In Praise Of... The Wicker Man

To mark the death of legendary British horror actor Christopher Lee, we revisit Sam Parker's argument for why the role of his life was in the greatest horror movie of all time

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During its 60s and 70s heyday, films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Halloween and Night of the Living Dead meant the horror genre was a place of genuine innovation and excitement.

Since then Hollywood has been recycling the same tropes for so long – the lunatic in the mask, the doomed teens on a road trip, the possessed children – our expectation of new horrors is that they will be riddled with clichés, and about as scary as a mug of pumpkin soup.

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There is a much-loved classic, however, that lazy filmmakers since have left curiously untouched (excluding one unmentionably atrocious remake in 2006), a film that did without the shadows and the spooky music and the body count today’s horrors come with as standard.

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, made in 1973, follows the pious Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he departs the Scottish mainland to investigate an anonymous tip off about a missing child on the remote Summer Isle.

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There, he is appalled to discover a small community in the throes of paganism – an affront to his own devout Christianity – and sets about ordering them around and denouncing them as liars and heathens.

The supporting cast and extras – many of who were untrained locals from the island where The Wicker Man was shot – are marvellously unreadable as they quietly eyeball Howie, enduring his outbursts with infuriating indifference, luring him in like a pack of spiders.

For what the Sergeant eventually realises is that he has been enticed to Summer Isle under false pretences, and that the island is planning a human sacrifice to appease their false gods – him.

The Wicker Man features one of the all-time great original movie scores, a mix of traditional folk songs, nursery rhythms and bawdy ballads that are all beautifully melodic with the smallest undercurrent of menace, giving the film its unsettling atmosphere.

It’s just one of many ways The Wicker Man deviated from the horror movie formula of its time, or any time since.

This, after all, is a horror film shot almost entirely in sunshine, where the closest thing to a bogeyman – Christopher Lee’s magnificent eccentric Lord Summerisle – prances around in beautiful orchards and sings cheerfully at a piano.

Where the protagonist is not a beautiful or noble hero doomed to struggle against an evil force but an uptight, sententious, unlikeable policeman.

And where the only scene of real violence is withheld until the final five minutes when, forced into a giant wicker cage, Sgt. Howie watches with horror as the entire community locks arms, sings and watches him slowly burn to death.

He lets out a blood-curdling "Oh God no! Please God no!", but it’s hopeless. There is to be no mercy from the people he’s spent two days patronising and decrying as godless. For them, this is a moment of joy, their faith just as unshakeable as his.

It’s one of cinema’s great final scenes – a horror twist that is both psychologically chilling and visually harrowing. But is only so shocking and effective because of what precedes it: no screams, no tense walk through the shadows, no things that make you jump in the night. Just scenes of slowly accumulating dread and confusion, jauntily scored and bathed in blinding sunlight.

Forty years on, The Wicker Man is still one of the most unique, atmospheric and unnerving horror movies ever made. But perhaps most telling is the fact no other film looks or feels anything like it. Even in these cynical times, people know better than to try and copy its strange magic.