Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, sent to the remote island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate an anonymous report of a missing girl.
He finds a strange and sometimes perverse sub-culture practicing what appear to be ancient pagan rituals. As a devout Christian, Howie is not only offended, but ruthlessly determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The inhabitants of Summerisle initially claim the child never existed, but Howie’s implacable prying gradually leads him to believe she was murdered in a sacrificial pagan ritual.
The evidence of the islanders’ ancient belief system are all around him, and most of the film consists of him doggedly following a string of clues while bristling with righteous disgust over fertility rites, bawdy traditional songs and dances, and the urbane heathen proclamations of Summerisle’s hereditary lord, played by Christopher Lee.
First-time director Robin Hardy makes some predictable low budget choices – sudden zooms, tight close-ups and odd angles – but the apparently simple plot line belies a truly astonishing climax.
The power of the surprise creates a nice sympathy between the audience and Howie. Just as he has underestimated the intelligence of the islanders, so too have the viewers underestimated the power of the film.
Some consider The Wicker Man a horror film, but it actually plays out as a light-hearted albeit sturdy mystery (written as it was by Sleuth playwright Anthony Schaffer).
Thus the ending is all the more a surprise because the shift is so sudden, and so drastically overwhelms the levity it had sustained throughout.
Likewise, Edward Woodward maintains a quiet dignity and understated power, right until he meets the wicker man, making his reaction all the more profound.
The masterstroke of the ending is thematic as well. Both cultures win. In traditional cinematic convention the islanders have bested Woodward.
But within the context of Christian conviction and legacy of Christian narratives, Woodward’s character achieves the ultimate victory.
In the island’s pagan tradition everyone sings. Britt Ekland appears naked and also sings.
The Wicker Man was ultimately brought to DVD. The DVD package restored most of the missing footage, showing how The Wicker Man was mis-marketed as a horror film and tracking the studio errors that nearly destroyed the film altogether.
It has become a cult classic because of its unforgettable ending, erotic imagery and general unavailability to the public for several decades.