'The Wicker Man' Truth And Stories: Early Folk Horror Was 1973's 'Midsommar'
Friendly pagan folk in 'The Wicker Man.' Source: IMDB
In 1973 The Wicker Man combined the gothic undertones of Hammer Horror and the terror inherent with going off the beaten path to create a genre defining folk horror film. The film was pushed into production without an actual budget in place and when all was said and done the studio detested the film and marketed it like a B movie.
In spite of its inauspicious start at the box office The Wicker Man took on an almost mythic quality. Cult movie audiences frothed at the mouth over the pagan overtones of the film and its bleak ending. Nearly 50 years after its release, The Wicker Man is still one of the most spellbinding cinematic experiences to ever come out of England. It stands as a classic of folk horror, a genre that continues to flourish with the 2019 release Midsommar.
‘The Wicker Man’ is about the hunted leading the hunter
The film follows police sergeant Howie (played by Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, who travels to a Scottish Island in search of a missing young woman. As Howie delves further into the mystery of the island he grows suspicious of the locals and discovers that they’re deeply sexual pagans.
After his mettle is tested by a young blonde woman named Willow, played by Britt Ekland, who tries to seduce him, he meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee. Initially the islanders are quirky but as the film goes on it’s clear that something disturbing is happening in this small village.
The climax of the film leads Howie (and the audience) into a trap that’s still surprising now even if you can see all of the hints being laid out throughout the early parts of the movie. The entire film is masterful, but it’s the final sequence that will take up real estate in your mind.
The film is based on pagan rituals and an earlier book
While there are definitely some genuinely strange pagan viuals in the film, the origin of the film comes from the novel Ritual by David Pinner. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer read the book, about a Christian police officer investigating a murder in a rural village, and used the novel as a starting point for the film.
Weirdly enough, Ritual got its start as a screenplay but after it faltered in the pre-production process Pinner turned it into a novel. Shaffer and Christopher Lee paid £15,000 for the rights to the novel and, rather than using it as the total basis for the film, Shaffer just used it as a starting point.
Shaffer got together with director Robin Hardy and the two drew from various pagan references to create many of the visuals in the film. They added sword dancing, corn dolls, and a maypole dance in order to make the film feel genuinely mystical. Hardy explained:
We had been aficionados of the Hammer films. They used all the old clichés of the witchcraft thing, holding up crosses, garlic – things the Catholic church invented as propaganda against the still-surviving old religion that they had replaced. We thought it would be quite good to create a society where the actual Celtic religion informed everybody. We went for all the religious and quasi-religious things which informed the mythology of various nations going back, back, back.
The most alarming visual in the film -- the titular wicker man -- was pulled directly from history. According to the filmmakers, Julius Caesar wrote that he watched local tribes execute criminals by burning them alive inside of a man-shaped sculpture made of wood.
It's amazing that the film was actually finished
Everything was set against the filmmakers when The Wicker Man went into production. British Lion Films was in the middle of a financial takeover by John Bentley from EMI and in order to make sure the company’s employees didn’t panic he pushed the film into production in the autumn of 1972. The film is actually set in spring so the production crew had to create a green and grassy Scotland as the whether turned harsh. Blossoms and leaves were glued to trees and fake grass was set down -- all on a minuscule budget.
By the end of principal photography, Hardy heard that the production company wanted to change the film’s ending where Howie is sacrificed in a fire. He told The Guardian:
Someone at the studio even suggested torrential rain – but it wasn't going to happen. There was a power struggle going on at British Lion, the film company. Some executives were trying to destabilize Peter Snell, the managing director and producer of The Wicker Man. They said the film was rubbish and undistributable.
The Hokey Folk Music In The Film Actually Works
Aside from being a total mess during production there were some fun aspects to working on the film. The film’s unforgettable music was labored over by playwright and musician Paul Giovanni who took folk songs from his youth and turned them into creepy dirges dripping with sexuality. Hardy said:
I thought it would be fun and entertaining and probably truthful if we used folksongs. Nearly all of Robert Burns’ great poems have been put to music, so we used those, and then there were ones that were cooked up and sounded more Victorian, like The Landlord’s Daughter.
British Lion Films didn’t know what to do with ‘The Wicker Man’
Even though The Wicker Man has a bang-up script and an extremely creepy story, the producers at British Lion Films just weren’t hyped on it in the least. In the middle of the production British Lion sold to EMI and rather than market the film to audiences who would enjoy it they cut it down to less than 90 minutes and stuck it as the B picture for the Nicholas Roeg horror film Don’t Look Now.
According to Hardy, the dust-up stemmed from EMI’s desire to show producer Peter Snell that they were in charge. Christopher Lee says that one producer from EMI told him that The Wicker Man was one of the ten worst films that he’d ever seen. Lee on the other hand says that it’s the best movie he’s ever appeared in.
There are multiple edits of the picture
As with Blade Runner, the variety of prints of The Wicker Man is mind boggling. Officially, there’s a short, medium, and long edit but there are various versions in between made up of various portions of footage that were cut from the master print.
The only way that EMI and British Lion thought that The Wicker Man could work was as a B picture, so they cut it down to a scant 87 minutes and released it in England. A 99 minute version of the film was sent to Roger Corman in America who suggested that the 87 minute version be released in America. The film was restored in 1979, but somehow the 99 minute version made it onto VHS in America in the 1980s.
A “final cut” of the film was released by Studiocanal on October 13, 2013. This final version of the film runs 91 minutes long, eight minutes shorter than the director's cut.
The greatest cult film ever made
After coming to the States in the mid ‘70s, The Wicker Man took on cult status almost immediately. Horror fans who managed to see it in a theater were vocal in their love for the witchy little picture and the unhinged performance by Christopher Lee. As the film’s popularity grew in America it wasn’t until the ‘80s that The Wicker Man found a home in its home country.
In 1988 the film screened on Moviedrome, a cult movie series on the BBC, introducing an entirely new generation of people to this disturbing tale of a ritualistic murder far off the mainland. Decades after its release The Wicker Man is still a hypnotic film. The soft hues of the 35mm film, the lush score, and the twisty game that plays out on screen still calls out to viewers, beckoning to step inside its trap.
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