The wicker man (1973) is an early entry in the folk horror subgenre. It gave Christopher Lee his favorite role, keeping the danger of his portrayal of Dracula but leaving bloody fangs behind for something more hidden. This subtlety is not just for his character. Director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer use subtly throughout the film, making its shock ending all the more shocking. The real power to piss off audiences isn’t so much that fiery visual. This is the music heard everywhere. Italian-American musician Paul Giovanni created the soundtrack with musical support from a British band, Magnet. Instead of relying on the exposition of dialogue, the songs featured allow the audience to experience the pagan customs at the heart of the story. From sexually charged tunes to darker bits, the folk music disarms the film’s audience as much as the climatic sacrifice succeeds in terrorizing them.
Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on the island of Summerisle and soon experiences the strange way of life of its pagan inhabitants. As a devout Christian, this man of law and order is continually made to be the outsider. What baffles him is absolutely normalized for young and old on the island. He searches for a missing girl, but it’s an elaborate ploy to trap Howie. The islanders plan to sacrifice him to their sun god, in the hopes that it will help the harvests to come.
Early on, Woodward’s character stands in the pews of a church, having not yet left for the seaplane. With other parishioners, he sings the hymn “The Lord is my Shepherd”. It’s full of passion, words meant to offer comfort. The church organ resounds all around. But from everyone’s wooden position, everything is so rigid. In fact, it could be seen as joyless, despite the godly sense of accomplishment on display. Howie stands next to a woman who is his fiancée, a character who does not show up after this. For his only appearance, they don’t share any kisses or any sort of intimacy, which adds to the conservative aspects of Howie’s character. This is not the last time that “The Lord is my Shepherd” is heard. But when he returns, the circumstances are much different and more solitary.
Once Howie is in the air, Giovanni’s folk music begins with “Corn Rigs”, the vocals also performed by the composer. “I loved her very sincerely, I kissed her again and again, among the barley platforms”, and so on. The lyrics are taken from the poetry of Robert Burns from the 18th century, old words like the ancient religion practiced on the approaching island. There’s a twang from an acoustic guitar, which makes for a pretty peaceful sound. There is no obvious indication of the threat ahead. Instead, there are allusions to the sexual liberation of the pagans. Listening to the lyrics, it tells the story of a pair of lovers who use barley rigs as cover, a way to hide from moralistic eyes such as the police sergeant. At first glance, it may not seem obvious, but there is an unsettling intention behind the music. He plays on the established shots captured by the cinematographer Harry Waxman. There is so much ocean that the plane flies over, Summerisle is really cut off from the rest of the world.
On land, Howie enters the Green Man Inn, finding himself stuck in the middle of a rowdy, sexually charged chorus. The male islanders yell at “The Landlord’s Daughter”, directed at Willow (Britt Ekland), the daughter of the owner of the inn. But she watches happily. The police sergeant is the unamused one, listening: “And when his name is mentioned, every gentleman’s parts rise to attention.” Loud vocals instantly make Howie sound tense and out of place. Sex is on the mind of this community, but they don’t always lean towards being hot. As Howie heads for a guest bedroom, the downstairs patrons release their energy. Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle then makes an appearance, introducing Willow to a young man whom she takes to her room. Guests peek upstairs singing “Gently Johnny,” a ritual song acknowledging the antics of the bedroom. All the while, Lord Summerisle monologues about two snails mating outdoors, making the connection between nature and sex for this community. Howie tries to sleep but the sounds coming from Willow’s room make him toss and turn. Nothing explicit is shown but the chanting bosses, “I’m putting my hand all over his chest” and “I’m putting my hand all over his thigh”, leave little to the imagination. For Howie, this premarital sexual freedom is surprising. All around, humans and creatures embrace what this God-fearing man denies himself.
The next day, the police sergeant watches a teacher and students dance around a flagpole in the schoolyard. No wooden bench holds them in place, these have been left in the old church behind the festive pole. The song is innocent at first, fast and childlike. Then it continues. Children cheerfully sing about sex, birth and rebirth. Once someone dies, the islanders believe they are reincarnated as a tree, becoming one with the nature they revere. On closer inspection, school children are separated by gender. The boys are outside, worshiping the maypole. Inside the school, the girls are listening to Miss Rose (Diana Cilento) talk about the phallic symbolism associated with it. At the mention of this, Howie bursts into the classroom. He berates teacher Miss Rose for tainting young minds with what is essentially the subject of reproduction. Adults and now children are acting in ways Howie can’t handle. And they do it with so much pleasure. Miss Rose takes on another role, leading to a more mysterious entry on Giovanni’s soundtrack.
The soft strokes of a flute introduce “Fire Leap”. The teacher watches over a group of naked women in a fertility ritual, surrounded by majestic menhirs. One by one they jump over a fire chanting, “Take the flame inside you, burn and burn.” It’s very dreamlike, especially with the low, whispery women’s voices. Seeing naked women in broad daylight puts Howie’s discomfort on another level. Then it is targeted more directly.
At night, Howie performs a routine prayer before bed. But locking herself in the room won’t stop Willow from performing “Willow’s Song”. In her next room, she falls in a strange waltz, her hands pounding on the walls. “Hey ho, here I am. Aren’t I young and beautiful? Willow quietly sings along to an acoustic guitar. Her voice is angelic, but to Howie, it sure sounds more like a siren. But ‘Willow’s Song’ is insidious for his purpose. Can the islanders take this man down, make him renounce his own beliefs? Remember he is engaged. The police sergeant gets sweaty as he joins in the “dance “, his body and mind fighting temptation. Approaching the walls and the door, Howie forces himself into bed. This seals his fate. He is the perfect virgin sacrifice the island needs.
The morbid grand finale shifts the ground beneath Howie’s feet. The police sergeant is forced into the imposing Wicker Man structure. In an attempt at defiance, he shouts the hymn from the beginning of the film: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack anything!” It falls on deaf ears as Lord Summerisle leads the islanders in a joyous dance to “Sumer is icumen in”. Gone is the tranquility Howie experienced in church. The loud song of the pagans is too loud, it drowns out his sacred hymn. The animals also trapped in the wicker trap scream as the flames reach them. Those two sounds, one of joy and one of pain, is what Howie is stuck hearing as he perishes.
Giovanni’s music is as unrestrained as Howie is unrestrained. The soundtrack plays with this, slowly revealing the darkness of Summerisle. Until this holocaust, everything is simply obtuse to Howie’s faith. The National Theater of Scotland adapted the 1973 film into the musical “An Appointment with the Wicker Man”, with the impact of Giovanni’s music on its creators. Writer Greg Hemphill told The Guardian, “…everyone is pretty serene and cheerful. In fact, it almost works like great publicity for paganism, because it makes it so beautiful.” Up to a point, of course. What Giovanni’s soundtrack does so well is allow audiences to experience the alluring and spellbinding world of Summerisle. see for themselves.
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