The burning puzzle of horror cinema | The Wicker Man

Malta will play host to one of the cult figures of horror cinema next week, as Robin Hardy, director of the legendary neo-Pagan chiller The Wicker Man (1973), will be in attendance for a screening of its long-awaited final cut at the Valletta Campus

Teodor Reljic
23 May 2016, 8:30am
Genial but sinster: The late, great Christopher Lee gives a career-best performance as The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle
Genial but sinster: The late, great Christopher Lee gives a career-best performance as The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle
One of the most celebrated films in the annals of horror cinema, the latest cut of The Wicker Man (1973) will be screened at the Valletta Campus on May 28 at 18:30 – an initiative organised in association with the MA in Film Studies and the MA in Literary Tradition and Popular Culture at the University of Malta – with its director Robin Hardy in attendance.



Starring the late, great – and inimitable – Christopher Lee as a genial but sinister neo-Pagan community and inspiring its own horror sub-genre as well as musical tributes from the likes of Iron Maiden and Radiohead, Hardy’s trip into a remote Scottish island with occult secrets continues to strike a raw nerve.

Penned by Anthony Shaffer – who first got Lee interested in the project – it is a unique and compelling piece of bucolic horror that’s faint on cheap scares but thick on mood and – it must be said – expertly layered-in eroticism. In a lot of ways, The Wicker Man has survived because it taps deep into the roots of horror to unveil what the genre is all about in the first place: man struggling with the natural world, which often has the power to crush him.

What’s your secret? Director of The Wicker Man Robin Hardy claims that keeping things deliberately ‘timeless’ is what ensured the film’s enduring reputation
What’s your secret? Director of The Wicker Man Robin Hardy claims that keeping things deliberately ‘timeless’ is what ensured the film’s enduring reputation
Such is the fate of obstinately religious police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) who flies to a small Scottish village to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. But his encounters with the kindly but eccentric villagers – seemingly led by the patriarchal figure of Lord Summerisle (Lee) – frustrate his religious convictions, and he begins to suspect that their pagan practices belie a far more sinister truth.

Despite garnering cult appreciation further down the line, the film was released to very little fanfare: in fact first appearing as a ‘B’ picture to that other 1970s horror classic: Nicholas Roeg’s haunting adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now. But the two films would soon become aligned in their reputation as cinematic keepers, as the 1977 edition of Cinefantastique dubbed The Wicker Man “the Citizen Kane of horror movies” – a reputation that has continued to snowball as the years go by.

In fact, it has even created its own niche. In his impeccable survey of British horror cinema for the BBC, writer and actor Mark Gatiss (an expert of the genre, and one of the creators and stars of the BBC’s Sherlock) claims that The Wicker Man is responsible for bringing into being the sub-genre of ‘folk horror’. Exemplified by films such as The Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), the genre brings to the fore the essential eeriness of the British landscape – leaving its protagonists at best alienated, at worst vanquished by its ancient, bewitching power.


Though apparently short-lived at first, folk horror appears to be having something of a comeback, with recent outings by maverick British director Ben Wheatley paying homage to the vibe of The Wicker Man to different degrees in two of his films: Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) – the former taking in the occult social trappings and weaving them into the overall horror; while the latter imports more obvious stylistic elements and brings in some of The Witchfinder General as well.

Asked by film scholar Thomas Craig – in an interview for a pamphlet which will be issued at next week’s screening – to speculate as to why The Wicker Man enjoys such a long-lasting reputation among audiences, Hardy said a deliberate stylistic choice may have played a crucial part.

“I believe that the film’s continued success is largely due to a deliberately planned timelessness in the script and in the production. The only twentieth Century gadget in the film is a sea plane… The audience can believe they are experiencing a story somehow related outside time as they know it. Although there are many clues, verbal and solid, scattered around in the film in plain sight, they do not tell the whole story unless the viewer is looking for them and wanting to see meaning in them. The Wicker Man is, among other things, a game and participating in that adds to its timeless appeal.”

The screening of the final cut of The Wicker Man will take place at the Valletta Campus of the University of Malta on May 28 at 18:30. The screening of ‘The Wicker Man’ will be preceded by ‘Breakable Boundaries’, a performance by a group of theatre students prepared specifically for the event – and following the screening, the audience will also be able to see an artistic installation inspired by ‘The Wicker Man’, and produced by Rachel Formosa, Ian Caruana and Steffi Degiorgio. Reservation is not mandatory but seating is limited, so if you would like to reserve a seat, please contact Yanica Cassar on 2340 2309 or at [email protected]

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...