Last night, Ashley and I watched Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) together for the second time. It’s a fascinatingly dense movie, one that begs to be rewatched, brimming over with conflicts: between the insular culture of Summerisle (a fictional island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland) and the outside world; between puritanical repression and sexual liberation; between superstitious tradition and scientific modernity; and between poor, misguided Sgt. Neil Howie and the pagans he runs up against.
The Wicker Man is such a strange, unconventional horror film. It starts out as a rural mystery, when Sgt. Howie comes by plane to Summerisle to search for a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. And, unsurprisingly, the film pulls out the old “all is not as it seems” card – but the trope is deployed in such a creative way that the viewer’s never really on solid ground. The inhabitants of Summerisle are like a society beholden to trickster gods, refusing to give Sgt. Howie (and, in turn, the viewer) any clues except those which are methodically parceled out: a little girl’s story about a rabbit, a doctor’s cause of death, a gravestone. But the whole mystery is like a conspiracy of red herrings, in which every citizen of the island has a part to play.
This investigation is complicated by the unreliability of Sgt. Howie himself, a troubled outsider who turns to his faith in Christ for answers. As played by the late Edward Woodward, Howie is easily disturbed by the behaviors he witnesses on Summerisle, and spends much of the film standing at the edge of the frame, staring in horror at the heathen rites being celebrated. He comes with the authority of England’s law (making him “king-like” in the pagans’ eyes), yet finds that Summerisle doesn’t play by his rules. He only has a badge, but they have deeper, older magic.
Even when he’s not actively fighting the islanders’ traditions, Howie stands out in contrast to his surroundings, and this keeps the conflict always visually on the surface. In his black uniform, he makes a bad fit with the rolling green hills and crashing waves, while the pagans are constantly bedecked in smiles and bright, springtime outfits – often reds and yellows. They’re fully in communion with their island, and Howie, as a foreign pathogen, must inevitably be wiped out.
But the film is beautifully, endlessly ambivalent about whose side is right. The islanders are presented as cheerful, earthy, musical people, fully content in their way of life, with Howie as a sour interloper. However, several cracks appear in their façade, suggesting underlying problems with their lifestyle. For example, their very reason for bringing Howie to the island is based in the failure of their crops the previous year, and the film’s ending leaves the question open: will Lord Summerisle be vindicated the following year, or was the island really not meant to bear fruit?
The islanders also embrace a number of irrational, violent traditions, frequently inviting comparison to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The entire third act is devoted to these increasingly bizarre rites – the animal masks, the pentagram formed by the chopping swords, and finally, the live sacrifice within the title edifice. There’s no real reasoning behind them other than the sheer authority of Lord Summerisle and his ancient pagan beliefs. Christopher Lee is great here; his usual urbane villainy (see Dracula, Scaramanga, etc.) is coupled with an easygoing love of life and sincere desire to help his people.
His charisma and immorality are all the more frightening because they’re not motivated by simple evil, but rather by political necessity and self-preservation. I think this is The Wicker Man‘s triumph: it manages to express multiple nuanced arguments rather than providing the audience with a right and a wrong. It shows us a sexually frozen man always on his guard (reminiscent for me of Batman in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as he comes face to face with people enjoying themselves in ways he can’t understand, and at the same time gives us hints as to why we should fear for his life.
It’s a great and blood-chilling moment toward the end when Howie realizes that it isn’t Rowan Morrison who’s in danger at all, and I think this captures the film’s narrative well. It isn’t about the islanders endangering each other’s lives; they act as one. It is about Howie himself, his internal and external struggles, all of which work together to deliver him into Lord Summerisle’s hand. He is the individuality to their conformity; he is the moral guardian to their libertines. In the end, the values and traditions of Summerisle show their teeth, and consume Sgt. Howie within their eeriest and darkest rite, incorporating his ashes into the cycle of death and rebirth.
The Wicker Man is an interesting little gem of a movie. If it weren’t for the fact that most people going into the film expect something of a horrifying nature, you wouldn’t really know what to expect from the get-go. It’s one part mystery, one part horror, two parts musical and just a tiny bit of dark comedy thrown in there for good measure. I’ve seen this movie about four times now and I’m left with a different impression of it each time. With this viewing I found myself taking note quite often of the parallels between Sgt. Howie’s ramrod-straight, religious attitude and the citizens of Summerisle’s free-spirited, phallic-symbol loving, orgies-in-the-field (yeah, there are totally orgies in the field) Paganism.
From the very beginning these differences are one of the main driving forces of the film and I found myself thinking about how off-putting Howie’s behavior is. It makes him kind of inaccessible as a protagonist. Unless you are also a staunch, strict religious person, you’re probably not going to relate to his disapproving, judgmental looks, his tut-tutting of these apparently happy, care-free people, and his unwavering belief that HIS God is THE God and these heathens are wholly sinful and wrong. It’s an interesting trick the movie plays on the viewer; you don’t root for Howie or really want him to come out triumphant because it seems like all the threats he perceives are completely in his head and the product of his own fears and intolerance.
But there is still this underlying sense of unease, just below the surface of the film. You know these people are strange, you can sense they’re hiding something from Howie but is he truly in danger? It isn’t until you get more than halfway into the movie that you begin to suspect that, hmmm, maybe these people ARE really fucked up (in a totally dangerous way) and maybe Sgt. Howie IS in peril.
It isn’t until the very end, for me anyway, when Howie is faced with the titular figure, faced with his own mortality that my heart starts to pound for him and I feel sorry for him and want him to escape and come out triumphant. It’s an incredibly powerful scene; Howie begins to scream out to his Christian God and you feel his terror cut through you. And to the very end, I was noting the parallels between the two faiths: as the effigy burns Howie prays and sings out to Christ as the citizens of Summerisle sing about the coming of summer.
And therein lies something that, if the movie were without it, it would not work as well. The music. This movie is weirdly part musical and it just adds to the ethereal weirdness of the island. Sgt. Howie looks on in disdainful confusion and disgust as the citizens sing lewd songs about the Landlord’s Daughter and as the young boys tug (or jerk) strategically placed ribbons while circling a maypole and learning the importance of fertility during the Maypole Song. Oddly enough, these songs don’t seem random or out of place; it fits so perfectly with the otherworldly strangeness that is Summerisle that it only makes sense that these people like to break out into song.
And the soundtrack, which was entirely composed by Paul Giovanni, is a huge part of the different moods and atmospheres of the film. While the playful, suggestive lyrics and tunes of the aforementioned songs create an air of festivity and liveliness the slower, throbbing, earthier melodies of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song give portions of the film a deep, strange sensuality: they’re inviting you, tempting you, just like they’re tempting Sgt. Howie, to come deeper into this world of carefree lust and spiritual sexuality.
And speaking of which: Willow. Oh, Willow, be still my heart. Sucker that I am for a beautiful girl, I love the character of Willow. Played with a gentle sensuality and purposeful, knowing innocence by Britt Ekland, she’s a soft, luscious but dangerous aspect of the film. We first see her as the friendly, soft-spoken, object of lust for the inn patrons, the landlord’s daughter of the song, dancing around and bringing dinner to Sgt. Howie.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear, as with all the shady citizens of Summerisle, that there’s more to this salacious siren than originally thought. During a climactic (in more ways than one) scene, Willow sings her song, inviting Howie and writhing sensually around her room, pounding the doors and walls and touching and stroking the many phallic shaped objects in her room.
It soon becomes clear that this strumpet is just like the rest of the citizens of Summerisle: hiding something. She has an agenda, her every move and word have a purpose and it’s all tightly woven into the fabric of the all-encompassing tapestry of the plot. Everything that is said and done by these islanders, from the moment Howie’s plane touches down and even before that, is carefully calculated and purposeful. He was brought here for a very specific purpose: a “willing, king-like, virgin fool” is needed for sacrifice and it’s all so airtight by the end of the film that you are just as stricken by it as Howie is. In so many other movies, with a plot device or requirement that insanely specific it would seem overreaching and ridiculous; but the citizens of Summerisle live their lives by ancient tradition. They put toads in the children’s mouths to cure sore throats. This seems perfectly normal as far as their traditions go. It just happens to be chillingly homicidal.
As Andreas and I were watching last night we talked a lot about how, despite the crazy rituals involved in this Pagan faith, is it any more or less crazily demanding than any other religion? At the core of this film, along with a lot of other themes and ideas, is the idea of faith. What faith and belief makes people do. There are constant clashes of faith between Howie and the inhabitants of Summerisle and neither side will back down from their beliefs, even when it leads to murder. And even the act of murder and death are two completely different things when look at through these two faiths. To Howie and the viewers, he is being murdered. To the islanders, they’re just trying to save their crops. Howie will not die; he will be transmuted into their successful crops.
So that’s The Wicker Man, a film of bottomless complexity which entangles eroticism, religious tradition, man’s relationship to the earth, and utter terror. It’s worth noting that the director, Robin Hardy, has only directed one other film, and has a follow-up to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree, due out next year. Will it compare in any way? I hope we get a chance to find out. (There was also a 2006 remake, but we don’t like to talk about that.) Till then, we’ll go on pondering the fate of Sgt. Howie and the motives of the islanders, reaping a bountiful harvest of entertainment from this horror masterpiece.