who receives an anonymous letter from the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, imploring him to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named ‘Rowan Morrison’ (Geraldine Cowper). From the very moment he first sets foot on their harbour side, Howie finds himself taunted, ridiculed and tempted by the inhabitants, who follow their own peculiar, neo-Pagan religion, and are not averse to cavorting naked in public to practice their faith. They stonewall his investigation at every turn, referring him to their de facto leader, the eccentric ‘Lord Summerisle’ (Christopher Lee), whose grandfather cannily recognised the potential in their fertile soil and warm local waters to establish a thriving fruit farm, which has ensured the island’s continuing fame and prosperity. He also used his influence to drive out Christianity, and re-establish the “Old Gods” of nature to their former prominence… Gods who must be praised and appeased, with sacrifices great and small, in order to ensure a successful harvest. Uh oh!
Ultimately, the story is a game of cat-and-mouse between two devout, determined men, but there are several female cast members here worthy of note: The first is Britt Ekland who plays ‘Willow’, the sultry, seductive barmaid at an inn where Howie spends several fitful nights, trying to ignore the lusty noises emanating from her neighbouring bedroom. Diane Cilento plays ‘Miss Rose’, a teacher at the local school, who Howie censures for explaining the phallic symbolism of the Maypole to her class of young girls… and later finds consorting with Lord Summerisle. Ingrid Pitt plays a ‘Librarian’ who hampers Howie’s investigation… and Irene Sunter appears as ‘May Morrison’, Rowan’s cheerfully forgetful mother. Although Ekland, Cilento and Pitt are all incredibly beautiful women, and play their parts very well, it seems a little strange to cast them as born-and-bred Scots here, since they originally hail from Sweden, Australia and Poland respectively… but there’s no point picking away at all the contemporary business decisions that compromised the film’s verisimilitude, because overall its awesomeness is unimpeachable.
For ages I’ve been making do with a copy of the “theatrical cut” that I received free with a newspaper some years ago, but now I’m glad to say I have the two-disc boxset, which includes the extended “Director’s Cut”. For various horridious reasons we won’t go into here, the “restored” footage is noticeably poorer than the material around it, in terms of picture and sound quality, but it adds so much to the story and the characters that it’s easy to forgive these occasional glitches. I think it’s a testament to the high calibre of the script and the performances that this film retains its lyrical power and enigmatic majesty despite all of the technical snafus and petty “office politics” that might have broken the back of a lesser work.
[This post written while listening to The Mediaeval Baebes… who do a very good cover version of the Maypole song on their album Undrentide]