Review by C.J. Bunce
For the world outside of England, when you hear the words The Wicker Man you might recall an obscure 1973 B movie on late night TV you fell asleep to once, or you vaguely recall Nicolas Cage starring in a remake. The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film, arriving in bookstores next week and available for pre-order now here at Amazon, is the strange tale of a cult movie that’s actually about a cult. The book is film writer John Walsh’s case for viewing the movie as “one of the greatest horror movies of all time.” It’s also a defense of the film by many contributors to the film, despite a history of admitted problems and nearly too many edits, re-edits, and director’s cuts to count.
Because the tone and approach is so defensive, The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film is one of the strangest film surveys you will ever read. And I mean defensive as in defending your grad school thesis paper. More than his previous books (on the Doctor Who movies, Conan the Barbarian, Escape from New York, and Flash Gordon, reviewed here), Walsh analyzes the history and myths of the past 50 years with two “cold case” researchers in tow.
The Wicker Man starred Edward Woodward, known much more for his later work, The Equalizer TV series. Woodward seems to dispel all the myths in earlier interviews Walsh incorporates into his study. Others, like “Bond girl” Britt Ekland, recount a difficult shoot and difficult relationship with director Robin Hardy. Co-star Christopher Lee seemed to be more nostalgic about the film.
The movie is not really true Gothic horror, leaving out most of the key markers of the genre for the shocking quirks and kookiness of the folk horror mythos. Was any of it more startling or defining for the genre than Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery”? It’s arguably just another version of that 1940s folk horror tale.
But Walsh offers a lot more to consider. The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film is a good template for any film school student tearing apart a film and finding why it worked and why it didn’t. It’s just amazing that a movie as obscure as The Wicker Man got this kind of treatment or attention. But that may just be because the impact of the film didn’t stretch so much across the pond. A surprising component is an explanation Walsh offers of the financing process in England that continues to this day. U.S. readers will probably see this as an enlightening window into a strange new world in itself.
Can a movie whose chronicle must dwell on chopped-up source material, on body swaps in nude scenes, a female lead who must be dubbed because she can’t fake an accent, scrambling for a local cast because the film is so under-funded, and pages full of discussions about lost scenes, lost film, edits, and re-edits really be all that great of a movie?
Is the movie easy to watch today? Not really. It has that pace that bogged down the original The Prisoner series, but it lacks the intrigue. And let’s face it: the entire appeal of the movie was the audacity of the ending. It’s not a spoiler if the movie is 50 years old: The protagonist/hero gets killed in the final scene. In the era of Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist, culminating later with The Omen and The Amityville Horror, you can see how the culture of the era viewed The Wicker Man as an “also ran” in its debut. Maybe they were right all along? John Walsh doesn’t think so. Arguably the movie’s legacy continues 50 years later in modern movies like Midsommar.
For fans of The Wicker Man and anyone willing to give Walsh’s deep dive into this infamous work of folk horror a chance, pre-order The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film now here at Amazon, arriving November 7, 2023.