Perhaps it’s appropriate that 1973 would see the release of The Wicker Man. After all, by then Hammer was well past its prime, only a few years away from resorting to cheap exploitation flicks, whilst Amicus, too, were soon to see their fortunes change. Indeed, the calculated terror of The Wicker Man could be seen as a direct reaction to the excess of the Hammer era.
Further evidence of this is provided in the casting of Christopher Lee as the film’s main antagonist- the horror veteran providing almost a lampoon of his staple role as the sinister aristocrat; perhaps it’s ironic that this remains his greatest role. Likewise, the horror trademark of our protagonist stumbling into a local tavern only to be greeted by silence and stares from its patrons is repeated here to unnerving effect- for a film which, on the face of it, resembles so closely your typical British horror, The Wicker Man truly surprises once you glimpse its cold, black heart.
The film follows Edward Woodward’s Christian policeman’s search for a missing girl on the remote island of Summerisle, where he begins to uncover the terrifying truth behind the islanders’ pagan traditions, centred around charismatic nobleman, Lord Summerisle (Lee).
On paper, the film’s plot appears simplistic, even formulaic; however, this is far from the case. Rich in substance and replete with disturbing twists, The Wicker Man is genuinely disturbing. Its beauty lies in its stark unconventionality; instead of relying on shocks, scares or gore, it chooses to spend over an hour building up an unflinching aura of dread, teasing the audience and beckoning them towards the film’s climax.
And what an ending it is, rivalling Planet of the Apes or Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (alongside which the film was released) as one of the all-time greats. It’s an unforgettable, iconic fortissimo, leaving the viewer in a state of shock. Nihilistic, downbeat and beautiful- truly a great moment in cinema history.
It’s amazing how well the film has aged, even 35 years on. Christopher Lee’s mustard rollnecks and windswept perm may not be as fashionable nowadays, but The Wicker Man’s slower, more considered pace remains refreshingly chilling (emphasized by Nicolas Cage’s hilariously bad, career car-crash remake).
The Wicker Man is not simply one of the greatest horror films ever made, but arguably the greatest British film ever made. If you’re tired of Saw’s repeatedly tired attempts to shock or simply want to see Christopher Lee dancing in a dress, pick this up— I guarantee that it will scare the living daylights out of you.