Its geography is stark, rugged and eerily inviting, its characters are sickly happy and lying through their teeth and its narrative is immersive and questioning to the point where its finale is deeply affecting and horrifying. It’s a crying shame that viewers of The Wicker Man (1973) will never fully see the film as its director intended. Having been slashed to bits by the studio and then had its cuts supposedly destroyed, it seemed unlikely that fans or general filmgoers would be able to witness the full cut of Robin Hardy’s defining folk horror. A recent discovery of a more complete print, albeit with the excised segments of a somewhat battered quality, means that in its 40th anniversary year, the fullest version possible of the film can be seen for the first time since the 1970s.
Of course, The Wicker Man comes with a certain amount of baggage. It is the definitive cult film partly down to Alex Cox’s introduction to it in its 1990’s screening on Moviedrome. It’s a genre film which, for some reason, instantly allows it entry into the pen of cult films but its genre is somewhat odd. Of course, down to its bare bones, The Wicker Man is a horror yet it’s not until the final ten minutes of the film that it becomes so. Anthony Schaffer, the film’s writer, simply isn’t a horror writer; he fits more comfortably under a thriller banner. He’s re-written several Agatha Christie novels for film, but mostly famously penned Sleuth (1972) and Frenzy (1972).
Where The Wicker Man does become definitive is in its solidifying of the folk horror sub-genre. This genre is a strange amalgamation of aesthetics and ideas, sometimes seeming to be almost unobvious in its existence. Yet, when having viewed a number of folk horror films, there seems to be something unspoken that connects them all. It’s almost otherworldly. The Wicker Man was by no means the first of its kind but its strong imagery, which itself sums up pretty much every aspect of the sub-genre, means that it has come to define it. Exploring these aspects in detail lends well to understanding the success of Hardy’s film.
Tradition as a Basis for fear.
Even from the first folk horror, the idea of horror and fear being born out of tradition and folklore has been at the forefront. It gives the sub-genre its name, contrary almost to the notion that it came about during the counter-culture movement of late 1960s and early 1970s. Tracing back through silent film, the very beginnings of the genre can be seen in early horror works such as Häxan: a History of Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922), The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Der Golum (1920). All of these films use folklore as the basis for their horror and can be seen as the first handful of folk horror films.
The Wicker Man looks to more ambiguous traditions for its horror. The tradition of Christianity and the pagan religions seemingly polar to it are the routes taken in the film. While the central mystery seems to stem initially from a Whodunit type scenario, as our protagonist Sgt Howie (Edward Woodwood) gets deeper to the heart of the mystery, the traditions are what bind the film’s narrative together. The whole of the horror found within the film is born from the seemingly traditional beliefs of the islanders.
Not that overtly sexual paganism is traditional, but its basis in an almost historic form gives rise to the happenings within the film. Tradition, in the sense of countryside practice is also visually manifested in the likes of may-pole style dancing and even the wicker man itself; an image that instantly brings to mind rural and traditional ways of life from an older, more Chaucer-esque England.
Isolated Communities and the Devil’s Idle Work.
The Wicker Man is one of three major Folk Horrors that tend to represent the movement. All three present very similar aspects though in somewhat different ways. The narrative of Hardy’s film stems from a tradition but it is also a tradition that has bred through isolation. Most narratives within folk horror come about from communities whose traditions deform due to physical and emotional isolation in pastoral landscapes.
Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) shares this similarity with The Wicker Man in that it follows a community who gradually twist into something malevolent due to their isolation. The main difference between them is that Haggard’s film sees a supernatural element responsible for chaos whereas Hardy’s film shows the evil and madness as a casual by-product of an isolated belief. Like in so many other folk horror films, supernatural and occult forces take over people and communities (Cry of the Banshee (1970), The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Virgin Witch (1972), Twins of Evil (1971) etc). The films can almost handily be split into whether the evil stems from demons or from within people themselves. Both of these criteria however are almost always affected by their isolation and their staunch beliefs in tradition.
A better tie in to The Wicker Man would be another film on the Tigon film label (perhaps the folk horror production company). Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) (the other long heralded folk horror in the trio) sees atrocities occur in the countryside at the hands of Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins. Their brutal witch hunts seem a product of their placement in the vast, open countryside, tying in the brutal torture with their own trapped psyches. It’s hard to imagine the character’s primitive beliefs being possible when in a city of the same time (the film is set in the civil war). The isolation however doesn’t necessarily need to be within the country as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) goes to show.
The Wicker Man also presents a belief system that seems impossible to comprehend outside of its Summerisle setting. British horror cinema has often reflected the typical island attitude found in the countryside of our shores but folk horror manages to use it to its own unnerving ends, creating monstrous religions and ideologies for the gentle folk communities.
Landscape and Music.
Though not entirely essential (especially when the genre leans towards more town based narratives such as Night of the Demon (1957) and Night of the Eagle (1962)) the British landscape has become a powerful tool of the folk horror. It causes the previously discussed isolation but it also contrasts the horrific happenings with beautiful scenery. The Wicker Man is a great example of this as are most of the other folk horror films mentioned. There’s something rather eerie to be found within the British (and especially the English) countryside which can be used to brilliant effects. It can be seen in David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village (1975) amongst others but the emphasis on landscape can be seen best within the folk horror of television.
With serials like the BBC Ghost Stories, The Stone Tape (1972), Children of the Stones (1977), The Owl Service (1969) and even Doctor Who (specifically in stories such as The Daemons (1971), The Image of Fendahl (1977) and The Stones of Blood (1978)) landscape is used in similar ways to Hardy’s film which instantly manages to define a whole range of media from a generation of film and television. Hardy’s film also manages to traverse one of the genuine misnomer’s of the sub-genre too; that folk horror uses folk music within its score.
Perhaps it is a mistake due to its timing and name, but folk horror very rarely used the sort of folk music found in the albums of Nick Drake, Pentangle or Steeleye Span. The Wicker Man is one of the few to actually incorporate this element into its score with a magnificent score and set of songs by Paul Giovanni. The lyrical ties found within these songs are beyond witty, telling the viewer as much about the story as the visuals.
The Wicker Man can therefore be seen as the signpost of a dying generation of thought. The counterculture movement was on its last legs with only a handful of films left to fight the good fight (including Kevin Brownlow’s excellent Winstanley (1976)) but Hardy’s film is more than simply a summation of the ideals floating about at the time. It’s also more than just a cult film, more than Britt Ekland’s dancing scene and more than an inwards looking B-picture (of which it technically was, playing underneath Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)). It’s the poster-boy of an entire catalogue of film, television and literature, providing a set number of criteria that, though not always followed by the films before it and after it, came to represent a whole innovative, unnerving and intelligent sub-genre.
The new cut of The Wicker Man is screening at FACT from the 4th of October.