Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies into the harbour of the Scottish island of Summerisle on a mission to find a young girl called Rowan Morrison. He has received an anonymous letter from someone in the community telling him that she has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and he is now determined to find her. However, on reaching the shore thanks to the efforts of the harbourmaster and his rowing boat, he shows the photograph of Rowan posted to him and no one there recognises her. Undeterred, Howie goes to the house of the girl to speak to her confectioner mother (Irene Sunters), but she tells him that the only daughter she has is here, not called Rowan, and has not gone missing. So what has happened to the girl? Does she even exist?
Over the years, The Wicker Man grew in reputation from a minor but unsuccessful British horror to possibly the biggest cult film the United Kingdom has ever produced. It was scripted by Anthony Shaffer with the structure of a sick joke: everything in the story is leading up to its chilling punchline where the high spirits of the islanders are now shown to be masking more sinister intentions. Unfortunately the film is so well known now that if you've never seen it before you probably know the ending as television clip shows repeatedly give it away, and even the poster is illustrated by the climactic image.
Director Robin Hardy was lucky in that this inspired storyline was backed up by excellent performances that never fail to convince, specifically Woodward as the uptight, devout Christian copper and Christopher Lee as his counterpart, the leader of the island, Lord Summerisle. For years afterward, Lee would tell anyone who asked that this was his favourite role, and you can see why as the Lord is not a conventional villain with his good humour, impeccable manners and love of nature that is slowly revealed to be fueled by some singular and unsavoury beliefs.
The community on Summerisle is, if you haven't worked it out already, a pagan one and obviously at odds with Howie's religion, meaning many scenes of him being shocked at their rituals and, to him, inappropriate sexual behaviour. That first night on the island he lodges at the local inn and is perturbed not only by the bawdy songs the locals are singing in praise of the innkeeper's daughter (a dubbed Britt Ekland), but when he wanders outside for a breath of air there appears to be an orgy of sorts carried out in the nearby field and graveyard. To top it all, in his bedroom he is fairly worked up by the Ekland's singing and nude dancing behind the wall, one of the film's famous sequences - the excellent folk songs are so prevalent that this could almost be a twisted musical.
In light of the ending, you may wonder why the locals are so keen to get Howie to leave as they foil his questions at every turn. What if he'd just agreed and headed off home? As it is, he is further intrigued by the stories he hears, and is told that Rowan has died, although they don't like to use words like "dead" round here, preferring to think the deceased are being reincarnated in some way. Howie has to be convinced, of course, and orders the exhumation of the grave, only to find a hare buried in the coffin, making him all the more suspicious - could it be that the islanders are planning to sacrifice Rowan at their May Day festival? Are they really that perverse? One thing that you take away from The Wicker Man is that no matter what your religion, be it pagan or Christian, it's going to mess you up sooner or later and finally be useless in the face of the conclusively Godless world the film subversively depicts. The ending is justifiably regarded as classic. Music by Paul Giovanni.
[Optimum's Special Edition DVD contains both the Theatrical Version and the extended Director's Cut, trailers, an audio commentary with Hardy, Lee and Woodward moderated by Mark Kermode, two documentaries, archive footage of Lee and Hardy on American TV and the soundtrack on CD.]