Secularising Britain

The Wicker Man at 50

It’s been 50 years since The Wicker Man first shocked British audiences. The folk horror film’s quirky, disturbing qualities captivated a generation but continues to bewitch us five decades later.

Freeing the libido.

Something about sex and death on the idyllic island of Summerisle still grips us.

The Wicker Man is too often described as a cult classic. However, its influence has shaped cinema far beyond its limited run, shattering the genre conventions of its day.

Spoiler: An earnest police officer investigating a possible human sacrifice becomes the sacrifice.

Anyone who loves horror knows the final scene; many see the ending rather than the film.

I was one of those people who knew the finale before I saw the picture. So I went to see the 50th anniversary edition in June.

Over 500 hours went into restoring the recovered footage. This edition could be the closest to the ideal cut favoured by the late, great Christopher Lee.

However, fans of The Wicker Man are divided over which cut is the best.

The studio forced its director, Robin Hardy, to cut the film down to serve as the second feature in a double bill with Don’t Look Now.

It couldn’t be longer than the Donald Sutherland classic, but this culled a lot of scenes and left The Wicker Man with a feeble publicity campaign.

It was partly saved by Lee promoting it to all his contacts.

While Lee favoured the most extended possible cut, Edward Woodward always said he loved the film in all its variations. Both Lee and Woodward regarded it as their best work.

The screening was at the Prince Charles Cinema, a perfect choice for classic folk horror.

But I began my trip to Summerisle at The French House, one of the last standing refuges of Old Soho.

Charmingly cramped, The French House attracts pseudo-bohemians paying tribute to its illustrious past.

It felt apt to find a dank corner in the bar frequented by Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon.

Not in the mood for wine, I ordered a glass of Meteor and set about scribbling in my notepad. The crowd swirled around my presence, enveloping my quietude.

It was a hot day. The room was sweating while Summerisle waited.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

It’s an English film that takes place on an imaginary Scottish island. It lacks the stereotypical dour quality of Scotland, but it captures a twee English sensibility.

The Wicker Man gives voice to the clandestine eccentricity lurking in Deep England.

It’s a story of anxiety about the sexual liberation of the 1960s, defying Protestant morality.

However, the crucial concept in the film is sacrifice.

Woodward is unforgettable as the devout Sergeant Neil Howie, but Christopher Lee outshines him as the devilish Lord Summerisle, a pagan baron of misrule.

In the picture’s shocking climax, Sergeant Howie is put to death in an agonising scene of hopeless desperation. It must have been petrifying for 1973 viewers.

Howie’s demise is the death of sexual restraint in a newly permissive society.

This isn’t the only reading.

During the film’s US tour, Robin Hardy met with fundamentalist Christian leaders at prayer breakfasts to discuss the movie.

Bizarrely, The Wicker Man was well-received in the Bible Belt.

Preachers even recommended it from the pulpit, according to Hardy, despite its horny pagan content because it was seen as an accurate depiction of Christian morality.

The film takes resurrection seriously. It helped that Howie went down for his purity.

After all, Howie is lured to his death on the Hebridean island by the disappearance of an angelic little girl. He might have avoided this fate if he had just given in to temptation.

Despite the best efforts of the landlord’s buxom daughter, Howie resists and proves he is incorruptible. This is why he is chosen by the islanders to be sacrificed.

Like a Christian martyr, Howie is burnt to death for his virtues.

Of course, martyrdom isn’t just about being killed – it’s about being a moral witness. As Terry Eagleton pointed out, the word has such connotations in its origins.

Nevertheless, the ending was a profound shock for British audiences in 1973. The good guy isn’t supposed to die.

People expected a happy ending or a last-minute saviour, but The Wicker Man drags out his fate and denies you any easy illusions.

Völkisch Legacy

It’s debatable whether The Wicker Man is a true horror film.

There are no jump scares, and it lacks the suspense of typical horror narratives. It’s so disturbing precisely because it lacks tension. It doesn’t need cheap scare stunts.

Most of the scenes occur in bucolic daylight, making it more – not less – creepy.

After the film, I walked through Chinatown and Soho to The Coach & Horses, the third point of the ‘lethal triangle’ alongside The Colony Room and The French.

In the good old days, journalists would disappear into this triumvirate at noon on a work day.

Much of Old Soho is dead and gone now. The Colony Room closed down in 2008 because its owner was drowning in debt to loan sharks. Its best days were long gone.

Its decline was set in place when its owner cum artist model, Francis Bacon’s muse Muriel Belcher, died in 1979.

That was the same year Robin Hardy produced his director’s edition of The Wicker Man for US release.

Even with its lousy publicity campaign, America was entrapped just like Howie.

The Wicker Man lives on in every attempt at folk horror since the mid-1970s. It’s the prototype for acclaimed films like Midsommar, not to mention a Nicolas Cage remake.

Now that it was sufficiently late, I decided to visit the New Evaristo Club, known as Trisha’s to patrons, owned and run by the Bergonzi family since the 1940s.

This impromptu pub crawl had reached its final stop.

Not quite tumbling down the stairs, I had to negotiate my entry with a bouncer.

Trisha’s was facing a crackdown over complaints from poshos that the bar was overflowing and noisy, almost like a nightclub in Soho.

Anthony Bourdain called it “the Dean Martin of drinking establishments”. A membership used to cost £5 a year, now it’s £20  – or it’s a tenner for entry.

But this is still cheap in today’s London.

Once inside, I order a scotch and sit by the band. The bar has the feel of a speakeasy with a seedy, run-down aesthetic.

Every wall is covered in photos of famous and infamous patrons, both dead and alive.

I retreated to the smoking area to cool off, an intimate gutter-like space with a sky view.

I’m not a smoker, but it was a great spot for writing and people-watching. My mind was still in Summerisle, contemplating apples and snails.

Far from Summerisle, London is no longer shocked by human sacrifice.

The Wicker Man is a part of our imagined past when Christian morality was inviolable – until it wasn’t.

Maybe the islanders have won.

Screenshot courtesy of STUDIOCANAL UK. All rights reserved.