(director: Robin Hardy; screenwriters: from the novel by Anthony Shaffer/Anthony Shaffer; cinematographer: Harry Waxman; editor: Eric Boyd-Perkins; music: Paul Giovanni; cast: Edward Woodward (Sergeant Neil Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Britt Ekland (Willow MacGregor), Diane Cilento (Miss Rose), Ingrid Pitt (Librarian), Lindsay Kemp (Alder MacGregor), Russell Waters (Harbor Master), Irene Sunters (May Morrison), Geraldine Cowper (Rowan Morrison); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Peter Snell; Anchor Bay; 1973-UK)

“One of best horror films ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of best horror films ever made. It continues to receive favor as arguably the best cult film to emerge from England (up there with A Clockwork Orange, Performance, and Don’t Look Now). It has everything going for it: great location shots in a remote Scottish isle, stirring traditional Celtic music, riveting performances by the ensemble cast, a superb script by Anthony Shaffer based on his novel, real fright accomplished imaginatively and bloodlessly and without the usual horror scare ploys, a creepy religious edge (much like those in the Hammer productions), and a sinister theme revolving around misplaced religious practices that’s intelligently presented with accurate depictions of the Druid folklore traditions. First-time director Robin Hardy does a decent enough job; his modest directing keeps things tense and scary, as it builds to its unforgettable shocking third act.

A priggish, dutiful and righteous Christian Scottish police sergeant, Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), flies to a remote west coast Scottish island called Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing schoolgirl named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). The pastoral community known for its apples, is led bythe eccentriccharmingLord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose grandfather founded the community on pagan worship. The seemingly civilized Lord Summerisle tells the Sergeant at their initial meeting “God had his chance – and, in modern parlance – he blew it.”

The devout Christian policeman, unmarried and a sexually repressed virgin, is appalled at what he sees from the heathens and looks down upon them as crazies and inferiors. He takes umbrage at their nature worship, godless beliefs, practice of witchcraft, indifference to Jesus and tolerance of nudity. The voluptuous tavern owner’s daughter, Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland, Swedish actress), sings a ribald song and dances in the nude at night from a room next door in the inn and asks him to invite her into his bed. But the virtuous policeman refuses because he’s engaged and his religion forbids sex before marriage. The school teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), upsets him that she teaches her class of girls about phallic symbols. He’s further disgusted that naked young virgin girls leap through flames in a pagan dance. The investigation is stonewalled as the locals deny there ever was a Rowan, even her mother (Irene Sunters) denies her existence. The lone Christian on the island, where all the residents have abandoned Christianity for pagan fertility rites that involve the human sacrifice of virgins after a bad crop, finds himself stranded on the island during the May Day celebration. He will be shocked to learn during this fertility celebration, that comes with gay folk music and the participants in colorful symbolic costumes, where Lord Summerisle is in drag, that he’s become the prey and is en-caged in a hugh wicker-effigy that the villagers burn as an offering to the Celtic sun god for their crops to be fruitful for the next harvest. The film’s madcap merriness gives way to a perverse sense of doom. The culture war between the libertines advocating free love and the uptight Christian establishment advocating censorship, comes to a cruel ending that is as painful to watch as is the painful expression on the Sergeant’s face when he learns of his fate. The ending is brilliantly realized, keeping things provocative, unsettling and bizarre. … Of note, there’s an uncut version that is 102 minutes.

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REVIEWED ON 9/11/2006 GRADE: A     https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/