FEATURE: Shocktober - The Wicker Man (The Final Cut - 1973)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Sort of spoilers here, I guess.

The Wicker Man is a horror so successful and so universally admired that it's near impossible to think that someone hasn't seen it. Until today, I hadn't, but it struck me as I set up the film that there was very little about it that I didn't already know. The infamous ending is well-known and appears regularly on Horror's Scariest Scenes-type lists, Britt Ekland's jiggling bum is likewise a prominent fixture in discussion and the film's even had its own remake (which I flat out refuse to believe was intended as anything other than a comedy). Yet these thoughts also came with a hint of doubt; could The Wicker Man still have any power over me if I already know what's going to happen to poor old Edward Woodward?

Put simply, yes. That would make for a very short article however.

I realised something very early in the film, pretty much at the point Detective Sergeant Howie, Woodward's character, walks into the pub and they all stop talking to stare at him. Even without knowledge of the ending, it was clear this was never going to end happily. He's too alien, too rigid in his ways and too intent on imposing his own order on this community that doesn't want or arguably need it. Woodward's performance is, as expected, pitch perfect as Howie goes through every torment they can throw at him. It's always a difficult balance to strike as the odd one out in an ensemble and it's something that a good horror can rely on, like Deborah Kerr's performance in The Innocents for example. 

The Wicker Man's horror is easy to buy into because local traditions are weird. Regardless of their origin, pagan/Christian whatever they may be, a place has its own stories, its own rituals and ways. I come from a town famous for selling their town bible to buy a new bear for the bear-baiting. When I was in primary school, we learnt about it and there's even a folk song we all learnt to sing for the Mayor. Now to anyone who doesn't grow up in that town, it's a bit weird that we celebrate this at all, but there is bear iconography throughout the town, from the local rugby club to its Beartown nickname. The bear tale may be nowhere near as sinister as what goes on on Summerisle, but it too is defined by the heritage and traditions of its community.

The songs are a huge part of that, a combination of folk music and nursery rhymes, as well as the traditions like the costumes and the May Pole dancing (something which I have had to do and yes, it is every bit as weird and awkward as it looks with a high risk of strangulation at the hands of some unwitting 6 year old who doesn't know when to lower the ribbon). Their religious iconography is everywhere and they practice it with the freedom that comes with living in a place so remote from any form of society. When Howie barges in questioning everything, refusing to join in and generally getting quite belligerent, the community shuts him out at every turn. It's only right at the very end you realise how far everything has been designed. Chaos might look like the order of the day, but that's just a carefully constructed illusion crafted to draw him in.

What starts off as a seemingly ordinary missing persons case becomes something steadily stranger and sinister, guided by the assured hand of Christopher Lee. The escalation of the events towards the end of the film is almost overwhelming as everyone dons their costumes and the May Day rituals begin. Baa Baa Black Sheep and the Oranges & Lemons game will never be quite the same again. And somehow, knowing what was coming made everything that bit worse. By the end, I was practically ready to yell at Howie to run away and forget all about the missing girl. The tension mounts beautifully and the chilling ending is still unmatched.

As the film ended, I realised that despite seeing the clip of the actual wicker man so many times before, out of context it has no power. I wasn't afraid at all on a visceral level watching those clip shows, but watching The Wicker Man as a whole, that ending is the payoff for the general doom laden atmosphere. It's brutal and sinister and still very, very frightening.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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