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16 June 2023

The enduring cult of The Wicker Man

The 1970s film was deemed naff on its release 50 years ago. But thanks to VHS culture, it became the cornerstone of a cinematic movement – folk horror.

By Kate Mossman

A few years ago there was a travelling show called Sing-Along-a-Wicker-Man that made its way around various cinemas and festivals in the UK. From what I remember when it came to London, there was a man and a woman – he in a nylon polo neck as Lord Summerisle, she in a Stevie Nicks get-up as the Librarian, played by Ingrid Pitt in the film – leading the crowd in a linked-arms version of Summer-Is-a-Cumen In while Edward Woodward is burned on-screen behind them. There were shout-along lines: “Christ! Jesus Christ!” There was slapping of the auditorium walls when Britt Ekland, the Landlord’s Daughter, attempted her nude seduction of Woodward’s buttoned-up policeman. And at one point there was an instruction to look under our seats. There, in a white paper bag, was a single strawberry liquorice bootlace: “It’s the poor wee lass’s navel string, of course!” The audience chewed 300 umbilical cords, as on-screen the coffin of a missing child, Rowan Morrison, was disinterred to reveal the stiff body of a march hare instead.

When films become cults there is an urge to ask why, and to invent cinematic movements in retrospect – “folk horror”, they call The Wicker Man. But Sing-Along-a-Wicker-Man revealed more about the film’s appeal than any think-piece marking one of its countless anniversaries (the film turns 50 in the autumn – this summer, cinemas are screening a restored “final cut” to mark the occasion). My brother and I watched it around 25 times in our adolescence: we still shout lines of histrionic dialogue at each other in bad Scottish accents, such as, “Then why in God’s name do you do it, girl?” The Wicker Man was badly acted, with a mesmerising soundtrack (to be performed in full at the Barbican on 24 June) featuring songs such as the “Maypole Song”, in which children sang about sexual intercourse. There were recreations of ancient folk rites, of the kind that probably still go on in parts of Kent. It took itself very seriously: it was inspired by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, among other things, and Christopher Lee, who played Lord Summerisle, thought it the greatest film of his life.

Most wonderfully, for me, it showed an entire community – serfs and lords – united in the proud service of fertility and procreation while a terrible fart of a policeman tried to crash their party. Most horror films create a dystopia, but this one created a smug, sensuous otherness: life looked good on Summerisle. What harm are they doing anyone, you thought? They only want their crops to grow. And who hasn’t thought how wholesome it would be to have sex on a gravestone, with life and death united in one place?

The Wicker Man was a beneficiary of VHS culture: it is one of the first examples of a creative work made in the 1970s that had no impact on the 1970s, but was picked up by later generations, rather like the psych-folk bands that inspired its soundtrack. It is a film to watch together, shriek through, toke through, eat crisps through: part of its popularity now is that it was not popular then. It has inspired entire albums, its own festival and The League of Gentlemen might not exist without it. In 2019 Ari Aster’s Midsommar, one of the most interesting horror films in a long time, was a direct tribute in many ways, pitting modern life against a brutal but powerfully cohesive, flower-garlanded world.

Everyone I’ve asked from my parents’ generation thought The Wicker Man was crap – but the funny thing is, they all saw it: it was on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now for its original cinema release – imagine that! – and was probably late-night viewing for many of the long-haired lovers of 1973-74. Its makers complained for years that the film was never given the chance to shine, as it was cut down to just over 85 minutes by distributors, condemned to B-movie status (though deleted scenes include footage of Woodward preaching on the Scottish mainland and shots of two snails mating, neither of which is likely to have elevated it to the Palme d’Or). Many bits of modern folklore grew up around the film, as they always do with an underdog: much missing footage is thought to have been lost in a landfill site under the M3 motorway, whose construction took place not far from Shepperton Studios. The new head of British Lion, the film’s distributor, is supposed to have told Christopher Lee, “It is the worst film I’d ever seen” (he later denied this).

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When I grew up, I dated one of the soundtrack musicians (yes, he was very much older than me) who said that the whole film was made very quickly, and much later in the year than it looks – blossoms were glued on the trees, and the naked people in the outdoor sex scenes had sore bums from the hard November earth. Ekland’s bum in the wall-slapping scene was not her own, he said – it was a stripper from Glasgow, who was fun to drink with. In fact a lot of bums were mentioned by my old flame, through whom the film began to sound like the end of something: the last gasp of free love, possibly; of hippies and casual occultism and the powerful tang of the late 1960s: maybe that’s why so many people thought it was naff at the time. Folk, as an aesthetic, is a place of excess and fluidity – irrational, the antithesis of reason. But when challenged, most of us find that we are the puritanical Edward Woodward, looking at people having a better time and wanting to close the party down. I think I like The Wicker Man because, somewhere inside, I would love to try life on Summerisle, even if it meant burning one person a year.

“The Wicker Man: 50th Anniversary Release (The Final Cut – 4K Restoration)” is in cinemas from 21 June.

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars