Maypole on Fire: The Importance of Music in the Original ‘The Wicker Man’

The musical delights lure you in before you’re ensnared like the doomed Police Sergeant.

By Chris Sasaguay

The Wicker Man (1973) is an early entry of the folk horror subgenre. It gave Christopher Lee his favorite role, keeping the danger from his portrayal as Dracula but leaving behind bloody fangs for something more concealed. This subtlety isn’t only for his character. Director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer use subtlely throughout the whole movie, making its shock ending that more shocking. The true power in unnerving the audience is not so much that fiery visual. It’s the music heard throughout. Italian-American musician Paul Giovanni created the soundtrack with musical support by British band, Magnet. Instead of relying upon dialogue exposition, the featured songs let the audience in on the pagan customs central to the story. From sexually-charged tunes to more somber pieces, the folk music disarms the movie’s audience as much as the climatic sacrifice succeeds in terrorizing.

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the island of Summerisle and quickly experiences the strange lifestyle of its pagan residents. As a devout Christian, this man of law and order is continuously made to be the outsider. What is baffling to him, is absolutely normalized to the island’s young and old. He’s searching for a missing girl, but it’s all an elaborate ploy to entrap Howie. The islanders plan to sacrifice him to their sun god, with the hopes it will help the upcoming crops.

Early on, Woodward’s character is standing within the pews of a church, not having left for the seaplane yet. Together with fellow parishioners, he sings the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shepherd.” It’s full of passion, the words meant to offer comfort. The church’s organ echoes all around. But from everyone’s wooden stance, it’s all so rigid. In fact, it could be considered joyless, despite the pious sense of fulfillment on display. Howie is standing next to a woman who is his fiancée, a character who doesn’t show up after this. For her one appearance, they share no kiss or any kind of intimacy, adding on to the conservative aspects to Howie’s character. This isn’t the last time “The Lord’s My Shepherd” is heard. But when it returns, the circumstances are far different and lonelier.

Once Howie is in the sky, Giovanni’s folk music begins with “Corn Rigs,” the vocals also performed by the composer. “I loved her most sincerely, I kissed her o’er and e’er again, among the rigs of barley,” and so it goes. The lyrics are taken from the poetry of 18th-century Robert Burns, old words like the old religion being practiced on the approaching island. There’s a twang from an acoustic guitar, making it sound quite peaceful. There is no obvious hint of the menace to come. Instead, there are hints to the sexual liberation of the pagans. Listening to the lyrics, it tells of a pair of lovers who use barley rigs as cover, a means to hide from moralistic eyes such as the Police Sergeant. On first watch, it may not seem evident, but there is an unsettling intention behind the music. It plays over the establishing shots captured by cinematographer Harry Waxman. There is so much ocean the plane passes over, Summerisle is truly cut off from the rest of the world.


On land, Howie enters the Green Man Inn, getting stuck in the middle of a sexually-charged, rowdy chorus. Male islanders holler to “The Landlord’s Daughter,” directed towards Willow (Britt Ekland), the daughter of the Inn’s owner. But she watches in happiness. The Police Sergeant is the one unamused, listening to, “And when her name is mentioned, the parts of every gentleman do stand up at attention.” The loud voices instantly make Howie look uptight and out of place. Sex is on the mind of this community, but they don’t always lean towards being raunchy. As Howie heads to a guest room, the patrons downstairs ease their energy. Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle then makes an appearance, introducing Willow to a young man who she takes to her bedroom. The patrons glance upstairs as they sing to “Gently Johnny,” a ritual-like song acknowledging the bedroom antics. All the while, Lord Summerisle monologues over two snails mating outside, making the connection between nature and sex for this community. Howie tries to sleep but the sounds coming from Willow’s room keep him tossing and turning. Nothing explicit is shown but the patrons singing, “I put my hand all on her breast” and “I put my hand all on her thigh,” leave little to the imagination. For Howie, this premarital sexual freedom is startling. All around, humans and creatures alike are embracing what this God-fearing man denies himself.

The following day, the Police Sergeant watches a teacher and pupils dance around a maypole on the school yard. No wooden pews keep them in place, those have been left in the old church behind the festive maypole. The song is innocent at first, quick-paced and child-like. Then it continues. The kids merrily sing to sex, birth, and rebirth. Once someone dies, the islanders believe they are reincarnated as a tree, becoming one with the nature they worship. Upon a closer look, the school children are separated by gender. The boys are outside, worshiping the maypole. Inside the school house, the girls are listening to Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) talk about the phallic symbolism associated with it. On the mention of this, Howie storms into the classroom. He berates the teacher Miss Rose for tainting the young minds with what is essentially the topic of reproduction. The adults and now the children act in ways Howie can’t grapple with. And they do so with so much pleasure. Miss Rose holds another role, leading to a more mysterious entry on Giovanni’s soundtrack.

the wicker man 1973 image

The soft blows from a flute introduce “Fire Leap.” The school teacher watches over a group of nude women in a fertility ritual, surrounded by majestic standing stones. One by one they jump over a fire, chanting, “Take the flame inside you, burn and burn belong.” It’s very dream-like, made more so with the women’s voices low and whispery. Seeing the naked women in broad daylight makes Howie uncomfortable on another level. Then he gets targeted more directly. Continue reading

The Wicker Man: 1973 folk-horror endures to this day as a masterpiece of the form

Free love and folk-singing hides a dark secret on the Scottish island of Summerisle in a film that’s bracing, exciting and downright funny

By Shaad D’Souza

Have you seen the horror film about a gormless, well-intentioned westerner lured to a lush, sparsely populated isle in search of meaning, only to find paganism, unbridled sexual politics, folk dancing and abject violence?

I’m not talking about Midsommar, the 2019 folk-horror hit by auteur Ari Aster that freaked out audiences with its broad-daylight senicide and twee ritualism. I’m referring to a film that came out nearly 50 years earlier, and which often out-weirds and out-wilds its younger cousin despite containing none of the gore or violence. I’m talking about The Wicker Man, the 1973 British horror-musical that popularised the folk-horror genre, and endures to this day as a masterpiece of the form.

Directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man is a strange but essential B-movie artefact, one which has, over the past 20 years, been reclaimed as a masterpiece of British cinema and now has a home on prestige streaming platform Mubi. Starring Edward Woodward and iconic 60s actress and sex symbol Britt Ekland, the film follows police sergeant Neil Howie who receives an anonymous tip that a young girl has gone missing on the far-off Scottish island of Summerisle.

When he arrives, he finds that he’s bitten off far more than he can chew. Not only are the island’s residents cheerily working together to obfuscate the details of what happened to the girl, they also seem to have given up on Christianity entirely – worshipping pagan gods and conducting a sinister masked procession on May day.

The devoutly Christian sergeant is appalled – villagers roaming naked and having sex in the lush fields, churchyards overrun with wildlife and entirely devoid of Christian symbology, school lessons on the phallic origins of the maypole, and a suave, smartly dressed lord, played by Christopher Lee, who rules in place of an elected official. Most sinister of all is that despite their wide grins and penchant for song and dance, Howie is pretty certain the missing girl has been given up as a human sacrifice in exchange for an abundant harvest.Devoid of any “traditional” horror devices – jump scares, gore and the like – The Wicker Man instead asks viewers to draw their own conclusions about the traditions of Summerisle. (As with Midsommar, I found the supposedly barbaric villagers to be sympathetic and perversely reasonable, but the film allows for any number of interpretations while still being straightforward and accessible, one of its greatest formal triumphs.) What transpires over the course of the film is unsettling and often bizarre, but also poses salient questions about tradition, judgment and moral relativism. And it does it all in a breezy, evenly paced 88 minutes. Although sometimes arcane in its references, I cannot express how bracing, exciting and downright funny a first watch of The Wicker Man is.

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From Enys Men to The Witch: What’s behind cinema’s folk horror boom?

Eloise Hendy delves into the genre that turns the pastoral idyll into a place of terror, and asks what’s behind this obsession with the natural world, magic cults, standing stones and feminine powers

By Eloise Hendy

In Enys Men – the much-anticipated new film written and directed by Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin, whose last feature, Bait (2019), earned him a Bafta for Outstanding Debut – a woman in walking boots, jeans, and a translucent red anorak trudges across gorsy moorland towards a cliff face. She clambers down, perches on a rocky outcrop, and stares intently at a few white flowers as they sway in the wind, high above clamorous waves below.

Every day she studies these flowers. Then, every day she drops a rock into an abandoned tin mine’s inky depths, and stands listening for a distant thud. She returns to an isolated, ivy-covered cottage. A standing stone sticks out of the landscape like an ancient dagger-head. The woman pulls the cord of a power generator, makes a pot of tea, listens to the scratchy, indistinct noises of a radio communication device, and, in a logbook, records the date – April 1973 – and the words ‘”no change”. At bedtime, by candlelight, she reads an environmental manifesto titled Blueprint for Survival. Snatched glimpses of the cover reveal a quote in red: “Nightmarishly convincing… After reading it nothing quite seems the same any more.”

This phrase goes to the heart of this strange, spectral work of cinema. Even calling it a film feels wrong somehow; it feels more like a fever dream, or hallucination. For, almost as soon as the unnamed wildlife volunteer’s routine comes into focus for the viewer, it starts to fracture. Lichen blooms on her flowers and on a scar that stretches across her abdomen. Grubby-faced men holding pickaxes stare at her from the mineshaft; sailors lost at sea grin and drip outside her front door; a girl in white bell bottoms stands on the outhouse roof. Steadily, the whole far-flung landscape begins to teem with apparitions. They are both convincing and nightmarish; nothing quite seems the same any more. Is the volunteer losing her mind? Or merging with an ancient Cornish terrain – one riddled with myth and old scars, like her lichen-sprouting stomach?

In a statement accompanying Enys Men (which is pronounced Ennis Main, and means “stone island” in Cornish), Jenkin suggests his starting point for the film was a single question: “What if the landscape was not only alive, but sentient?” Long fascinated by Cornish standing stones and their accompanying legends – one of which imagines the rocks as the petrified remains of a group of young girls, punished for dancing – Jenkin found himself imagining what these stones and remote moorlands might get up to under cover of darkness. “Almost inevitably, considering the setting,” he writes, “the idea was inclined towards folk horror.”

Jenkin is far from the only contemporary filmmaker inclined in this direction. Indeed, for at least a decade we have been in the midst of a magnificent folk horror revival. But why has this strange subgenre of standing stones and spectral presences captured the imagination of filmmakers and audiences in the UK and beyond? What does the folk horror boom say about our contemporary fears?

The term itself only went mainstream in 2010, when Mark Gatiss used it in the BBC documentary series The History of Horror to describe three British films now known as the Unholy Trinity: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). It is certainly no coincidence then that Enys Men is set in 1973, as, making the film, it was precisely these cinematic roots Jenkin wanted to rummage in. “For me,” Jenkin writes, “folk horror has very English connotations. The stripping away of a pastoral layer of Merrie England to reveal an earlier Celtic and pagan past full of perceived brutality, deviance and threat.” Yet, since Gatiss first invoked the genre, cinemagoers on both sides of the Atlantic have been offered up Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), James Crow’s Curse of The Witching Tree (2015), Robert Egger’s The VVitch (subtitled “A New England Folktale”), Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Scott Cooper’s Antlers (2021) and, most recently, Alex Garland’s Men (2022). All present nightmarish visions of a deviant, occult and cult-addled countryside. And that is far from an exhaustive list. Continue reading

The best British horror films of all time – NME

The Wicker Man (1973) Edward Woodward (if you can read that without thinking ‘ee-wah woo-wah’, you didn’t listen to your dad’s jokes closely enough) plays a puritanical policeman sent to investigate disappearances on the remote Summerisle, which turns out have a sort of Royston Vasey-meets-Burning Man vibe. What it says about Britain: Yeah, the Romans […]


Continue at NME: The best British horror films of all time – NME

Time To Keep Your Appointment: Acid Folk’s Unrelenting Renewal

When Alex Neilson was a teenager in Leeds, his musical comfort zone was in the city’s DIY scene – specifically its more improv-based, experimental noise corners. To the young man sporting homemade t-shirts of the free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler, the idea of folk music, with its austerity and cosy certainties, was not on the agenda. Until Neilson had an epiphany.“

There was a bunch of progressive weirdos doing skull splitting drone music that really helped forge/warp my tastes” Neilson told me, “Around a similar time I came across traditional British folk music and that became an alternative way of experiencing British culture- one that was romantic and elemental and connected to the underlying mystery of places that were very precious to me.”

For the last decade now, Neilson’s group Trembling Bells have been quietly reinventing what it means to be influenced by folk music, and as they release their sixth record ‘Dungeness’, it’s clear that Trembling Bells have now found themselves amidst a small blossoming resurgence in the aesthetics and ideas of the acid folk moment of the late 60s and early 70s.The acid folk moment was the point at which traditional British folk music, which had been thriving in the hundreds of folk clubs across Britain in the late 50s and 60s, rubbed up against the mid-60s burgeoning psychedelia (and in some cases jazz). This spawned some of the most incredible British music of its generation, in unique acts like Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Mellow Candle, Trees and early Fairport Convention. Continue reading