The Test of Time: The Wicker Man (1973)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Robin Hardy
Starring: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, and Christopher Lee

Every few years or so, some cult makes headlines. The Manson family. Jim Jones. That Nike/Comet group. Regardless, cults (at least to me) are a weird and creepy thing. They have strange rituals, even stranger beliefs, and everything is based on something completely from left field. Growing up, the Manson family seemed like the boogieman of cults, but Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” stuck with me beyond high school. In case you flunked English, it’s about a bunch of townsfolk who stone fellow townsfolk to death in order to please their god of the crops. It’s disturbing to say the least.

Anyway…when horror icon Christopher Lee recently passed, a tribute was obviously necessary (I watched THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN right away). He’s known as Dracula, but I wanted to examine one of his more bizarre performances to see if the film holds up against the Test of Time. 

Under the examination: THE WICKER MAN.

Best Halloween outfit right there.

THE STORY: Written by British author Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH, FRENZY), THE WICKER MAN revolves around a cop named Howie who is sent to a Scottish island village to search for a missing girl named Rowan Morrison. Sounds routine enough, but Sgt.Howie soon discovers the case will be anything but easy as the townsfolk claim the girl never existed. The longer he stays, the more shit gets weird as the village has some…peculiar traditions and rituals including lots and lots of sex, lots and lots of singing, and a love of animal masks. Can he find the girl in time? Or can he even get the hell away in time before he meets The Wicker Man?

Now that's a bonfire. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP:  Just like the short story “The Lottery,” THE WICKER MAN ends up “aces” from the depiction of a cult culture. Maybe cult isn’t the right word because that’s an outsider term. From the inside, the happiness, the pure content of the villagers makes them not only strange, but oddly fascinating as they lure both Sgt. Howie and the audience into thinking that everything is normal and everyone is cool like Fonzie. Mirroring “The Lottery” again, pagan rituals and the examination of absolute blind faith make this sucker much more than the usual, carbon copy horror movie (that was one of a 100 things wrong with that Nic Cage remake). 

If Sgt. Howie had uncovered a few rats in town who spilled their guts or supplied vague clues to help him, it would change everything. But as is, everyone in town is tight, unable to even consider another point of view. Led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and his crazy ass hair, they do what they need to do, even if they must sacrifice the unwilling. Not only that but they love where they live and how they live. Lee, he is great here. He’s not Dracula, he’s not Saruman, he’s not Dooku, and he’s not Scaramanga. He’s very chill as Lord Summerisle, at peace with nature and only doing what’s required of him (reportedly, Lee dug the script so much that he worked for free). THE WICKER MAN may not have made Lee a legend, but he did get to deliver bad ass dialogue like “Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.” 

Anything more frightening than that?

A good chuck of THE WICKER MAN isn’t horror, but (spoiler, even though the cover art and movie title give everything away) the final act is truly disturbing. Sgt. Howie’s reaction to learning that he will be burned to death is horrifying. His screams and terror sound like what any of us would say in learning that kinda news. We’d all shit ourselves, and Howie doesn’t try to play tough.  

WHAT BLOWS NOW: For the modern horror fan who doesn’t know shit about 1970’s cinema, I’d wager that THE WICKER MAN isn’t an easy viewing. Beyond the obvious like dated clothes and styles, the film reeks of British/Scottish ideals that don’t necessarily translate for the modern folk. Example: all the gleeful singing at every turn. If it isn’t the men at the pub belting out a ditty, it’s the schoolmaster, or the Lord of the village, or the very hot and very naked Willow (played by Bond girl Britt Ekland…wait…that part is pretty good). Yes, this movie is time stamped 1973, but that’s not always a good thing. 

Dance, Bond girl, dance. 

Something else that’s always bugged me about THE WICKER MAN comes from Woodward as Sgt. Howie. He’s the perfect example of stiff British society (that’s the point to show a revolution under their nose) but he’s a boring, uninteresting lead who moves from clue to clue without much interest. Thankfully, the film ends up more about Summerisle and his followers rather than just being a cop thriller. 

THE VERDICT: While not everyone will want to keep their appointment with THE WICKER MAN, it remains a unique and strangely fascinating film that remains cool because of the sheer weirdness of it all. It's a cliché ​, but literally they don't make them like they used to. 



Scare some folks on the other side, Mr. Lee. 



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