Last week, the horror world was rocked by the death of one of its most prolific actors, the iconic Sir Christopher Lee. Throughout his long and storied career, Lee got to play key villains in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, the Star Wars prequels, and the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. However, he was best known to horror fans as one of the faces of Hammer horror, appearing in classics like The Curse of Frankenstein, The Devil Rides Out, and Scream of Fear, as well as portraying the legendary Dracula several times for the studio. Lee also made many horror movies away from Hammer, and one of the most memorable films in his catalog is the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man is about a policeman named Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward from Callan) who, after receiving an anonymous letter, flies out to the island of Summerisle to search for a reportedly missing little girl. From the moment he lands, none of the locals seem to want to help Sergeant Howie locate the girl – not even the girl’s mother. As Sergeant Howie conducts his investigation around the island, he notices that the inhabitants are pagans, a fact which profoundly disturbs the devout Christian policeman. Eventually, Sergeant Howie meets with the leader of the island folk, an enigmatic man who calls himself Lord Summerisle (Lee), who explains to the Sergeant that the island has become self-sufficient and has no need for the outside world – or its religions. However, the longer that Sergeant Howie stays on the island, the more he realizes that everything is not quite as is appears to be with Lord Summerisle and his followers.
The screenplay for The Wicker Man was written by novelist/playwright Anthony Shaffer (Frenzy, Sleuth). The story comes off initially as a crime mystery, but quickly turns the corner and becomes a satanic cult thriller. Director Robin Hardy (The Fantasist) intended the film to be a showcase for Christopher Lee, and the actor, knowing a great project when he saw one, waived his fee and appeared in the film without compensation. It may not have been a Hammer or Amicus production, but The Wicker Man still holds a place in the annals of horror history.
Even though he’s got a limited amount of time on screen, Christopher Lee is the absolute focal point of The Wicker Man. Lee possesses a very powerful presence onscreen; even with his silly clothing and goofy hairstyle, it’s impossible for an audience to not watch him. The character of Lord Summerisle is a magnetic and charismatic leader, and Lee’s portrayal of the man is so effortless that it almost looks as if he’s actually becoming Lord Summerisle instead of simply acting out a role. Even during the climactic twist ending, Lord Summerisle is as charming as he is cunning, and Lee nails every subtlety of the character.
Although Lee never had any trouble carrying a film on his own, when it came to The Wicker Man, he didn’t have to. The lead role is that of Sergeant Howie, but Edward Woodward plays the officer with such a sense of entitlement and arrogance that the character is a very unlikeable protagonist and the audience finds the islanders much more appealing, even if they are the true antagonists of the film. The supporting cast is filled with the familiar faces of Britt Ekland (The Man with the Golden Gun), Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers), Diane Cilento (Tom Jones), and Aubrey Morris (A Clockwork Orange, Lifeforce), all of whom put a great deal of energy and vigor into their performances, making the viewer almost want to join their community and live on the island with them. Woodward is the lead, and Lee is the secondary, but the entire cast of The Wicker Man pulls its weight.
One of the most instantly recognizable elements of The Wicker Man is its soundtrack. The music was written by multi-instrumentalist Paul Giovanni and performed by a group called Magnet that was formed for the movie, many of whose members (including Giovanni) appear in the film as musicians. The songs have a traditional folk sound, but the recordings are augmented with electric instruments and a horn section. The film itself is almost like a musical, with the islanders breaking into song at select points so that the musical selections become diegetic. Strangely enough, the musical portions of the film make perfect sense within the context of the story, whether it’s a group of islanders singing a folk shanty in a pub, Lord Summerisle belting out a tune while plucking away at his piano, or a teacher spinning a yarn while his students dance around a maypole. Music is a very important part of life on the island, and therefore, the soundtrack is a very important aspect of The Wicker Man.
All of the singing and dancing in The Wicker Man isn’t exactly lighthearted, however. The jovial music is almost unsettling, and at times it puzzles the audience as much as it does Sergeant Howie. The happy folk tunes serve as a stark contrast to the suspense and violence in some of the more chilling moments in the film, making life of the island of Summerisle all the more eerie. For example, while everyone is singing at the beginning of a pagan ceremony, the locals dawn creepy animal masks that look like the intruders’ masks from Wingard & Barrett’s You’re Next. During the ceremony, six sword-bearers arrange their blades into a star, each participant in the ritual taking turns treacherously placing his or her head into the middle of the deadly shape while the rest continue to sing along in what turns into one of the tensest scenes in the film. It’s a turning point in the plot; it’s when the audience thinks that Sergeant Howie may be right about the dangerous motives and beliefs of the happy dancing islanders.
All of this leads to the climax of the film where the titular Wicker Man makes its appearance. To say too much about the film’s ending would spoil it, but rest assured that it is a crazy mixture of the campy and the horrifying. Everything that has come before it in the film culminates into one shockingly brilliant, almost silly scene that leaves the audience shaking its collective head. The conclusion of The Wicker Man is one of the most haunting scenes in horror movie history.
Christopher Lee was a legend when he made The Wicker Man, and he continued to build upon his legacy right up until his death. As for The Wicker Man, it would go on to spawn both a sequel (2011’s The Wicker Tree, also directed by Hardy) and a remake (a dreadful 2006 Nicolas Cage vehicle). Robin Hardy’s original 1973 classic continues to hold a place in the hearts of horror fans everywhere, thanks in no small part to a masterful performance by an icon of the genre, Sir Christopher Lee.