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The unforgettable pyre: How The Wicker Man changed the face of horror

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n December 1973, Christopher Lee picked up the phone and did a ring around of his favourite film critics. Lee’s thunderous voice was the perfect delivery mechanism for heroic speeches and unholy invocations. But now he called not to grandstand but, essentially, beg. Would the reviewers please consider attending a screening of his new movie?  

“No press show… no publicity,” Lee later lamented. “I rang all the film critics I knew and I said, ‘will you do me a favour – and I will pay for your seat – will you see this film that’s on now?’ Nobody asked me to pay for their seats. They went as individuals, they paid for their own. And the acclaim was virtually unanimous.”  

The movie was an oddball horror called The Wicker Man. It was about a puritanical policeman (Edward Woodward) who travels to a remote (and entirely fictional) Scottish island in the Hebrides to investigate the case of a missing child. Instead he discovers a town of merry pagans, led by Lee’s Lord Summerisle.  

There’s a twist, one of the most haunting in cinema. Sergeant Neil Howie has been lured to Summerisle as a human sacrifice to appease the sun god “Nuada” and is finally burnt alive inside the titular wickerwork goliath. As the flames climb higher and higher, howling Howie is serenaded by Summerisle and his flock, their voices rising gleefully into the air to mingle with the smoke and the sergeant’s screams.

The Wicker Man looms as among the most influential British films of the past 50 years. Another reminder of its significance arrives tomorrow with new Sky Atlantic series The Third Day, set on an island off the British coast where pre-Christian gods are worshipped and things go bump in the night (and during the day). With a cast headed by Jude Law, Naomi Harris, Emily Watson and Paddy Considine, it is essentially “Wicker Man: the Prestige TV Edition”.  

Jude Law in ‘The Third Day’(Sky)

The Wicker Man’s longevity is in large part due to its eccentricity – a quality that has prevented it from ageing and indeed located it entirely outside the continuum of British cinema. There have been many copycats, and a disastrous 2006 American remake with Nicholas Cage. But nothing since has rivalled its giddy, almost twee, otherworldliness.  

For a horror film, it breaks all the rules. There is singing, choreography and – in a later cut – footage of snails engaged in a mating dance. Even in 1973, when the last vestiges of the hippy dream lingered, this was all deeply bonkers. Unsurprisingly, more than a few of those entangled in the project were convinced they were headed for disaster.

British Lion, the studio which had bankrolled The Wicker Man, wanted to bury it (hence the lack of a press screening – and Lee’s urgent phone calls to critics). The director, Robin Hardy, was in the process of having a huge falling out with its writer Anthony Shaffer (who’d had a hit with the play Sleuth) and production designer Seamus Flannery. Plastic apple blossom trees had to be procured to conceal the fact a film ostensibly set in spring was being shot in deepest November. Its biggest star, Britt Ekland, hated every moment on set.  

“People were not really nice to each other,” she told The Independent in 2001. “It was every man for himself. And if you cheat and lie to people, it creates ill feeling all around.”

By the time The Wicker Man finally saw daylight in late 1973 – as an unlikely double bill with Nicholas Roeg’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now – only Lee’s passion was keeping the film going. That enthusiasm never flagged. In the summer of 1975, he paid his own way to travel to America to publicise the US release. There he embarked on a tireless pilgrim’s progress of the local TV circuit, from Baton Rouge to Boise, Idaho. The Wicker Man would leave him significantly out of pocket.  

“I got paid nothing. I keep repeating to people and they don’t believe it’s true,” he said in 2001 documentary The Wicker Man Enigma. “If they paid me my normal fee – and everyone else their normal fees – they wouldn’t have been able to make the film.”

All these decades on, Lee’s belief has been vindicated many times over. As he sensed from the moment he slipped on Lord Summerisle’s Alan Partridge-esque sports jacket, this was a classic in the making. But it casts a shadow not simply as a great Seventies horror flick. Along with old public information videos and eerie Seventies shows such as Children of the Stones, The Wicker Man and Paul Giovanni’s unsettling folk score are a foundational block of the “Hauntology” movement.  

Edward Woodward in ‘The Wicker Man’(Rex)

Loosely defined, Hauntology is a nostalgia for the half-remembered ephemera of the Sixties and Seventies. So there is some of The Wicker Man’s DNA in the ghostly soundscapes of avant garde Scottish electro duo Boards of Canada and in the “New Weird” folk scene, where psychedelia with spooky undertones is a specialty (examples of bands include Woven Skull and The Owl Service). Music that, in other words, could have easily slotted into the soundtrack to The Wicker Man.  

Its impact has, in addition, spread to literature. Max Porter’s recent novel Lanny, for instance, builds on The Wicker Man by drilling into the rural British psychosphere and drawing a connection between present day social strife and the country’s dimly remembered pre-Christian past.  

“The soundtrack is really unusual,” says David Colohan of “new weird” band United Bible Studies, whose music is influenced by Giovanni’s Wicker Man score, which he recorded with the group Magnet (assembled especially for the project). “It is an American songwriter heading a group of British musicians working with Middle English chants, rowdy pub singalongs, erotic ballads, psychedelic guitar solos and creepy nurses rhymes.”

The Wicker Man also spawned its own genre of the English uncanny. The idea of Britain as full of weird little communities, with their customs and their secrets, can be traced back to the shores of Summerisle. Without The Wicker Man there would be no League of Gentleman (the Edward half of the Edward and Tubbs duo is Reece Shearsmith’s homage to Lee). Even Broadchurch carries some of that haunting sense of the jarring bleeding into the everyday.  

The idea of paganism as a bulwark against the corruption forces of modernity can also be traced in part back to The Wicker Man. There are clearly echoes of The Wicker Man in the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert (although that event’s founder, Larry Harvey, always denied an explicit debt), and in modern shockers such as Gareth Evans’s Apostle and, especially, Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Indeed the latter, with its traumatising scenes of ritualistic sacrifice unfolding in the crisp daylight, explicitly doffs its flower crown to Hardy’s masterpiece.  

Real-life wiccans tend to approve too, no matter that The Wicker Man ultimately depicts them unflatteringly via the sacrifice of Howie (a devout Christian literally consumed by a more ancient belief system). “It is rather strange that The Wicker Man, where the villains are undoubtedly the pagans, has become a cult classic in the pagan community,” says pagan blogger Jason Mankey. “A lot of that is because The Wicker Man was the first movie to portray pagans in something close to a sympathetic light. Sure, they have to sacrifice a person on May Day every once in a while. But for the most part their society feels like a rather joyous one. It also doesn’t hurt that two of the more prominent members of that society are Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland.  

Britt Ekland in ‘The Wicker Man’(Rex)

The Wicker Man was also one of the first movies to feature scenes and ideas common in modern paganism,” he continues. “There’s a bit of validation that comes from seeing yourself on the big screen, even if it’s not a completely positive portrayal. The soundtrack to the movie is also quite good, adding to the appeal. There are pagan musicians today who still play songs from the movie, just because the film remains such an important touchstone for many in our community. “

The Wicker Man is, as testified to previously, suffused in a dreamy, through-the-looking-glass ambience. As he explores Summerisle looking for missing Rowan Morrison (in reality perfectly alive and well), Howie sees a woman in a graveyard breastfeeding and holding an egg and visits a shop provisioned with chocolate hares (symbolising the “transmuted soul”). All of this is depicted matter-of-factly, with none of the traditional horror flick manipulation and melodrama. 

Given the oddness, it is fitting that the story of the film’s making has its own hall of mirrors quality. In Allan Brown’s history Inside the The Wicker Man: How Not to Make a Cult Classic, Shaffer recalls Christopher Lee approaching him in desperation. Worn down by years playing Dracula and Frankenstein, the actor craved a new challenge. “Christopher had come to me and said I’m very unhappy,” Shaffer told Brown. “I want to do a film without women who look like Barbara Windsor running up and down papier-mache corridors screaming… He wanted to do something more manly, with more originality.”

Shaffer discovered Ritual, a 1967 horror novel set in pagan Cornwall, by David Pinner. He, Lee and Peter Snell, a young Canadian producer looking to make a name for himself, each chipped in £5,000 to buy the rights. But as he set about writing the screenplay, Shaffer decided to abandon the book and essentially come up with his own original story (though some scenes in The Wicker Man clearly draw on Pinner). “The novel was bad, a fifth-rate piece of work, a bare, unrealised sketch of an idea that only hinted at the things that would later become The Wicker Man,” Giovanni, composer of the score, would elaborate to Cinefantastique.  

The biggest difference between book and film is that, in Ritual, there is no sacrificial effigy waiting to be set alight. That idea revealed itself to Shaffer as he delved into the concept of human sacrifice. “I came across the well-known picture of the druid’s wicker colossus,” he said. “It just leapt off the page.”  

It’s worth acknowledging that the Summerisle religion is a hodgepodge. “Nuada” was stolen from Irish mythology (where, far from a fertility god, he is a sort of Celtic Thor). A reference to the Salmon of Knowledge again draws on Irish folklore.  

Conversely, the fool whom Howie dresses as is a version of the Punch character from English tradition. And the sword dance ritual towards the end of the film is informed by Morris dancing. George Frazer’s 19th-century study of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough, was another inspiration. They really were tossing it all into the pot.  

Ironically, the whimsy that shimmers on screen was almost entirely absent from the shoot, which was largely in freezing Dumfries and Galloway (the climactic burning took place on Burrow Head, where the stumps of the Wicker Man stood until their removal by souvenir hunters in 2006).  

Hardy, a first-time director, felt under pressure to make the film cheaply and quickly. He fretted constantly that British Lion would wonder why it was pumping £500,000 into a weird little horror picture and pull the plug. And so he cracked the whip. Even as he did, Shaffer and Flannery began to suspect he wasn’t up to the job. “He couldn’t communicate with the crew he had assembled,” Flannery told Allan Brown . “There was no vision and no organisation … It was all rather painful. We all felt it.”  

Ekland, meanwhile, was outraged that a body double had been smuggled onto the set for her big nude scene in which she sings – actually mimes – the ghostly “Willow’s Song”. This is a test of Howie’s virginity – which must be preserved for the sacrifice the following day. She may have already been miffed her speaking lines were to be dubbed by Scottish singer and actress Annie Ross. Later it was rumoured Ekland’s boyfriend Rod Stewart tried unsuccessfully to buy all the negatives of The Wicker Man to safeguard her modesty.  

Worse was to follow when the cameras stopped rolling, as Lee discovered as he stepped into the office of British Lion’s new managing director, Michael Deeley, in 1973. Lee had come straight from a preview of The Wicker Man and was distressed to see the running time slashed to 83 minutes and many of his favourite scenes expunged (including the one where he monologues over the cavorting snails). “He sat at the desk and didn’t get up when my wife walked in – a pretty good guide to someone’s character and behaviour,” Lee would say in The Wicker Man Enigma. “He looked at me and said ‘it is one of the worst films I’d ever seen’.”

Deeley, it is worth nothing, denied those remarks. “I’ve made worse films than that myself. I thought it was fascinating and genuinely ahead of its time,” he told The Independent in 2001. “But it was also rather indulgent, and very difficult for an audience.”

The main issue may have been that Deeley was part of the new management team brought in by British Lion’s owners to prepare it for sale to EMI. His predecessor, John Bentley, had approved of The Wicker Man to signal British Lion’s commitment to indigenous cinema. “There was a general policy that you trash or abandon the films of your predecessors to show how much better you are,” said Shaffer. “Their reaction was sheer disbelief. They were used to On the Busses and Carry On .”  

The situation soon grew even more dire. The M3 motorway was by 1974 undergoing construction adjacent to British Lion’s HQ at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. In a clear-out of the complex, reels of footage from the film somehow ended in landfill beneath the new road, buried for all perpetuity. Or that was the official story. Lee had his own theory. “How do you lose or mislay two or three hundred cans of film?” he said. “My belief is that it still exists somewhere – and only a very small number of people know where.”  

Yet none of this could ultimately prevent The Wicker Man finding an audience and becoming acclaimed as one of the greatest ever horror movies. Oddly, in America it was a hit with evangelical Christians who were impressed by Howie’s stoicism and his conviction, as death looms, that he will meet his reward in the afterlife. “Hardly anything surpasses that clifftop finale for freakish terror,” wrote The Independent, in 2007, as it was re-released in cinemas (a longer “final cut” would be put out in 2015).  

Watch it today and the uncanniness remains spellbinding. It’s not just that it’s horrifying – though the climax certainly is – but that every minute of the running time is steeped in a liminal weirdness.  

Young boys dance around a maypole as a man jauntily sings “On that bed there was a girl/ And on that girl there was a man/ From that man there was a seed…” A beetle is tied to a nail inside a school desk (symbolising the fact that Howie is entrapped). Lord Summerisle frolics in his mummer’s garb on his way to sacrifice Howie. Everything is so strange and yet the inhabitants of Summerisle so joyous and free. It’s as if it never occurred that they are villains.  

“Ask yourself, ‘who are you rooting for?’” says David Colohan of United Bible Studies. “Are you rooting for Sergeant Howie – or are you rooting for the islanders? Everyone will have their own answer for that.”  

He’s absolutely correct. It is that tension between Summerisle’s sprightly devotion to the old gods and Howie’s uptight religiosity that gives The Wicker Man its power. It’s that rare horror movie where the monsters are more appealing than the hero. And that is why this weird film about death and sacrifice and renewal is destined to live forever.  

‘The Third Day’ airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 15 September at 9pm

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