The decade of the 1970s was a hotbed of experimental, ground-breaking and now classic horror films. The Exorcist was the first of the genre ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was sweeping the US like a plague, while Italian Dario Argento was creating giallo (Italian word for yellow, which was the colour of the pages of the Italian paperback crime thrillers on which the horror film sub-genre were based) films like Suspiria and pushing the boundaries of gore. In Britain, film-maker Robin Hardy decided to insert Pagan rituals into a small island community in the classic film The Wicker Man.
Police officer Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is called to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Upon arriving he is introduced to various members of the community who explain that they aren’t Christian but rather follow old Pagan rituals. Disturbed, but not perturbed Howie continues his investigation, uncovering facts that lead to a potentially startling discovery regarding Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and ˜the wicker man.’
The slow reveal of the truth behind the Island’s ritualistic religion is one of The Wicker Man’s greatest strengths. Not content with using recognisable imagery like Old English pubs, Punch and Judy or the Maypole, it subverts and adds levels of tension and fear throughout. Full of classic British character actors like Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee (possibly his best ever performance), it presents a view of 1970s Britain and the rather human reactions that add a rather sinister and hauntingly realistic element to the film. This level of realism, both in terms of religious doctrine and true human expression is one of the contributing factors to its success and long-lasting influence.
Everything from Howie’s shock at the lack of Christianity or understanding of Jesus Christ to Lord Summerisle’s retort Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost… is designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable, which is the crux of a truly great horror film.
Horror films are now one of the most obviously formulaic film genres, with great horrors subverting these conventions or toying with preconceptions. The Wicker Man not only stands tall as one of the most original and unassuming horrors of the 1970s, but stands the test of time as one of the most chilling and fascinating horror films of all time.