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Cult films to see before you die: The Wicker Man

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Cult films to see before you die: The Wicker Man

Here is a film shunned upon original release, which would have sunk into obscurity if not for the efforts of a few diligent champions, who evangelised to anyone who would listen. It is by no means a film for everyone, but those who love it do so with a passion.

It makes sense to start a new feature about cult movies with a focus on The Wicker Man, for it is a film that acts as a virtual definition of that nebulous term.

It is set in one of the remoter parts of Scotland; puritanical policeman Sergeant Howie – played by Edward Woodward – heads to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. But he is unprepared for what he finds there.

For Summerisle has seen a full-scale restoration of the ancient pagan ways, all fertility rites and charms (so it is a 'cult' film in more ways than one...) After nosing around, Howie concludes that young Rowan is to be sacrificed in a barbarous ritual.

To say more would be to spoil the film for those yet to see it, for there are more twists to come, as one might expect from a script written by Anthony Shaffer, author of that devious play Sleuth. But the real attraction of The Wicker Man isn't found in its ingenious plot twists.

Much of the film's appeal lies in its texture, the details with which it weaves its web. For all it was intended to be a horror film, The Wicker Man relies much more on atmosphere than cheap shots. The horror here accumulates gradually, through unease and disquiet.

Unlike most films, The Wicker Man makes it hard for us to form allegiances. Our notional hero, Howie, is hardly a likeable man: a severe, self-denying fellow who favours a reactionary interpretation of Christianity. Ranged against him are the more colourful islanders, led by Lord Summerisle himself, played by Christopher Lee.

Lee, who died recently, always said that Summerisle was his favourite role; certainly, the character is a world away from the saturnine villains he so often portrayed. Summerisle is a genial, courteous man but don't go thinking he and his clan are preferable to Howie. They are, in their own way, much worse, as Howie's investigations will eventually demonstrate.

As Howie encounters the Islanders' ancient faith, and is nearly corrupted by it, so we too are drawn in, seduced by the film's advances. Much credit should go to Paul Giovanni's evocative score, the only one he wrote for the movies; his folk music soundtrack subsequently developed a cult following of its own.

The Wicker Man is not the only film to tread this ground, to find horror lurking within the bucolic: films like The Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General cover similar terrain, perhaps highlighting  some of the anxieties of the era in which they were made, the late 1960s and early 1970s.

These were the years, of course, of the hippy dream, of utopian pastoralism and pre-industrialisation, of communes and the countryside. These films show how naïve such dreams are, showing a more nightmarish vision of tradition. Collectively, these films are sometimes labelled 'folk horror'; of them all, The Wicker Man is the most unsparing.

Perhaps that's why it met the fate it did. Once Shaffer and Hardy completed their work, they showed it to the money men. They were horrified, only not in the way the filmmakers hoped.

The full story of the film's subsequent mutilation and mistreatment is told in exhaustive detail across the extras of Studio Canal's anniversary DVD/ Blu-ray (a superlative package, by the way; one that does rare justice to the film). Suffice to say its fate was a grim one, truncated, reviled and buried. But, as we have seen, would not be disposed of so easily.

It remains unique, a darkly potent masterpiece that lingers in the mind long after the final notes of the soundtrack have faded out. Although more prominent now than ever and recognised as an authentic classic, it remains strong stuff. Too strong, perhaps, for it ever to be fully accepted in the conventional film canon: a cult film to the last.

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