The Wicker Man (British Lion, R)

There’s a lot of movies out there,  at all levels of quality and made with all kinds of budgets. We all know that a big budget is no guarantee of a good film, and a low budget no guarantee of the opposite, because the results of artistic endeavors are inherently unpredictable. Some people love to dwell on big-budget turkeys, as if pointing out other people’s failures proves how smart they are. An alternative path is available, however: spend some time contemplating films that manage to accomplish something quite special despite a modest budget.

Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man, is just such a film. It’s based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner and is by far Hardy’s best-known work (he directed only two other features). It was also an improbable hit for the then-beleaguered British Lion studio, and a welcome success for the British film industry at a time when they truly needed one. Most remarkably of all, since horror films generally get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, The Wicker Man is widely recognized not just as a great horror film, but as a great British film, period.

As the story opens, police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward, who would go on to star as the title character in Breaker Morant) is piloting a sea plane to the remote (and fictional) Summerisle in the Hebrides. He’s there to investigate a report of a missing child, an assignment which he takes very seriously, but seldom has a man been more ill-suited to his task. Howie is a pure mainlander, for one thing, and, like the residents of many isolated locations, the inhabitants of Summerisle have no use for an outsider’s assumptions about what is right and proper. He’s a devout Christian while they favor pagan rituals, he’s a total prude while they enjoy a remarkably relaxed attitude toward sexuality, and he thinks he’s the one in charge while inadvertently proving the truth of that old adage: “Look around the poker table and see who the sucker is. If you can’t tell, it’s you.”

Besides being a memorable horror film, The Wicker Man is a marvelous time capsule of the 1970s. The isolation of Summerisle hasn’t prevented the inhabitants from adopting contemporary haircuts and clothing, for instance, and the themes of the film are as 1970s as you can get—sexual repression is bad, imposed authority is bad, policemen are bad—and the nonconformity of the islanders is even more charming given that they seem to enjoy the same sweets and fashions and so on as the rest of Britain. Howie is always seen in his uniform, and always presents himself in the character of civil authority, a stance which becomes increasingly ludicrous—he’s basically Richard Nixon walking on the beach in his wing-tips—but he’s too wrapped up in himself and his limited view of life to notice that things aren’t quite as he thinks they are.

For a low-budget film, The Wicker Man has an excellent cast, including Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, noted stage actress Diane Cilentro as the local schoolmistress, and Swedish actress Britt Eklund as the island’s temptress-in-chief. The soundtrack, by Paul Giovanni, incorporates many folk songs, some of which are performed by characters in the story. Finally, The Wicker Man is full of delightful small touches that offer an object lesson in how to make a film memorable without spending a lot of money. | Sarah Boslaugh

Find out where to stream The Wicker Man at (and be sure to select the 1973 version, not the execrable 2006 remake directed by Neil LaBute).

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