I first saw The Wicker Man when I was in college. At the time the film seemed a boring affair, given that it boasted Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt yet neither of them seemed scary or even particularly menacing. The ending was cool, and there were several scenes that showcased a very naked Britt Ekland dancing and grinding herself into a lather, but the film felt just too talky and full of what I believed was mumbo-jumbo.
A few decades later, I have a completely different opinion.
The Wicker Man (Limited Edition) is a two-disc set that comes in a wooden box upon which are a burned title and the outline of the film’s centerpiece. The first disc consists of the original 1974 theatrical release, as well as cast and crew interviews, theatrical trailer, television and radio spots, and cast and crew biographies. The second disc features 11 additional minutes of never-before-seen footage, some of which strengthens an already excellent movie.
The story centers on Sergeant Neil Howie (played by the awesome Edward Woodward), a devout Christian with strong morals, particularly when it comes to the law. Howie is sent to an island called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, but not everything is as it seems. Soon Howie finds himself in the middle of a heathen society, where children worship a maypole, couples fornicate in public view, some individuals indulge in necrophelia, and still others practice Wicca. Leading the community is the strange but compelling Lord Summerisle (Lee), who attempts to explain the pagan goings-on to Howie. Although Howie is incredulous at first, he slowly succumbs to the power inherent in Summerisle, and in the end he serves as the perfect sacrifice.
The Wicker Man is a study in belief, with Howie and Lord Summerisle equally religious and stalwart. Because Howie is on the home turf of Lord Summerisle, the sergeant is destined, much like the pagans were during their persecution, to lose the battle, no matter how determined he might be. Indeed, his convictions make him the ideal sacrifice. The closing sequence in the film is extraordinarily eerie because, one the one hand, the celebration is an abomination, but on the other, is remains a triumph of the spirit. The inquisitions tortured and killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in the name of religion: Why should one offering be so shocking?
Written by Anthony Shaffer (the onscreen title bears his name above it, a very rare compliment indeed), whose other credits include Sleuth (1972) and Sommersby (1993) and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man is a perfect exercise in atmospheric terror. Interestingly enough, most of the film’s key scenes take place outdoors, but even here there is always an atmosphere of menace, of things not seen but felt. The locals participate in catchy sing-alongs, yet the lyrics are filled with nasty references and erotic content. The there are the women, like Willow (Britt Ekland), whose outward sexuality drives Howie to the brink of madness.
Religious persecution continues to this very day, with some factions drawing blood over belief systems. The Wicker Man is a warning that any religion, given the power and the right circumstances, can overwhelm and annihilate the minority.