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‘The Wicker Man,’ a Folk Horror Film Classic, Turns 50: NPR

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The Wicker Manfrom 1973, was directed by Robin Hardy.

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The Wicker Manfrom 1973, was directed by Robin Hardy.

BFA/Alamy Stock Photo

The influential horror film Tthe wicker man was released on December 6, 1973. It eventually inspired an entire subgenre known as “folk horror”, including films such as the acclaimed 2019 film. Midsummer.

But when it was first released, The Wicker Man was considered an obscure cult classic – if at all.

“For a very long time, no one cared The Wicker Man“says Grady Hendrix, author of numerous novels, including How to sell a haunted house and the next Witchcraft for rebellious girls.

“It’s a low-budget film shot in Scotland, about a police officer who goes to investigate the disappearance of a little girl on a remote island,” explains Hendrix. “He is a devout Christian and is horrified to discover that this island still practices pagan rituals to ensure a good harvest the following year.”

At first glance, the rituals seem harmless, even charming. The maypoles, a bit of nudes frolicking in the open air, speak of a spring festival. But the villagers’ activities become increasingly sinister. A dead person hare, buried in a coffin. A masked procession to an ancient henge, in grotesque costumes such as deer, rabbits and frogs. Human sacrifice, it is suggested, is commonly practiced as part of religion.

The Wicker ManThe genesis, Hendrix explains, lies in a few books celebrating rituals from the pagan era that are believed to have survived in modified forms: The golden branchby Sir James George Frazer and first published in 1890, and that of Margaret Murray The cult of witches in Western Europefrom 1921.

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“They remind us of a time when we were more connected to the earth, before modernity, before all these machines and schedules and trains started ruining everything. Back when we were ‘real’ people, good people who went through the old ways and worshiped popular spirits,” notes Hendrix dryly.

The connections in these books, between ancient and contemporary practices, are tenuous to say the least, Hendrix says, and much of it is largely fabricated. But they have informed – and continue to inform – popular culture. The golden branch was frequently cited by director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer as an inspiration The Wicker Man.

In the early 1970s, The Wicker Man resonated with the back-to-the-land movement and the rise of alternative religions such as Wicca. The film can also be understood in the context of a wave of low-budget horror films arriving in the wake of the global trauma of the Vietnam War.

Then, in the 80s and 90s, a new generation discovered cinema on video and DVD. Fans were delighted by its dramatic structure.

“Anthony Shaffer was a true construction genius,” Hendrix says of The Wicker ManShaffer’s screenwriter, noting that in 1970 Shaffer’s Detective had won a Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway.

Detective was a huge success. It’s basically a mystery in a mousetrap game. It’s beautiful in the way it unfolds. And The Wicker Man, although a very hippie film that seems to move at this dragging pace, has a climax where you suddenly realize that you’ve been wandering around with the good people of Summerisle throughout the entire film. You fell deeper and deeper into a mechanical steel trap.

“It’s in the last scene that everything closes…There’s something so beautiful and how perfectly and carefully it’s built, so that you don’t even see that it’s built.”

The Wicker Man has seen several sequels since its initial release. A notoriously bad 2016 remake, written and directed by Neil LaBute, starred Nicolas Cage. According to a 2006 article in The New York Timesthis annoyed the original director.

“I think it’s a tribute,” Cage said at the time. “It’s a way for us to say that it’s a wonderful film. It’s not for us to say that we are better. On the contrary, it’s a tip of the hat, and maybe it will encourage people to watch the original again.”

Radio article edited by Rose Friedman.

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