Great scenes from horror history #4: The ending of The Wicker Man
For number four of my ongoing feature, I wanted to tackle a “big” scene from the horror archives. So far I have covered classic films, but not necessarily the most obvious choices for classic scenes. Hence, my fourth great scene from horror history is one that just about every fan of the genre can agree is a borderline masterpiece, and is now genuinely iconic. I am referring to the classic twist ending of 1973’s The Wicker Man.
Though most people now associate the name The Wicker Man with the 2006 Nicolas Cage travesty, the original is a great cult classic. While it has perhaps been slightly overrated over time, there’s no denying its influential power, and compared with the schlock Hammer Films often produced at the time, it is easy to see why The Wicker Man has remained an enduring piece of cinema.
The story, for those unaware, concerns virginal Christian police officer Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), who is called to the island of Summerisle to investigate a missing girl. From there, he sees strange, anti-Christian offences and Pagan rituals, which only seem to be encouraged by leader Lord Summerisle (Hammer icon Christopher Lee, who took no pay for the role). After finding the missing girl and learning she is to be sacrificed for a successful harvest, he tries to help her get away, and that is when the twist, one of the most iconic and celebrated twist endings in history, occurs…
The girl runs to her captors, and Howie realises he is trapped, and from there finds out the missing girl was a lie, to bring him to their island. And be their sacrifice. As they tie him up and drag him over the hill, his fate, and the titular creation of the film, looms in view; a giant wicker man in which he will be locked whilst it is burnt. He kicks and screams, but he is forced in there and the torches are lit. In a disturbingly cheery moment, all the villager’s link arms and sing an Old English folk song, while poor old Howie prays to God before the wicker man inevitably bursts into flames.
The build up to the reveal is fantastical and has a strange grace and serene beauty; the villagers stand interested, happy at the promise of a successful harvest, while beautiful young women prepare Howie, and a borderline lullaby plays on the soundtrack. Then, the dreamlike quality turns to a nightmare, as a pounding tribal drum marches Howie to his fate. The contrast of the cheery folk song the villagers sing, and the intense, hopeless screaming of Howie gives the scene a truly disturbing feel that still has the power to shock 40 odd years later.
Edward Woodward certainly gives one of the most underrated performances of all time as Sergeant Howie, the devote Christian who only has God to comfort him as he burns to death. As Lord Summerisle puts it so eloquently, he is granted “a martyr’s death”. It has been a long time since I have watched The Wicker Man, and yet Howie’s cries of “Oh Jesus Christ!” as he first sees the wicker man still ring in my ears. The use of handheld cameras, meanwhile, are used to subtle but stunning effect, giving a real sense of Howie’s viewpoint. Plus, is there a more beautiful ending to such a nightmare as the moment when the wicker man’s burning head falls off, and sunlight shines down?
It may be slightly dated in places, and a genuinely oddball, cult film to us horror devotees, but nobody can deny that the ending of The Wicker Man is still just as powerful, surprising, and upsetting as it was on first release, and I think nobody would argue that this truly deserves the honour of being one of the great scenes in horror history.
By Harry J. Ford
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