Summerisle's 'Wicker Man' (1973) remains a quintessential horror classic

By Moira Sullivan

Swedish actress Britt Eklund
On the idyllic Scottish islet of Summerisle, the best fruits and vegetables, livestock and crops grow. The Wicker Man is a film about this island directed by Robin Hardy based on the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner.

Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives by seaplane and in the distance, the local men reluctantly send over a dinghy so he can come ashore. The gents are rustic, provincial and salty and that goes for pretty much for all the inhabitants of this islet. Sergeant Howie is looking for a missing child - Rowan Morrison. His first stop is at the shop run by Mrs. Morrison who lives with her young daughter.

Howie helps her fill in the color for a drawing of a rabbit. "Everyone knows Rowan, silly", she says and is mostly likely playing in the field. A rabbit. This is the first of many tricks that Sergeant Howie experiences. At the local inn he is served a meal from cans - not fresh produce that the island is known for. He finds this curious as well as outside the inn when he observes several couples making out in the meadows. The local male patrons in the pub sing an off-color song about the innkeeper’s daughter, Willow played by the 31-year Swedish actress Britt Eklund. She teases the men and laughs at their songs. At night she sings a rhythmic ballad adding percussion sounds from her arms and body on the walls of the room adjacent to Howie.  “I am young and available” she sings teasing Howie who is a church going man and obedient to his marriage vows.

The island villagers live in white stone masonry and are shopkeepers and farmers - all except Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the grandson of an agronomist who lives in an expansive cluttered country manor. The 6.4-inch Lee is well suited to this role as lord of the island. His attitude like all the islanders to Howie is playful and patronizing towards this staunch moralist Christian and his sense of morality prevents him for seeing how he is the butt of their jokes.

The constable is at Summerisle to solve a crime and everyone is a suspect. The islanders ask him repeatedly to return to the mainland but his obstinacy is rock solid. Children at school are admonished to tell the truth as well as their teachers.

 The islanders practice a Celtic Wiccan earth religion based on fertility. As Howie’s pursuit increases his anger, the villagers are bent on teasing him more. Soon they prepare for the May Day events donning masks and costumes. Lord Summerisle is dressed as an androgynous figure with long hair and a long dress like tunic. Howie overhears a plot to deceive him by Willow and her father. Rowan suddenly shows up – and she is not a rabbit. The game continues with Howie the target as he has always been. In the final scenes of the film we get to learn the true meaning of Wicker Man– a huge monstrous basket housing caged livestock – and the joke turns sardonic and frightful. 

In the 2000 version – which the 1973 scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer dissociated himself from with Nicolas Cage as the officer,  is set in the Pacific northwest. Ellen Burstyn places the high priestess with a coven of women. Men are mute and docile. But although intriguing this version is not as enchanting– especially the local Gaelic and Norse songs sung on this Hebridian island in Robin Hardy's enchanting film.
© 2019- Moira Sulllivan - Air Date: 05/08/19
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