by Evan J. Peterson
Last month, SHRIEK had our largest turnout yet to watch The Cabin in the Woods. This Sunday, join us at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood for the Blu-ray final cut of the original Wicker Man!
Tickets available here.
Stats on The Wicker Man (1973)
Country of origin: UK
Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, loosely based on David Pinner’s novel Ritual
Major actors: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland
Score: Paul Giovanni and Magnet
Nudity: abundant female nudity, no male
Sexual Assault: none
Gore: arguably none (a severed hand and a bandaged stump)
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? Yep!
The original Wicker Man ties with Alien as my favorite movie. Not just my favorite horror movie—favorite movie, period. It’s one of the most sophisticated films I’ve ever seen. The Summerisle community is impressively and thoughtfully crafted, from dialogue to visual nuances to folk songs. The overall effect is of an utterly believable parallel reality, one in which twentieth-century Europeans are completely steeped in mundane Paganism. Their post office slash sweet shop presents cakes in the window, but what kind of cakes are made to look like human bodies? What kind of gravestones say, “protected by the ejaculation of serpents?” Why are the residents of Summerisle making love and breastfeeding publicly in the graveyard?
Even at its most sophisticated, the film is also subtle. Everyone on Summerisle is named after something nature-related: seasons, trees, flowers. There are only two lines in the whole film acknowledging this, and they acknowledge it by inverse implication: “Rachel and Benjamin—names from the Bible.” “Well, they were very old.”
The film has an unfortunate history. The studio never understood it, gutted the theatrical cut, and literally buried negatives. Eventually footage was recovered, leading to this recent Blu-ray edition (which still doesn’t include what I believe to be an expansive prologue, found on the extended DVD). Perhaps the film was too good for the studio; they took a Hammer Horror cast including Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt and put them in one of the most sophisticated horror films ever, one with almost no violence, gore, or jump-scares, which Christopher Lee has called the best film he was ever in.
I also love the fact that the protagonist, the uptight Catholic Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), is thoroughly unlikable. He vainly stomps into an unfamiliar community and proceeds to tell them they’re wrong about everything while also being the butt of their jokes. This is our point of view character; very little happens in this film that isn’t within his scope of view. The film was released in 1973, as ‘60s New Age culture’s optimism and idealism was transforming into the decadence of the ‘70s. Predating the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the film cleverly foresees the coming backlash and paranoia against things like astrology and goddess worship.
The women of the film are secondary characters, but even Ingrid Pitt’s unnamed librarian character plays an essential role in the mystery. Much more powerful and memorable is Diane Cilento’s Miss Rose, a school teacher, high priestess, and mistress to Christopher Lee’s artistocratic Lord Summerisle. Perpetually warm and chipper, she takes the outsider’s invasion of her community in dignified stride. Is she a suspect? Of course.
There’s also Britt Ekland as Willow, a performance that isn’t as impressive as Cilento’s, but her character is nonetheless intriguing. A kind of priestess herself, she performs an essential role in the Pagan community, which the outsider finds horrifying. Another subtlety of omission: Willow’s mother is absent, never mentioned, and her father is played as a camp homosexual by the gay British actor and mime Lindsay Kemp (who, for trivia, taught David Bowie the art of mine and was also Bowie’s lover). For the film’s time, the presence of a sexpot blonde bombshell with no mom and a gay dad was rather shocking.
This is a strangely jaunty horror film. The tone makes me want to call it something other than horror, but it earns the genre by the end. The story begins with a missing child—a trusty premise for a thriller. From there, it becomes a story of culture shock, and it’s nothing if not humorous. Sergeant Howie is forced to deal with a community of wildly sexed-up heathens. Sounds like a comedy, doesn’t it? Except that we’re consistently reminded that there’s a missing girl. Will Sergeant Howie find her, and if so, in what state?
The Wicker Man isn’t just a horror film, it’s also a clever mystery and—holy shit—it’s a musical. Most of the score is diagetic; in this way, the film is a remarkably clever musical that doesn’t feel like a musical at all. When characters break into song, they aren’t singing about their feelings and aspirations, nor are they singing dialogue. They’re singing the folk songs of their community, or else casting spells, such as in Ekland’s memorable nude scene. That’s what she’s doing, by the way—casting a seduction spell, claiming her power by smacking her body and the surfaces of her bedroom. This folk music, either adapted or composed whole cloth by Paul Giovanni, lends the perfect illusion of authenticity to this modern Druid culture.
Join us this Sunday, May 12, for The Wicker Man at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood. If you’re feeling extra frisky, come back May 26th for heckle night as we roast the remake with Nicholas Cage!
SHRIEK is a community class merging film with education and offering an accessible forum outside of academia. The goal is to offer low-cost opportunities to learn about film and women’s studies and to inspire more diverse filmmakers to get involved as creators in the genre. Naked City Brewery sponsors the series in their screening room, with sponsorship from Scarecrow Video and Crypticon Seattle.
Evan J. Peterson is a college professor, author, and journalist. He is a Clarion West alum, and he received his MFA from Florida State University. His writing has been featured in The Stranger, BoingBoing, Weird Tales, Nightmare Magazine, Queers Destroy Horror, and TheBody.com. His books include The PrEP Diaries, The Midnight Channel, Skin Job, Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5. He lives in Seattle with his werewolf, Dorian Greyhound.