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When an esteemed actor has described something as “the best film I’ve ever made”, you tend to sit up and take notice. When the actor in question is the late Christopher Lee, you stand to attention. Was the face of Hammer Horror talking about Dracula or the Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun? Try 1973’s The Wicker Man.
And now 50 years on, a modern audience had the chance – for one night only during the summer solstice – to experience this cult-horror masterpiece in the full glory of cinema. I wasn’t around to witness that back in ’73; thankfully in a sense, as I’d be well into my 60s now.
Masterpiece though it undoubtedly is, the term ‘cult-horror’ is actually a very telling one. Aside from playing the main villain of the picture, Lord Summerisle, Lee also acted out another role; that of a virtual one-man publicity machine. British Lion Films, who’d produced, didn’t even give The Wicker Man a press screening such was their lack of faith in it, which makes you wonder why they bothered with it in the first place (but good on ’em, they did). When it did finally see the light of day, playing second fiddle in a double-bill, Lee got in touch with every film critic he knew to implore them to go and see it, even offering to pay their entry fees. When it was time for the movie to go international, he then traversed the US as a kind of travelling salesman.
Needless to say, this all paid off and its status and notoriety were assured – way to go, Chris! Having said that, in a way you can see why the studio had reservations. The storyline and subject matter do, on first inspection, seem a little obscure, which would surely ring especially true for some cinema-goers half-a-century ago. A policeman travels to a remote Scottish island inhabited by a pagan cult to investigate a murder, where the locals love to sing folk songs and the school loves to take sex education to the extreme. That’s one way of looking at it, of course, but the psycho-drama that slowly unfolds beneath disturbs and fascinates you without you even realising. Ironically enough, it almost manages to cast a spell.
If The Wicker Man was to receive a quick blurb from a newspaper today, it would probably read something like: “Shockingly sinful and sinister – go see it! Five stars”. However, in the interests of making this article legit, we can’t just leave it at that. The devout Christian copper, played superbly by Edward Woodward, is predictably aghast at life on the island, and yet when he’s in conference with Summerisle it does bring theology into sharp focus: are they both as bad as each other, but in different ways?
Anyway, the big screen experience makes the scenery look even more picture-postcard, whilst the foot-tapping folk melodies are more infectious than you could ever imagine. The storyline moves at a slow pace, so that the grim realisation of what’s to come dawns on us and Woodward at the same time. Even the faith of his pious policeman is eventually tested beyond its limits, such is the horrific ending. What starts as some kind of weird game of cat and mouse becomes a nightmare you wouldn’t dare to dream.
The one criticism? The bonus material never actually materialised, which in a way was quite amusing seeing as everyone was sat waiting for more after the end credits had rolled. It didn’t really matter though, taking the opportunity to see this gem in full is something I’ll never forget, seriously. Touching on the struggles the film faced back in the 1970s, this anniversary edition wasn’t particularly well advertised either – maybe the internet and social media haven’t change things that much after all.
The best film Christopher Lee ever made isn’t quite the best film I’ve ever watched – even with the extended cut I’d imagine – but The Wicker Man is a classic nevertheless, seemingly still sorely underrated by some.