May Day is celebrated across the world as an ancient spring festival to welcome the season with traditional Morris Dancing, singing and other festivities. Where I’m from in England, it’s often obscure towns and villages in rural areas that have more prominent May Day celebrations, however most of the country appreciates a three-day-weekend and a lie-in. This year I decided to celebrate May Day by attending a screening of one of my favorite cult films, The Wicker Man.
Robin Hardy’s 1973 feature-length directorial debut follows Sargent Howie’s investigation of a missing girl on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, during their own May Day celebrations. The island community highlights the variety of traditions associated with the festival, but also the more taboo folklore festivities such as overt sexuality in hope of fertility, the worship of the phallic symbol, and sacrificial offerings to the Celtic gods of their ancestors. The film explores the confrontation of modern Christian society and a remote ancient Pagan community, which this cult film represents with the character of Howie and his reactions to the uncanny citizens of Summerisle.
The Wicker Man is easily one of my top ten favorite films, and by far my favorite horror film; I love the non-violent, eerie route that creates the film’s tension, rather than cheap scares and gore, with links to traditional Celtic folklore that is at the heart of culture on the British Isles. Despite the twists in the story, I find The Wicker Man very rewatchable, so I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen, hosted by a friend who is a local film locations tour guide in Liverpool!
The showing was held at a newly opened luxury cinema with velvet sofas and at-seat bar service. The vibe of the room was very relaxed with a majority of an older audience with bottles of wine and around 70% of the attendees had never seen the film before! During the showing, there was a great reaction from everyone, with lots of participation and laughter when there was supposed to be (laughing with the film, rather than at the film).
This lighthearted atmosphere completely flipped as Howie’s sacrificial ritual begins and he meets the Wicker Man for the first time; I could feel how engaged the other viewers were with the terror unfolding on-screen. As the credits rolled, there was complete silence from the audience as if they were absorbing the bizarre events that had just unfolded before them for the last hour and a half.
I loved watching The Wicker Man on the big screen, I noticed so many tiny elements of the film that I hadn’t seen previously. The quality of the projection was excellent, so I picked up so much more of the background set – especially the labelled jars in the Post Office and the Chemist. I felt the same way with the music of the film. I already loved the songs, especially ‘Gently Johnny’ and ‘Corn Rigs’, but I heard the accompanying score a lot more whilst I was completely immersed in the film; I had never realized the electric guitar riffs during the chase scene between Howie and the Hobbyhorse before!
My film-tours friend hosted an after-screening discussion, with a few trivia tid-bits as it’s also one of his favorite films; I learnt some facts that I didn’t already know!
- The film is set during May, but the filming took place in Autumn! In the final scene, the cast put ice cubes in their mouths to hide their breath in the cold air. The blossom trees shown on Summerisle are all handmade, so it was revealed that the opening aerial shots were actually filmed in South Africa, as the film didn’t have the budget to make that many blossom trees.
- The original negatives of the film were destroyed after Michael Deeley, the producer at British Lion, viewed it for the first time and hated it. Rumor has it that the negatives were used as filler for the M3 motorway in England. The final film was released as a 58 minute B-Feature, or even shown as a 17 minute film for Triple Bills in the US. There was no official British release until 1989.
- An article from film magazine ‘Cinefantastique’ in 1975 described The Wicker Man as “The Citizen Kane of Horror Movies” and sparked everyone’s interest in viewing the rare film as it was hard to find at the time. In the 2000s, a retired archivist from British Lion found a VHS in his attic with the 100 minute version which was patched together with the original 58 minute release, explaining the quality dips throughout the film.
I took my friend along with me to the screening as a first-time The Wicker Man viewer. During the showing, I had that nervousness of showing a friend one of your favorite films and fearing that they don’t enjoy it as much as you do. I asked her opinions afterwards and luckily, she really enjoyed it! My friend is currently writing her PhD in Music so she loved the score, and was surprised by the amount of humor in the film; she expected it to be very serious but found the humor a relief to break up the scenes with more tension. She was really engaged in the story and despite vaguely knowing the ending (thanks to Nicolas Cage memes), she still felt the tension of the final scene.
For a film that waited forty years to be distributed in its complete form, gathering dust in attics and in pylons under the M3, it’s amazing that it can still captivate and wonder today; if you ever have the chance to watch it, at home or on the big screen, I definitely recommend it.