Film / The Wicker Man (1973)

Robin Hardy's seminal suspense/horror/folk musical film, with Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie.

It is generally considered to be an influential Cult Classic within the horror film genre. It was remade in 2006 to significantly less acclaim.

In 2011, Hardy released The Wicker Tree, a companion piece of sorts based on his novel Cowboys for Christ, with Lee appearing in a cameo (but not, as some have reported, as Lord Summerisle). Hardy was attempting to film a third and final installment in a Wicker Man trilogy - The Wrath of the Gods. A massive flop of an Indiegogo campaign in Summer 2015 (raising only $8,318 of a goal of $210,000) didn't help matters, and Hardy's death on July 1, 2016 may have completely ended hopes of completing the trilogy.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Lord Summerisle. Possibly subverted. It's never clear whether Summerisle actually believes the religion of his island, or is just playing along to keep his subjects in line. If the former, he may genuinely believe the sacrifice is necessary for the harvest. And he tries to soothe his intended sacrifice:
    Howie: I am a Christian. And as a Christian I hope for resurrection. And even as if you kill me now, It is I who will live again, not your damned apples! [The Villagers prepare him for sacrifice] No matter what you do, you can't change the fact that I believe in Life Eternal, as promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. I BELIEVE IN THE LIFE ETERNAL AS PROMISED BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST!
    Lord Summerisle: That is good. For believing what you do, we confer on you a rare gift these days: A martyr's death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect. Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
  • Anti-Hero: A very interesting take on it, too. It seems Howie is an upstanding, responsible policeman trying to find a young girl at least at first, but as the film goes on, he begins to show an uglier side; that of a preachy, Christian religious bigot and Jerkass who dislikes the islanders for being pagans. That is, murderous, perverted, two-faced pagans who wind up killing him.
  • Anti-Villain: The islanders genuinely believe their acts are necessary to save the next harvest.
  • Arcadia: Summerisle sees itself as this (with a neopagan twist), but even before we learn the Dark Secret, we know something's definitely off about the place.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Lord Summerisle again.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Howie can only hear Willow's song, not see her, but he's still tempted. Magic may be involved.
  • Artistic License: In the Director's Cut, Howie receives the anonymous letter on a Sunday. As in the United States, no mail delivery occurs on a Sunday in the UK.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Though thanks to Howie's final speech, only till the apple harvest fails again. If you look at it that way (see Taking You with Me further down), you could say that Howie was the real winner. It could also be argued that from Howie's perspective he won, since Christianity teaches that a principled defeat counts as a victory.
  • Bad Liar: It is really, really obvious that the villagers of Summerisle are concealing information. Maybe they're fundamentally honest people who aren't used to this sort of thing, or maybe it's all part of the plan, intended to make Howie suspicious and keep him investigating. Probably a mixture of both.
  • Batman Gambit: Lord Summerisle's plan is very complex and relies on expertly manipulating Howie. It works spectacularly well, earning Summerisle's status as both The Chessmaster and Manipulative Bastard.
  • Bawdy Song: The customers at a pub engage in a lusty rendition of "The Landlord's Daughter", to the annoyance of the straight-laced protagonist and the amusement of Willow, the Really Gets Around daughter of the pub's landlord. As Christopher Lee said in the DVD Commentary, it's a good song for when you've got a pint in your hand.
    • "Gently Johnny" may just be the sweetest, gentlest, most romantic bawdy song you've ever heard. It is also based on a very old song, but is much more explicit than the version commonly sung.
    • And then there's Christopher Lee and Diane Cilento dueting The Tinker of Rye, an absolutely filthy song about a tinker fixing a woman's kettle. The fact that they are both in full evening dress, and Lee is playing the melody for the song on a grand piano just add to the hilarity.
  • Better by a Different Name: Because of Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt and Willow some like to name this "The greatest Hammer Horror that wasn't made by the Hammer Studio".
  • Body Double: Britt Eklund had one intercut with her during "Willow's Song", thanks to Executive Meddling. Eklund found it both annoying and amusing that people would have her autograph a photo of her double.
  • Book Ends: The Final Cut begins and ends with an religious ceremony (and Howie sings "The Lord's My Shepherd" at both of them).
  • But I Would Really Enjoy It: Howie doesn't believe in sex before marriage, and is therefore still a virgin. Willow does her best to seduce him and fails, though Howie is literally trembling with desire.
  • Camp Straight: The innkeeper, played by gay mime artist Lindsay Kemp.
  • Captain Obvious: During the scene where Howie is in a classroom:
    Howie: "I am a police officer. (laughs at it a bit) As you can see."
  • Celibate Hero: Howie, as a conservative Christian and bachelor who doesn't believe in sex outside marriage. He's sorely tempted during the film however.
  • Creepy Child: All of them, really, but Daisy Pringle in particular.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Lord Summerisle.
    Howie: But they are... are naked!
    Summerisle: Naturally, it's far too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on!
  • Corrupt Hick: Almost everyone on Summerisle.
  • Corrupt Church: "Since it is no longer used for Christian worship, whether it is still a church is debatable."
  • Crapsaccharine World: Summerisle
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Robin Hardy plays the preacher in the scene in the church in the film's opening minutes. This is one of the major parts of the film cut from the theatrical release, but is available on the uncut (full 102-minute film) and middle (typically, 92 to 95 minutes) versions.
    • Anthony Shaffer is one of the villagers who surround Howie on the clifftop at the beginning of the film's climax.
    • The film's music composer, New Yorker Paul Giovanni, and musical director, Gary Carpenter, make several appearances throughout the film, playing instruments along with the other members of the band formed specifically for this movie, Magnet. Carpenter is the one playing the lyre during the climax, when Howie is stripped and anointed by Willow and the Librarian. Carpenter says during filming one day, Giovanni suggested the band try marijuana. The band were so high, they couldn't play their instruments.
  • Credits Gag: The director's and theatrical cuts open with a title card reading the following:
    "The Producer [Peter Snell] would like to thank The Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation [sic] in the making of this film."
    • This is despite the fact that the film is never actually presented as a mockumentary, though it contains a lot of hand-held camera shots.
    • The "middle" version (released in 2013 as The Wicker Man: The Final Cut) opens with a time card reading, "Sunday - The 29th of April 1973". This leads into the church scene on the mainland.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Lord Summerisle dresses as a woman for the May Day parade.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: An incredibly famous one; see also It Was His Sled.
  • Cue Card: In the climax, Edward Woodward used one for his lines. Looking at this photo, it seems Christopher Lee used it, as well. Woodward and the prop department opted to use the card, because the burning of the wicker man had to be shot when the weather was good, and he had yet to really learn Howie's lines for the scene. According to director Robin Hardy, the climax was shot on a day late in the year when the weather was getting progressively worse day-by-day.
  • Cult: The pagan sect on the island was started almost by accident by Lord Summerisle's grandfather, and then continued by his children.
  • Daylight Horror: Many of the events in the movie take place during the day, with the climax happening at dusk. It lets the audience admire the Scenery Porn and also makes the bizarre behavior of the townspeople even more unsettling.
  • Dark Reprise: Howie's reprise of the 23rd Psalm as counterpoint to the townsfolk's "Sumer is Icumen In" at the film's climax.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lord Summerisle quite often.
  • Death by Sex: Inverted. The pious virgin is killed, and losing his virginity just might have made him an unacceptable sacrifice.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The lion's share of the movie's creepiness comprises of this.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: "Now you can wrap it up any way you like, but you are about to commit murder."
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Howie of course.
  • Double Entendre:
    • The song Willow sings to seduce Howie is almost nothing but these.
    ''How a maid can milk a bull!.... And every stroke a bucket full."note 
    • Likewise "The Landlord's Daughter" song.
    And, when her name is mentioned...The parts of every gentleman...Do stand up at attention.
  • Enthralling Siren: A case of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane when Willow dances naked in the room next to Howie's, slapping the wall between them and singing to him. The staunchly Christian Howie is literally trembling with desire, but doesn't succumb.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Blonde hair certainly seems to be a requirement for a female leadership role on Summerisle.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Christopher Lee is in this movie.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Takes place over about 48 hours.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Rather hammily averted at first by Howie ("OH MY GOOOOOD!") but once the fire is actually lit, played straight, as Howie accepts his death and prays for his soul to go to Heaven.
  • Faceless Goons: "Take those masks off!"
  • Fake Shemp: Britt Ekland would only agree to shoot her nude scenes from the waist up. A body double was secretly used for the naked rear shots of Willow dancing. The scenes were filmed after she had left the set. After shooting was over, not only was Ekland furious to learn she had been doubled in some shots but that she was also a few weeks pregnant in that scene.
  • Fanservice: Would you like to watch Britt Ekland dance naked? Don't get too excited, since the butt shots are a body double. To Ekland's disgust, people are forever asking her to autograph stills of that one particular scene. She has to patiently explain to them that it isn't actually her.
  • A Fête Worse Than Death: The climax occurs during the May Day celebrations.
  • Filk Song: Bruce Dickinson's "Wicker Man" (the one he co-wrote after rejoining Iron Maiden - quoted in the caption above - less so)
  • Foregone Conclusion: It's right there in the title.
    • Even worse, the original poster for the British theatrical release showed the structure itself on the hill where it stood. This angered Shaffer and Hardy, the latter of whom compared it to a poster of Psycho telling people "Norman Bates's mother is actually Norman himself."
    • Or this VHS artwork, which may as well just say, "Don't buy this film; you are looking the ending square in the face."
  • For the Evulz:
    • The only possible explanation for Daisy's beetle-abuse.
    • That, or it's a symbol of Howie's fate: the closer he gets to the answer of where Rowan is (i.e. the more he goes around the nail), the more entangled he is and the more difficult it is for him to escape.
  • Gambit Roulette: Summerisle's plan to trick Sgt. Howie into coming to the island of his own free will and stay until May Day so they can sacrifice him. There's a lot of chance in this plan and a lot can go wrong.
  • Genre-Busting: Is it a crime movie? A horror movie? A mystery? A fantasy movie? You can even argue that it's a Musical, if you're so inclined... or an excuse (albeit a good one) for Fanservice.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Howie, whatever you think of his blustery self-righteousness, is genuinely trying to be a good police officer and save a child's life. The villagers with the possible exception of Lord Summerisle, however creeped out you may be by their practices, genuinely believe that they are saving their harvest.
  • Hand of Glory: A Hand of Glory is placed next to Howie's bedside whilst he sleeps in an effort to make him sleep through the May Day celebrations. Or at least that's what they want him to think.
  • The Hero Dies: Howie himself at the end.
  • Holier Than Thou: Sgt. Howie's behavior is, depending on interpretation, either that of a sanctimonious prude, that of a deeply honourable and upright officer motivated by his faith or both.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: The movie is set at May Day. Although, according to the calendar in the chemist's, it is a Tuesday. Just not a normal Tuesday.
  • Hot Librarian: Played by Hammer Horror regular Ingrid Pitt.
  • Human Sacrifice: The islanders sincerely believe that Howie's death will revitalise their crops.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After failing to start his plane or find Rowan, Howie returns to the Green Man for a "big glass of whisky."
  • Infodump: Lord Summerisle explaining to Howie how the island converted to paganism. But it's written in a way that reveals a lot about who he is, and introduces some important themes into the story.
  • Intercourse with You: Heyyy, hoooo, who is there?...
  • Intimate Open Shirt: It's no coincidence that Howie's pyjamas are like this during Willow's attempted seduction via song.
  • It's Always Spring: The film was shot in mainland Scotland from early October to late November 1972. Because it took place in the Spring of 1973, the film crew had to bring that season with them, gluing blossoms to trees, and, as Edward Woodward recalled, hauling in trees on trucks to be placed in certain scenes. The cold temperatures forced the actors to place ice cubes in their mouths during outdoor shooting so that their breath wouldn't be seen on camera. However, there are parts of the film where you can see Autumn leaves on the ground, so, the crew didn't completely hide the fact that it was Fall.
  • "I Want" Song: Most of the songs, except the hero's song, which is the 23rd Psalm, starting "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
  • Jerkass: Lord Summerisle, the island inhabitants, and some of Howie's co-workers from the original version's beginning and even Howie himself to an extent. Despite his affability, Lord Summerisle probably reigns supreme in this category; as the co-workers are minor, the inhabitants genuinely devout, and Howie at least genuinely wants to do the right thing. Summerisle has no real excuse.
  • Kids Are Cruel: "The little old beetle goes 'round and 'round. Always the same way, y'see, until it ends up right up tight to the nail. Poor old thing!"
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's not said whether the pagan beliefs are actually true or Howie's sacrifice will bring back their apples. Also Willow's song is shot in a very ethereal way, suggesting there could be some magic to her.
  • My Car Hates Me: Howie's hydroplane breaks down, aborting his attempt to go back and get more officers.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: When Alder MacGregor introduces his daughter Willow, the bar patrons break into a Bawdy Song about her promiscuity, which delights her and doesn't faze her father.
  • The Name Sake: The titular effigy doesn't show up until the very end.
  • Necessarily Evil: Many of the villagers are visibly disturbed at the film's climax, but still participate for fear of another crop failure.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Britt Ekland claimed that some of the animals inside the wicker man died when it was burned. Robin Hardy has repeatedly assured that the animals were in no danger; the wicker man was completely empty when it was set on fire, and fires were built in front of the animals to make sure they weren't hurt. He also said the animals were repeatedly placed in and taken out of the structure.
  • No Name Given: Lord Summerisle is only addressed by his title, with no first name shown.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent:
    • Despite the island being somewhere off the coast of Scotland, Lord Summerisle speaks with Christopher Lee's normal Received Pronunciation accent. Although being a member of the aristocracy, he was probably privately educated and had elocution lessons.
    • There's no particular reason why the Librarian speaks with a faint Polish accent, other than that she's played by Ingrid Pitt.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: There are no real "scares" to speak of, no monsters...the town and its inhabitants are just really, really creepy.
  • Novelization: In 1978, a book based on the film written by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffernote  was published in the United States, right when the film was picking up steam in America. The readers get more detail of Howie and Mary's relationship, as well as the former's interest in bird-watching. In later editions, Scottish author Allan Brown, who has written many published works about the film, including a popular behind-the-scenes book, wrote a foreword, where he argued that Howie's arguments with Summerisle have more impact on paper than they did in the film, since casting Christopher Lee made viewers automatically assume he was the villain, as he had played so many in his career already.
  • Nude Nature Dance: Towards the middle, Howie sees a group of young pregnant women dancing around a fire, nude. See Comically Missing the Point for the reaction.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • This is one of the few films where the main character can shout "Oh Jesus Christ!" and have it come across as a true, in-character Oh, Crap! moment.
    • Lord Summerisle has a nicely subtle one when Howie points out that if his own death doesn't help the next harvest, the villagers will likely conclude that only Summerisle himself will be a large enough sacrifice to satisfy their gods.
  • Path of Inspiration: Lampshaded. Lord Summerisle openly admits that his ancestor was a "Victorian freethinker" and propagated Celtic paganism among the villagers only to ensure social stability. It is strongly implied he also sees the local religion merely as a tool of control.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse:
    • But it's in a coffin.
    • Subverted in a prank a girl plays on Howie while he searches for Rowan.
  • Potty Failure: Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy were urinated on by a frightened goat sitting in the chamber above them in the wicker man while filming the climax.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Anthony Shaffer started out trying to adapt David Pinner's 1967 novel Ritual but decided it wouldn't work as a film. He took the basic concept (a puritanical police officer investigates a crime in a isolated community with a thriving pagan religion) and a few specific points (most notably a woman who attempts to seduce the cop) and built a new story around them. There's been some sniping between Pinner, Shaffer and Hardy over exactly how much The Wicker Man borrowed from Ritual. This is a good summary of the relation between the two works.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "THEY. WILL. NOT. FAIL."
  • Quirky Town: Summerisle seems like one at first, but we quickly realize it's a Town with a Dark Secret.
  • Red Herring: At first Howie suspects Rowan has been murdered, but then discovers evidence that she has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner waiting to be sacrificed. It's a trick for both the audience and Howie; the actual plan is to use Rowan as bait to lure Howie to be the sacrifice instead.
  • Religious Horror: A culture-clash of a devoutly religious Christian in a community of neo-pagans on a remote island.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why was Willow trying to seduce Howie? As a Secret Test of Character to prove he was a perfect sacrifice? If Howie caved, it would ruin the sacrifice, so was she warning him? Maybe trying to save him by ruining him for the sacrifice? Was she just genuinely attracted to him? None of these questions are answered.
  • Scenery Porn: There's plenty of gorgeous shots of the Scottish islands.
  • The Scream: "NO! For the love of God, THINK WHAT YOU'RE DOING!"
  • Secret Test of Character: Much of the eccentric behaviour of the islanders as directed by Lord Summerisle appears to be this, getting Howie to reveal his suitability as a sacrifice to the community - and presumably to the gods as well. Being temped by Willow into losing his virginity is probably the most obvious example.
  • Sex Is Evil: Well, on Summerisle it is.
  • Shameful Strip: Before he is executed, Howie gets stripped out of his clothes and put in a white tunic.
  • Sleeping with the Boss: A real-life example occurred during filming, when Anthony Shaffer walked into producer Peter Snell's hotel room one morning, and saw Snell in bed with Ingrid Pitt. Pitt was dating Rank Organisation head of exhibition George Pinches at the time, and would later marry and divorce him. Snell believes that this affair cost them a possible deal with Rank to distribute the film, which is why Pitt was cast in the first place.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Much of the soundtrack is composed entirely of cheerful folk numbers, and the finalé is set to the rousing Summer Is Icumen In.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Wicker Tree
  • Stealth Pun: Since the rest of the score is acoustic folk, "Cave Chase", an electric rock and roll instrumental that plays as Howie is chasing villagers through a cave near the end of the film, stands out. According to score composer/arranger Paul Giovanni, this was meant as a pun on "rock music".
  • Stout Strength: Oak. Howie may look more fit, but he doesn't have a chance. The rest of the crowd can just stand around and watch. Hinted at early on in the inn, when we see Oak carrying a grown man around on his shoulders for fun.
  • Taking You with Me: Howie points out that if his sacrifice doesn't bring back the crops, only Lord Summerisle will be a suitable sacrifice next year. Summerisle's reaction shows that it briefly hits home before he declares that the crops won't fail; even if he doesn't believe in the island's gods, the rest of the island certainly does!
  • Tap on the Head: When Howie knocks out MacGregor to steal his Punch costume, even though Howie clearly hits him on the hump on the back of the costume.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: The islanders certainly aren't afraid to show their pagan beliefs... but they keep quiet on the whole Human Sacrifice bit.
  • Theme Naming: All the townsfolk are named for trees or plants. May Morrison gets a doubly symbolic name, with May not only being a plant (another name for hawthorn), but also a month of fertility. And when an islander dies, they plant the tree the deceased was named after on the grave, to symbolize that death is part of the cycle of life.
  • Title Drop: "Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man."
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Though Howie isn't as dumb as Edward Malus from the remake, one has to wonder why he would go investigate a missing person's case on a remote island by himself.
    • Also, in the full cut of the film, Police Constable McTaggart (John Hallam) reads aloud the letter Howie gets. The letter says that Rowan has "been missing for many months." Howie never stops to question why someone would be contacting law enforcement about this situation now if Rowan has been missing for so long (although, in dialogue cut from the film altogether, Howie acknowledges during his first meeting with May Morrison that he could have been sent on a wild goose chase - too bad he didn't think about that harder before leaving the mainland in the first place - but wanted to cover his bases).
    • Furthermore, the locals attempt to thwart his investigation the second he steps off the plane. He never even mentions backup until his first full day on Summerisle, and, on May Day itself, when he finally returns to his plane to bring more officers, he finds the locals have messed with it and his radio.
  • Troll: Starting with the letter, the people of Summerisle subject Howie to an amazingly thorough bout of trolling. They clearly know all of his Berserk Buttons and push them at exactly the right moments.
    Lord Summerisle: You came here to find Rowan Morrison, but it is we who have found you and brought you here and controlled your every thought and action since you arrived.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Willow MacGregor.
  • Unexpected Virgin: Howie. It actually becomes a plot point.
  • Urine Trouble: As the Wicker Man burned, the goat in the chamber above Edward Woodward relieved itself in terror on the actor, as well as Robin Hardy, who was in the structure with Woodward.
  • Values Dissonance: In-universe, with Howie being baffled or horrified at the islanders' pagan beliefs and the islanders being equally baffled by his Christian morality - to the extent that it becomes Blue and Orange Morality.
  • The Vamp: Invoked with Willow
  • Viewers Are Geniuses : Argued by Christopher Lee in the DVD Commentary, very shortly before the remake was announced.
    Christopher Lee: This attitude that "people wouldn't understand" is far too prevalent in cinema today. People should be able to use what's left of their minds when they watch something.
  • Virgin Power: As a staunch Christian, Howie is a firm opponent of sex before marriage and displays strength of will by keeping to his beliefs. In spite of being quite opposed to Howie's belief, the pagan residents of Summerisle also think that his purity gives him certain spiritual qualities.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Howie's virginity is one of the reasons why he's selected to be manipulated into being sacrificed for the crops.
  • Weather Saves the Day: In a What Could Have Been scenario, after reading the completed script, the studio wanted a change: a sudden thunderstorm to put out the burning Wicker Man, and save Howie's life at the last minute so that the movie could have a more positive ending. The scene was filmed as written.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Howie's fellow police officers wonder this about his fiancé.
  • Whole Plot Reference: More than a little similar to Eye of the Devil, a 1966 horror film starring David Niven about a Town with a Dark Secret, featuring a Cult that holds A Fête Worse Than Death, concluding with a Human Sacrifice to propitiate the gods in order for the failing crops to become productive again. Possibly averted, as The Wicker Man was based on a novel called Ritual—but Ritual was published the year after Eye of the Devil was released. Regardless of the inspiration, The Wicker Man is by far the better-remembered film.
  • Wicked Cultured: Exemplified by Lord Summerisle; suave, eloquent and The Chessmaster behind luring an innocent policeman to his death.
  • Wrong Insult Offence:
    Sgt. Howie: It means that you, sir, are a pagan!
    Lord Summerisle: A heathen, conceivably, but not - I hope - an unenlightened one.
  • You're Insane!: "You're all raving mad!"