THE CHRISTOPHER LEE CENTENARY CELEBRATION PRIMER: The Wicker Man (1973)

EDITOR’S NOTE: You can watch this movie this weekend at the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama! Get more info at the official Drive-In Super Monster-Rama Facebook page and get your tickets at the Riverside Drive-In’s webpage.

The Wicker Man begins as Christopher Lee — a Hammer star — talked to writer Anthony Shaffer about more interesting roles. Shaffer had read the David Pinner novel Ritual — which had first been written as a script for Michael Winner and I can’t even imagine what he would have done — and turned that inspiration into his own story.

Shaffer wanted the story to be about what happened when modern religion and the old pagan ways meet. There was to be no blood or gore; it was about the kind of horror that just sneaks up on you, always there, something unknown and yet unfathomable. I guess people need a handle for it and call it folk horror today.

This film feels at the crossroads of art and horror; Performance meets The Devil Rides Out except the rules no longer exist. In fact, the very ideas of Judeo-Christian good and evil are not in this story. Instead, it’s about the new ways and the ways that have been for much longer than modern man can know.

Christian Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is presented at first as the virtuous hero; he’s at the island of Summerisle looking into the disappearance of Rowan Morrison. Yet the villagers refuse to admit that she ever existed.

He’s shocked at the ways of these people, who put frogs in their mouths to cure illness and dance around phallic maypoles. He finds the images of the past May Queens. He meets Lord Summerisle (Lee), the man who leads this village. And he finds the answers that he seeks, despite perhaps not liking them.

There’s also tempted by Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland, who was three months pregnant, she was dubbed by Annie Ross and her body double was dancer Rachel Verney) and there’s a scene where she dances with a wall between her and Howie that is volcanic. It doesn’t have any nudity but it’s filled with sensual energy.

Director Robin Hardy also made The Fantasist and The Wicker Tree, a very loose sequel to the original movie. Hardy first published the sequel as a novel, Cowboys for Christ and it’s about American Christian evangelists who travel to Scotland and end up in a similar situation. Lee plays a character called the Old Gentleman who is either or who is not Summerisle.

Shaffer also wrote The Loathsome Lambton Worm, a direct sequel that begins immediately after the ending of The Wicker Man with Howie saved by his fellow police officers. It has a fire-breathing dragon and is much more fantastic than the first movie.

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