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Left to right: Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, and Jason Miller (1939 – 2001) as Father Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, directed by William Friedkin, 1973. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
How The Wicker Man and The Exorcist redefined horror

How The Wicker Man and The Exorcist redefined horror

Left to right: Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, and Jason Miller (1939 – 2001) as Father Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, directed by William Friedkin, 1973. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Fifty years on, Matthew d’Ancona explains why the two films are still spookily relevant

A devoutly Christian police officer arrives on an island off the west coast of Scotland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, who has perhaps been murdered in a pagan rite. A Jesuit psychiatrist is summoned to the home of a film star in Georgetown, Washington DC, to help her deeply disturbed daughter, whom she fears is possessed by a demon. 

Two 12-year-old girls, two potential rescuers, two horror movies. The first is The Wicker Man, the second The Exorcist; and both were released in 1973, half a century ago.

The differences between the two films are profound. The Wicker Man was a bargain basement British production with a budget of only £420,000, written by Anthony Shaffer and shot in haste by first-time director Robin Hardy on location in Dumfries and Galloway.

Though the plot is set in springtime – leading up to the ancient, and in this case terrible, rituals of May Day – production constraints meant that shooting had to begin promptly in October 1972, when conditions were arctic. To stop their breath showing on screen, the cast were given ice cubes to put in their mouths. Synthetic apple blossom was hung from the trees. The camera crew often had to keep their distance from the actors to prevent the goose pimples on their skin being visible.

Initially framed as a murder mystery, The Wicker Man soon turns into something much stranger and more subtle. Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), of the West Highland police, receives a tip-off from an anonymous source on Summerisle, a private island, that 12-year-old Rowan Morrison has been missing from her home for months.

Heading to the scene by seaplane, Howie – a priggish, virginal Christian – is appalled by what he discovers: answering only to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the islanders live according to the “old religion” of their ancestors, disdain traditional sexual morality and practise magical cures, rituals and dances.

Prolific actor Christopher Lee said The Wicker Man was ‘the best film I’ve ever been in’

The mood is surreal and sinister, never quite straying into the outright camp aesthetic of the Hammer films that Shaffer and Hardy so loved – though the presence of Lee and Ingrid Pitt (as the “nymphomaniac librarian”), both stalwarts of that uniquely British genre, is a form of homage. 

No less eccentrically British is the cameo performance of Lindsay Kemp, the great dancer and choreographer, as Alder MacGregor, the landlord of the Green Man inn; while Britt Ekland plays his daughter Willow (her Swedish accent overdubbed by the actress and singer Annie Ross). Though horribly tempted, Howie resists her apparent attempt to seduce him – again, most of Willow’s nude dance being performed not by Ekland herself but by a body double.

Finding Rowan still alive, Howie believes he has thwarted a plot to sacrifice her to the pagan gods and ensure a good harvest. But in one of the great twists in all cinema, he discovers in the closing moments of the film that it is he who is to be the sacrifice. 

The ritual slaughter requires “a willing, king-like virgin fool”, which is why Howie – a chaste figure of authority – has been lured to the island by a lie. Dragged over the crest of a hill, he sees the immense and terrifying wicker man – “Oh, God! Oh, Jesus Christ!” – in which he is to be burned alive while the deranged islanders, swaying back and forth, sing “Summer is icumen in”.

Though Lee considered The Wicker Man to be “the best film I’ve ever been in, the best part I’ve ever had”, Michael Deeley, the managing director of the production company British Lion, declared it on first viewing to be “one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen”. It was indeed poorly cut, relegated to B-movie status as the supporting feature for Nic Roeg’s psychological masterpiece Don’t Look Now, and more or less consigned to oblivion. 

Only in years to come did it acquire the status of a cult classic and – with pardonable exaggeration – the “Citizen Kane of horror movies”. Today, it has its own fansites, location tours, even a roller-coaster ride named in its honour at Alton Towers.

In complete contrast, The Exorcist was an instant blockbuster hit. Based on a bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, directed by William Friedkin (who had already won an Oscar for The French Connection), with a budget of $12 million, the film touched a popular nerve from the moment of its release on Boxing Day, 1973.

As Quentin Tarantino recalls in the 2018 documentary, Friedkin Uncut: “The Exorcist was that first movie that was so incredibly popular that people went to the movie theatre and stood in line, not for the next show, and not even for the show after that – but for the show after that. Because people needed to see The Exorcist – it was like nothing they’d ever seen before.”

And that is true. The demonic possession of Regan (Linda Blair), daughter of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), presented audiences with images that, to this day, remain deeply shocking: a 12-year-old girl transformed into a hideous, scarred monster, roaring obscenities, projectile-vomiting thick pea-green bile, attacking others by telekinesis, rotating her head 360 degrees, levitating from her bed, and masturbating with a bloody crucifix.

Yes, an adult double, Eileen Dietz, was used for most of the extreme sequences. But their impact is still profoundly disturbing, and, on initial release, caused many viewers to faint, walk out or even attack the screen. In the UK, the video version of the film was banned in 1988 and remained so for 11 years. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that The Exorcist, at least as Friedkin and Blatty made it, would be greenlit by a major studio or streaming service in the very different ethical climate of 2023.

American actor Linda Blair was 14 in 1973 when she played the possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist

To be fair, the film is much more than a series of shocks, an aggregation of gruesome special effects. At its heart is the character of Damien Karras, a priest and psychiatrist whose faith is faltering, played by the little-known actor, Jason Miller. The much more bankable Stacy Keach had already been signed up for the part, but Friedkin was so impressed by Miller’s impromptu screen test with Burstyn that he paid off Keach and – much to the dismay of Warner Bros – rolled the dice.

The director’s instincts were richly rewarded. Miller gave to Karras both a fragility and a strength, capturing his oscillation between faith and despair, and his deep guilt about the hospitalisation and lonely death of his mother – a guilt that the demon possessing Regan brutally exploits.

Miller also interacts brilliantly with Max von Sydow, who plays the older exorcist, Lankester Merrin. Incredibly, von Sydow – best known at the time for his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman – was only 44 when he played the elderly priest. 

Merrin, we learn, is one of the few surviving priests who has first-hand experience of the exorcism ritual – one of which, in Africa, lasted for months and “damn near killed him”. In the film’s stunning opening sequence, set in the ruins of Nineveh in Mosul, northern Iraq, he finds a St Joseph medal and a green stone amulet in the figure of the demon Pazuzu.

Clearly very ill, Merrin takes medication with trembling hands before scrambling up a hill to face a statue of the same evil spirit – an unforgettable portent of the confrontation to come. Much later in the movie, his arrival at the Georgetown house, in eerie silhouette, yields one of the most famous images in movie history.

In the final scenes, Merrin dies, as his heart gives way while he is alone with the possessed Regan. Enraged, Karras attacks her – and then, in a moment of supreme spiritual strength, invites the demon to transfer itself from the girl into his own body (“Take me! Come into me! God damn you! Take me! Take me!”). 

With the bait taken, Karras’s face is suddenly bleached and contorted as Pazuzu seizes control of him and tries to kill Regan. But, in one final surge of humanity, the priest hurls himself out of the window and tumbles down the long staircase by the house in Georgetown (now one of the most visited movie locations in the world). 

The islanders in The Wicker Man ‘disdain traditional sexual morality and practise magical cures, rituals and dances’

Before he dies, he is given the last rites at the foot of the steps by his friend Father Joseph Dyer (played by the real-life priest, Father Bill O’Malley). When Dyer visits the recovered Regan, her mother tells him that she “doesn’t remember a thing”. But, before they drive away, the girl sees his clerical collar and kisses him on the cheek, as if in reflexive gratitude to the priesthood.

So very different in their origins, The Exorcist and The Wicker Man have nonetheless converged in many respects in the past 50 years. For a start, both are magnificent planets around which orbit many moons made of absolute trash.

To date, The Exorcist has inspired two sequels (one an all-time turkey, the latter just about bearable); two ho-hum prequels (one directed by Paul Schrader, the other by Renny Harlin); and a two-season television series, featuring Geena Davis as the adult Regan, now living with her family as “Angela Rance”. It is depressing to report that a three-movie series of further sequels, with Ellen Burstyn attached, is presently in development.

The Wicker Man has suffered similar indignities – in particular, the unbelievably terrible 2006 Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage (“Oh no, not the bees! Not the bees!”). In 2011, a sequel of sorts, The Wicker Tree, was released, written and directed by Robin Hardy, and once again featuring Christopher Lee as an “Old Gentleman” who is clearly Lord Summerisle himself. It sank without trace. But that has not deterred Andy Serkis from teaming up with writer Howard Overman to develop a forthcoming television reboot of this franchise-that-should-never-have-been.

The more closely you look, the more the affinities between the two original movies mount up. Both were afflicted by tensions between the two men that created them. Blatty and Friedkin quarrelled about everything from who should play Karras (Blatty wanted the role for himself) to The Exorcist’s true theological meaning. 

Hardy and Shaffer struggled for control of The Wicker Man, and later became fully estranged, briefing against one another to journalists and authors. 

Partly (but not solely) because of these struggles, the cutting of both movies was hugely controversial, and, for some, remains so to this day. In the past 50 years, thanks in part to the advent of DVDs and Blu-ray, multiple versions of both have been released. The latest iterations are The Wicker Man: The Final Cut (2013) and The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut (2010) – though it is far from certain that they will be the last.

Music is also central to both movies: so important in the case of The Exorcist that Friedkin dared to junk a score written by Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the greatest soundtrack composer of all time (his career began with Citizen Kane and ended with Taxi Driver). Eventually, the frustrated director settled on a theme by a musician of whom he had never heard, which he had sampled more or less at random: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

For The Wicker Man, the American composer Paul Giovanni was hired to create a sonic landscape that captured perfectly the spirit of ancestral folk song, with a dash of early Seventies psychedelia thrown in to evoke the mood of contemporary hippy nature worship and pastoralism. Though the songs that so disturb Howie’s Christian sensibilities are meant to be performed by locals, Giovanni used six musicians from the Royal Academy and the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra for the May Day procession and burning.

Yet such symmetries between the two films are secondary compared to the principal terrain that they share: namely, the question of faith, the supernatural and magic. Friedkin, now aged 87, is disingenuous when he claims that The Exorcist was the first modern movie to tackle the question of religion seriously.

For a start, what about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Kenji Mizoguchi, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bergman himself? It is surely no accident that Friedkin cast the Swedish director’s favourite actor, Von Sydow, star of The Seventh Seal (1957) – an exploration of the Book of Revelation set in the Middle Ages – as Merrin (the studio had wanted Marlon Brando).

Many Christians, and the evangelist Billy Graham in particular, denounced The Exorcist as the work of Satan. In fact, it is a deeply, almost traditionally religious film, in which the saving power of Christianity is affirmed, and the supposed limits of science as an explanatory system powerfully dramatised.

Max von Sydow in The Exorcist – ‘one of the most famous images in movie history’

The scenes in which Regan is subjected to a series of invasive medical tests – especially a bloody arteriogram examination – are as disturbing to watch as the possession sequences. As the stony-faced physicians are forced to admit diagnostic defeat, Chris erupts: “Christ, 88 doctors and all you can tell me is all of your bullshit!” In the end, it is the scientists who send her to consult an exorcist. 

“You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?” she says. “Is that it?”

In desperation, however, she does consult Karras – who is initially even more sceptical. “Well, the first thing I’d do is put [the person] into a time machine and send them back to the 16th Century,” he says. “[I]t just doesn’t happen any more, Mrs MacNeil.”

Yet, in the end, it does. After the failure of their first attempt to drive out the demon, Karras asks Merrin to explain the horrors they are witnessing:

Karras: Father, what’s going on in there? What is it? If that’s the Devil, why this girl? It makes no sense. 

Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair, Damien – to see ourselves as animal and ugly – to reject our own humanity – to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.

As the movie’s director reveals in the 2019 documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist: “Karras is the target of the demon, not the little girl. The demon moves right in and is trying to show Karras that his faith is worthless, useless, ineffective. That’s the purpose of the entire possession, and this is an act by the Devil to show the young priest that human beings are disgusting pieces of filth at bottom.” It is precisely this diabolical strategy that Karras defeats in his final act of self-sacrifice. 

Little-known actor Jason Miller played priest Damien Karras (right) in The Exorcist

The Wicker Man also has an act of sacrifice as its finale – with the all-important difference that the subject, Howie, is unwilling and the murderous ritual entirely pointless except as a form of social control. The Exorcist is a religious film. In contrast, The Wicker Man is a film about religion, in which nothing supernatural or mystical actually occurs.

The confrontation on Summerisle is not between celestial good and demonic evil, but between two systems of human belief. As Allan Brown puts it in his definitive book, Inside The Wicker Man: The Morbid Ingenuities (2000): “Christianity and paganism are not polar opposites, or mutually contradictory; they merely begin from differing first principles… [The film’s] unifying theme is that all religions are merely social constructs.”

When Howie confronts Summerisle furiously at his magnificent home, the laird explains that his grandfather, “a distinguished Victorian scientist, agronomist, free thinker”, came to the island, drawn by “the unique combination of volcanic soil and the warm gulf stream that surrounded it”; perfect, he believed, for the “new strains of fruit that he had developed”.

Summerisle continues: “The best way of accomplishing this, so it seemed to him, was to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods, and as a result of this worship, the barren island would burgeon and bring forth fruit in great abundance.”

The scene is the hinge of the entire movie, dramatising the confrontation between Howie’s rigid Episcopalianism and Summerisle’s reanimated paganism. What of the Christian God, asks the sergeant. “He’s dead,” replies Summerisle. “He can’t complain. He had his chance, and in the modern parlance, he blew it.”

At this point, the laird is implicitly answering a notorious Time magazine cover of April 1966, which posed the question, in large red lettering on black: “Is God dead?” At a time of social unease, permissiveness, global instability, and the disruption of traditional organised religion, this was very much to the point – and remained so in 1973.

But, crucially, what Summerisle proposes is not that humanity fully embraces secularism, rationalism and science, but quite the opposite: that we restore the old gods and the religious practices that preceded Christianity.

What Hardy and Shaffer presented on screen was based on serious research. Their principal manual was J. G. Frazer’s 12-volume study of ancient mythology and belief, The Golden Bough (1890-1936), while the wicker man itself was inspired by the ancient accounts of Gallic druidic practices written by the Greek scholar Posidonius (c.135- c.51bc) and by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic War (58-49bc):

All the Gauls are extremely devoted to superstitious rituals; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims or vow that they will sacrifice them and employ the druids as the performers of those sacrifices … Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which, formed of osiers [wicker], they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. 

Ingrid Pitt as the ‘nymphomaniac librarian’ in The Wicker Man

Is the revival of such practices merely the stuff of scary escapist movies? Demented though Summerisle may seem, he has a keen sense of history. As Keith Thomas observes in his classic study of early modern England, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), when Catholicism was supplanted by Protestantism, ancient folklore became more rather than less popular: “The Reformation took a good deal of the magic out of religion, leaving the astrologers and cunning men to fill much of the vacuum.”

In the early Seventies, a similar process was at work, as the focused social and political ideals of the previous decade gave way to the astral visions of the “New Age”, an ever greater use of LSD and peyote, flirtations with satanism, communes and cults, teepees and Tarot. Man might have landed on the Moon in 1969, but it was lunar cycles that gripped the younger generation in the years that followed.

For the religious, this was an age of profound anxiety. On 15 November 1972, Pope Paul VI proclaimed: “Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being perverted and perverting. A terrible reality…”

But it was not only the conventionally faithful who felt destabilised and reached out for supernatural guidance – from whatever source available. In his fine account of the era, How We Got Here – The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life – For Better or Worse (2000), David Frum identifies The Exorcist as emblematic of a time when “tales of spirits and prophecy from the stars moved from the cabins of the Ozarks and the palm readers’ booths at county fairs into college dormitory rooms and suburban kitchens”.

Both these films are products of their age and of the specific social context that spawned them: important cultural records of a moment in history. But to watch them again in 2023 is to be struck no less by their astonishing contemporary resonance, and their unexpected relevance to the first quarter of the 21st Century.

Who, in 1973, would have predicted not only the resilience but the growing global strength of fundamentalist religion? That the first wars of the coming century would be triggered by the terrorist attacks of theocratic fascists upon mainland America? That women’s rights would be rolled back all over the world by religious patriarchy?

Who for that matter would have foreseen the retreat of reason on so many fronts? Declining trust in expertise, the rise of pseudoscience, the mobilisation of quackery, snake oil and shamanistic nonsense against conventional medicine? The triumph of feelings over facts? 

When The Exorcist and The Wicker Man were released, the World Wide Web was still 16 years away. Yet, for all the progress it has undoubtedly enabled, that stupendous technological achievement has also been the greatest megaphone in human history for irrationality, superstition and magical thinking.

The algorithm, it turns out, is a much more effective form of possession than Pazuzu could ever have pulled off. The social media doom scroll inspires fear in billions far more powerfully than a wicker man in flames. 

About this much, Trotsky, writing in 1933, has been proved right: “Today, not only in peasant homes, but also in city sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”

There is no arc of history, no inevitable advance towards reason, the scientific world-view, and the secular values of humanism and the Enlightenment. This is the core lesson of our own age and one of which, with strange clairvoyance, 50 years ago, The Exorcist and The Wicker Man warned. They are fever dreams from the past, premonitions of the future, recurring visions projected forever on a silver screen framed by darkness.

Matthew d’Ancona has just completed a four-year stint as an editor and partner at Tortoise.

This piece is taken from the next edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, which will be published in March. Keep an eye out for it, and buy previous editions, in the Tortoise shop.

Photographs courtesy Getty Images, Rialto Pictures, Shutterstock