The Wicker Man (1973)
From the pen of the late, great Anthony Shaffer comes one of the most chilling, iconic and original films in all of movie history. Set on the fictitious Scottish island of Summerisle, the Wicker Man features superb performances by Edward Woodward as police Sergeant Howie and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Woodward has said that Howie was the best part he ever played, while Lee maintained that the Wicker Man was his finest film.
Supported by a deep bench of quirky and accomplished character actors, director Robin Hardy follows the increasingly labyrinthine twists and turns of Sergeant Howie’s investigation into the apparent disappearance of a young girl. Every step Howie takes into that remote community’s strange rites and customs brings him closer to his own carefully planned and agonisingly awful demise.
Hardy skilfully exploits Shaffer’s slow but relentless ratchet-turning writing to build a richly detailed, absorbing and thoroughly grounded society in which the hapless Howie quickly becomes lost, flounders and is ultimately destroyed. With a memorable music score and some excellent cinematography typical of the era, the Wicker Man is one of many films that disprove the idea that only a big budget production with aggressive marketing can stand the test of time.
Modern moviemakers and games developers often talk of depth or believability in the worlds they imagine, and this shoestring British classic is one of the earliest and best examples of that art. Schaffer didn’t just write characters, he created a compelling world for them to live in, complete with its own music, folklore and traditions. It is this cultural depth and attention to detail which makes an otherwise outrageous storyline compelling and believable, as the characters are moved and motivated by the world they inhabit and the values they regard as self-evidently true.
Dogged by production problems, shrouded in controversy and surrounded by rumour, the Wicker Man has become part cult classic and part urban myth in its own right, in a way peculiar to only a handful of movies released within the span of a few short years. Just like many of its contemporaries, it feels almost as though the Wicker Man has become somehow greater than the sum of its parts, as though something almost supernatural has seeped into the sprocket holes, waiting to be unleashed whenever the movie plays.
Now well into its fourth decade of life, the Wicker Man continues to delight, puzzle, outrage and intrigue movie fans and horror aficionados. Again, like many of its contemporaries, this movie boasts some of the most famous stills and publicity shots in cinema history, and its reliable appearance in authoritative lists of truly great films means that the Wicker Man will be reborn as each new generation comes of age.