A folk horror with hair-raising making-of tales of its own, The Wicker Man is a reminder that great art rarely comes easily. A grim winter shoot, a battle in the editing suite, an unsupportive studio and original film cans that were famously rumoured to be buried beneath the M4 motorway – you’d have got the longest of odds that it’d be back in cinemas half a century later to dazzle fans afresh.
But while the movie gods did not smile on it in 1972, when it was filmed, and 1973, when it came out to mixed reviews and half-empty cinemas, the past 50 years have seen it rightly hailed as a definitively classic – not just a high-water mark of folk horror, the genre it helped birth, but of British cinema. It was originally released as the undercard on a double-bill with legendary filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. What a week that was at the cinema.
Inexperienced director Robin Hardy, best known at the time as a director of ads, infuses Anthony Shaffer’s ingenious screenplay (adapted from David Pinner's 1967 novel ‘Ritual’) with a gathering sense of unease. The Wicker Man is deeply unsettling long before those still-remarkable final moments, as Edward Woodward’s devoutly Christian policeman, Sergeant Howie, is lured to a remote Hebridean island by news of a missing girl and then trapped by the sybaritic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, never better) in a seemingly ordinary community that acts as a pagan hive mind plotting his demise.
This 91-minute 4K ‘final cut’, shorter than the director's cut but longer than the original theatrical release, is the strongest version, paring back the early exposition and deepening the mystery. Woodward’s brilliantly measured performance tells you everything you need to know about this buttoned-up policeman and his inner turmoils – it’s all there in his furious forging of an improvised cross to ‘reclaim’ a derelict altar from pagans, and in his tortured response to Britt Ekland’s siren song – and the balance of narrative logic to uncanny mystery is perfectly struck.
It’s a high-water mark, not just of horror but British cinema itself
Hardy never went on to match the heights of The Wicker Man, but his film’s myriad undercurrents remain alive and meaningful. Britain is a much more secular society than in 1973, so Howie’s role as a defender of the faith against ancient superstitions resonates less powerfully. Instead, the invisible power structures of a cult and the mad theories that can spring up in isolation – Summerisle would, no doubt be a hotbed of anti-vaxxers – spawn a very modern-feeling air of anxiety.
Here, law, religion and reason aren’t just fragile in the face of an ageless belief system, they’re stratas of a society layered on the same system, and it’s terrifying to see what happens when they’re robbed of their power. There is, suggests The Wicker Man, something ancient, primal and dangerous lurking below all our pretence at sophistication and modernity. Perhaps it makes a strange kind of sense that it ended up buried beneath the M4 after all?
In UK cinemas now. Available as a five-disc 4K collector’s edition on Sep 4.