A Crash Course in Horror is a monthly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
When you hear somebody refer to The Wicker Man, your mind probably jumps to the absolutely terrible 2006 Nicolas Cage remake. I once attempted to watch Cage’s version and after remarking “this is awful” at least six times within 30 minutes, I gave up, looked up a highlight package on Youtube, and called it a day.
So it came as a surprise when a reader wrote a passionate message to me requesting that I watch the original, 1973 version of The Wicker Man. He reassured me that the remake absolutely butchered the original story, and asked that I pretend that it didn’t exist at all and watch its inspiration. I’m not sure that it’s possible to cleanse my memory of such an awful movie, but I went into the 70’s version with an open mind.
Spoiler alert: this version of The Wicker Man doesn’t feature any bees.
The Wicker Man is the story of a police officer being mercilessly trolled by a village full of Scottish pagans. That is not a joke, that is a true fact.
Sargeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the remote Scottish community of Summerisle in order to investigate an anonymous tip that indicated a young girl named Rowan Morrison had gone missing from the island. When he gets there, the villagers deny that Rowan ever existed in the first place. Howie decides an anonymous tip is worth more than the word of dozens of people, carries on interrogating the villagers and their leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), and delves further and further into the mystery of Rowan’s supposed disappearance.
Along with the mystery plotline, this film sets itself up as a clash between the devout Christianity of Sargeant Howie and the traditional pagan beliefs of the villagers. From a modern perspective, portraying pagans as weird sexy savages feels disrespectful, which makes it kind of awkward to watch. Yet the film takes so much inspiration from actual pagan rituals to build its atmosphere it’s hard to imagine how it could work without them.
This movie stands alone among all the horror movies I’ve watched so far. It doesn’t make use of jump scares, monsters, or a looming sense of dread. It draws its energy — and its spookiness — from pure, unadulterated weirdness.
Using pagan inspiration with a 1970’s free love twist, this film reinforces minute by minute that something is really wrong with this village. Little girls are given frogs to suck on to clear up a sore throat, the pharmacist sells jars of dried foreskin, and everybody at the pub is shot with a weird, off-angle close-up. Oh, and of course there are random orgies, naked people everywhere, and a subplot about the Sergeant’s virginity that features sexy dancing. Thanks, the 70’s!
While I found it so far removed from my concept of horror as a genre, I was actually quite impressed by how unsettling the film managed to be as a pure result of its weirdness.
From a technical standpoint, this film is quite interesting. Shots are frequently filmed at odd angles, and closeups are uncomfortably close, making the whole movie seem like a bizarre dream. The camera lingers on details that you might never notice, like an eye painted on the side of a boat, or an egg in a woman’s hand. You’re left to wonder if the details are significant, or if it’s all a ploy by filmmakers trying to lead you off the track of the real mystery at hand.
The sound suffers from the era it was recorded in. It’s obvious that some scenes are dubbed over, and some dialogue was recorded while the set was far too noisy, with people moving and talking in the background. Still, for a film made in the 1970’s, and particularly one that’s this bizarre, the sound cues are pleasantly subtle, and the music — which features a lot of folk song and bar tunes — feels appropriate to the setting and is pleasant to listen to for its own sake.
Speaking of things that are subtle, where Nicolas Cage unhinges his jaw and gnaws his way through the scenery of the remake, Woodward reacts to strange sights with barely a frown. Sergeant Howie’s righteous fury towards the heathen villagers slowly builds up as if it were a kettle put on to boil, and not until the film’s final moments does he truly grow unhinged — and by then you can’t really blame him. It’s a pitch-perfect piece of acting.
Having said that, the true star of The Wicker Man is the late Sir Christopher Lee, who apparently considered this the best film he’d ever been a part of. Not surprising, because he gives a delightful performance as Lord Summerisle, who is the most wise-cracking easygoing person you will ever see basically leading a cult. Whether he’s trading barbs with the Sergeant while lounging in his taxidermy-filled mansion, taking a stroll through his garden, or frolicking through town in a slinky purple dress, Lee sells his performance completely. Bonus points for looking super cute in a dress — somebody in costuming really knew what style would suit him.
Three different cuts of this film have been released: the theatrical version, an extended edition, and a modified extended edition released in 2013 (which is the version I got my hands on). It’s obvious that fans of this movie are still watching it and loving it so many years later, and I can understand why.
Unfortunately, watching this film for the first time 40 years later feels like doing it a disservice. It’s so much a product of its time that I couldn’t entirely take it at face value. Every so often I’d be driven out of the story with an “oh hello, the 1970’s” moment. Still, I think it was well-made, and its method of finding horror in surrealism is effective and makes it something truly special.
So while I wouldn’t say it was the scariest film I’d seen so far, The Wicker Man is a horror film that deserves to be seen and appreciated by the masses. It’s a shame it will probably always be less famous than its abysmal remake.Buy it here!
A Crash Course in Horror updates on every third Saturday of the month. The March update is due on March 19th! If you want to help pick the horror classic I review, just leave a comment below with your suggestion or find me on Twitter (@NoemiPOM)!