We tend to think of cult films as being so from the word go, but obscurity must come first. And indeed, there was a time before The Wicker Man became a cult classic. Practically disowned by the studio and distributors, released as a tag-on picture to Don’t Look Now, a budget so low that the actors had to bail it out – it’s a small wonder that there was a time when your best chance to see The Wicker Man was at 2 o’clock in the morning on the TV with no advance warning of what you were about to witness.
There’s a certain envy that stirs when one contemplates that experience: The Wicker Man without the pre-packaged myth. The grass is always greener, of course, and I should be grateful I’ve been able to see this extraordinary piece on the big screen: The Wicker Man is, like The Wolf Man, another film I’ve never actually viewed in its entirety until now. But anyone who keeps their ear to the ground of geek culture for long enough already knows the ending, which should be horrifying but now seems just tiresomely inevitable. It’s sadly ironic that a film once nearly driven from existence by lack of attention is now the victim of its own success. Assessing The Wicker Man in a different context, that in which it was created, gives you an idea of how excellent it was and how watching it is still a worthwhile exercise.
This context is best conjured by considering the casting of Christopher Lee. Though I admire Lee and his co-star Peter Cushing, I’ve never felt much of a connection with the Hammer Draculas or Hammer in general; with a few impressive exceptions, they’re mainly enjoyed as quaint pap, a reminder of just how culturally conservative Britain must have been if such grossly inoffensive material could have caused such controversy. (Compare them to what Jess Franco, say, was doing at around about the same time, and this will become brutally apparent.) Lee is correct to consider The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle his finest role and this his finest film, because it is here and almost only here he is permitted to express the full range of his camp genius (although, a shout must go out to The Return of Captain Invincible). He is equal parts menacing and ridiculous, polite and posturing, and in this way the closest thing to a beating heart the film has.
I say the closest thing, because this feels like a film of absences – fitting considering the set-up is a missing girl. There’s a protagonist, in Edward Woodward’s suitably stiff Sergeant Howie, but no hero. Though we sympathise with Howie, it’s difficult not to squirm at his puritanical demands that the locals behave in a good and Christian manner. By portraying Howie as colonial incursion, The Wicker Man maneuvers us into complicity with the antagonists. But we’re never in any doubt that these locals are little more than another brand of religious thug, and so the film never quite operates on the level of sending up the dour Scotsman, either. To whom do we turn?
Not, as it happens, to Lord Summerisle, who most interpretations have down as either as batshit insane as his followers, taken in wholly by his own mythology, or a ruthless exploiter of the people who sacrifices Howie to the islanders to divert attention away from his own failure. He’s actually neither, nor are the islanders crazy. A standard anthropological analysis of religion marks it social, not individual; tribal, not epistemological. Though the paganism portrayed in The Wicker Man has little basis in fact, it gets this exactly right: it’s not that the islanders believe that human sacrifice will improve their crops, but are on some level aware that the starkness of the ritual is necessary for their social cohesion after the crop failure. That’s the scariest part: they don’t care that Howie has to die. Howie, conversely lacking brethren, is wrong-footed and disempowered by being the only Christian on the island, and is forced to confront the cold (or, as it turns out, rather hot) reality of Christ’s death: that in the end, He was alone.
Not having seen the film before, I’m unable to tell you much about whether the newly discovered material improves the picture or not. I can though say that, on the technical side, some of the lighting is questionable and the editing dodgy. The interiors are flat and give little sense of space, and the outdoor scenes are just about saved by the attractive landscape. It all just about hangs together, and indeed the lack of veneer alongside the folksy singing and rustic cottages contributes to a mood that is some hideous hybrid of charm and dread, of quaint and deadly. It almost feels like Hammer having passed through adolescence with the guidance of psychedelics, except that no amount of mind-altering substance could have lent this much wit to, say, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave: The Wicker Man has roughly the same relationship to Hammer as psych-folk has to Led Zeppelin.