Tucked away off the coast of Scotland is a quaint little island named Summerisle, a pastoral and peaceful-looking place renowned for its abundant produce. One of this Eden’s inhabitants—a 12-year-old girl—has been reported missing, which is why sergeant Neil Howie (The Equalizer’s Edward Woodward) has traveled from the mainland to investigate. Only the locals don’t take kindly to strangers asking questions round these parts, constantly playing dumb to his inquiries when they aren’t shocking the puritanical copper with their bawdy ballads and open copulation in the woods. Something odd is afoot, and not even the island’s unswayingly polite spiritual leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), can convince Howie otherwise. Maybe it has to do with the vaguely pagan vibe emanating from every corner, he guesses; we’d say you’re getting warm, Sergeant. And soon you’ll be getting even warmer….
Were Robin Hardy’s mystery nothing more than an English take on the backwoods-horror genre, it would still be one of the more paranoid films to come out of the U.K. in the early ’70s, no mean feat in itself. But it’s the way this movie keeps plying viewers with jovial acoustic folk songs one moment and creepy-as-fuck images the next—umbilical cords on tree branches, fertility rituals performed at runes and, our personal skin-crawling favorite, a woman breast-feeding in a graveyard while holding an egg—that still makes this cult film/“cult” film a truly unsettling experience decades later. Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer set out to pit a “civilized” religion against an even more ancient one, with Howie’s steadfast faith in Christianity butting up against the island’s worship of old deities—with Summerisle declaring the former to be a god who “had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.” What they end up channeling is a vision of the old, weird Britannia oozing out from the sunny facade of modern society, one that no amount of Woodward’s laughable coal-to-diamond tight-assery or Euro sexpot Britt Ekland’s ridiculous erotic dances (courtesy of a body double, as the star was several months pregnant) can make seem less eerie.
Once the movie was finished, a different type of horror was practiced by the film’s producers and distributors, the kind that involves slashing away reels of atmospheric backstory and key plot points in the name of marketing. Though this restored “final cut” is longer than the original print that played American screens back in the day, and shorter than the one that legion of The Wicker Man’s fanatics have embraced, it’s the one that Hardy himself has declared the ultimate version. Even those who prefer the original-recipe or extra-crispy takes will admit that the movie’s iconic scenes of a shock-haired Christopher Lee addressing his animal-masked flock have never looked better. More importantly, the nightmarish sense of bewilderment as the film gradually reveals what has been lurking all along has not dulled with age at all. It remains a how-to model for making something that fancies itself a slow-burn thriller—until it isn’t slow-burning whatsoever.
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Cast and crew