Happy belated May Day, everyone!
The twist to The Wicker Man (1973) is not all that surprising. It’s essentially given away in the name, and you can take your best guess at who its intended victim is. But where The Wicker Man shines is also where it is most problematic: its demonizing fear of Paganism.
The basic plot is this: upon receiving an anonymous letter about a missing child, Sergeant Neal Howie ventures to Summerisle to investigate. All that he knows about the remote island initially is that it is famous for growing delicious apples, but upon arriving, the pious policeman finds an isolated community deeply entrenched in Pagan practices, and surprisingly short on apples for the coming year. The people behave strangely when questioned, offering various unhelpful answers about the child’s whereabouts, almost as if they are trolling him. Some even say that she is dead. But Howie is particularly disturbed by the traditions he witnesses, some of which are related to the upcoming May Day celebration.
Everyone in the tavern sings bawdily about having sex with the landlord’s daughter, and it is presented as a rite of passage into manhood. Children talk about the phallic significance of maypoles in school, and dance naked and jump over fires to increase fertility. People have sex in open fields and breastfeed their babies in the cemetery. Frogs are even stuck in your mouth to cure a sore throat. Everything seems to be very old and based on old-world beliefs and superstitions.
The cinematography shoots everything from the perspective of an outsider, with many shots cutting back to Howie’s stern, unamused, or horrified face. The camera lingers on the taboo and strange to emphasize how alien and uncivilized it is, and yes, even for a bit of scandalous titillation. Despite his revulsion, Howie is somewhat tempted by the shameless, uncomplicated society that Summerisle has cultivated. If most horror movies represent a cultural anxiety of the times in which they are made, this complexity in the main character may represent the mutual disdain and desire to return to a life of ignorance, where people can live, at least in part, as animals.
That said, much like with A Quiet Place, I think this film would be better suited by the Suspense-Thriller genre label, as most of it is more unnerving than outright, in-your-face horrifying. At least in comparison to most horror films.
Lord Summerisle, played by the immortally awesome Christopher Lee, explains that his grandfather bred new strands of apple trees while encouraging the island’s inhabitants to practice their beliefs, saying that their old gods would help them grow and prosper. It is unclear how much he personally believes, but he clearly benefits off of the people’s labor and happiness, so he encourages them as well. In addition to the mystery of potential child murder, this lends an extra layer of creepiness to the island, as if it is a hive mind with a conniving, manipulative puppet master.
I find this somewhat funny as a modern-day Episcopalian who sees elements of manipulation and ignorance in Christianity, as well as all other organized religions. The Wicker Man is not subtle in its condemnation of Paganism as a whole; we are meant to side with Howie – despite how prudish he is shown to be – and be horrified by the archaic, bizarre activities we see on the island, as if Christianity has no repurposed Pagan traditions and celebrations incorporated into its own, and many of its ministers don’t also encourage blind faith and adherence to rules over critical thinking. But then again, this movie came out in a different era, and we still live in a time in which many people refuse to examine their beliefs and doctrines, so who am I to judge?
Christianity is not the oldest religion alive, but given its age, it is funny to me that it would be presented as the “modern” and “proper” world fighting against the old, “lawless” world of Paganism. Is this meant to be a change vs rigid tradition story? That’s a laugh. And hey, unless Lord Summerisle’s grandfather kept the people completely in the dark about his agronomy, which is not explicitly stated, we can assume that the island’s people are not completely against innovation. It gave them new trees off of which they could profit.
In fact, Howie is shown to be the person who cannot tolerate differences, the “changes” he sees from his life on the Scottish mainland. So is it just “Christianity good, anything else bad”? Because even if Howie is laughed at by his coworkers, being too Christian is shown to be better than too Pagan. We don’t even see a middle-ground Pagan, unless you count Lord Summerisle, who may or may not believe anything that he’s selling.
But I digress.
The main tension of the film comes from what happened to Rowan Morrison, the child in question, and whether or not she is dead or being held somewhere, perhaps waiting to be sacrificed, and it is very effective. A secondary tension arises from the strange words and actions of the people, whose suspiciousness feels increasingly deliberate as Howie explores Summerisle. Even knowing that the wicker man is going to come into play, you just want to know what makes them tick, why they live and behave so differently than what you, the viewer. It’s a very Alice in Wonderland kind of story, in which the effect can sometimes be that, despite being told that the answer is ignorance and madness, you can’t help but think there has to be another reason there. It can be just as fascinating as it is creepy, at least to a person like me.
Sergeant Howie is a compelling character in some ways, but he’s also a stick in the mud who has to speak up about every little thing that he doesn’t agree with. The problem with having your main character be a “straight man” reacting to weirdos all around him, especially one as strict as Howie, is that sometimes, that character ends up with no personality as a result. We know that he loves God and that is about it. Unless you’re onboard with his one character trait 100%, it’s hard to form a strong connection with him, so you only want him to escape this endeavor alive is because…he’s a person. On a basic level, human beings don’t want other human beings to die, but if you don’t feel connected to him (or worse, find him actively annoying or unpleasant), he may as well be some random guy in a crowd, about to get stomped on by Godzilla. Sure, it sucks, but you’ll get over it quickly.
He also doesn’t bring any backup with him to the island, which, even for what might be a short-staffed police force, seems glaringly unwise on his part. At least in this day and age; maybe it was totally different in the 70’s.
As I mentioned, a consequence of this movie is believing that all who identify as Pagan are backwards, immoral, and scary, and that they endorse animal or human sacrifice. This is, of course, not true, and I doubt that many Pagans appreciate the fear mongering. In reality, Paganism is vast and diverse. It is just another group of beliefs that people choose to follow in the course of their lives, and those individuals are no more prone to immoral or violent actions than anyone else.
Unfortunately, some downsides of the horror genre are that some people either miss the nuanced commentary, or they interpret it correctly, but it’s only real message was “othering and fearing this person/group is justified!” Not every director chooses to criticize and challenge societal paranoia, and while the resulting movies like The Wicker Man can still be good movies on their own, they then encourage or exacerbate trends that are problematic and potentially harmful to real people. For a similar example, check out Lindsay Ellis’s video essay My Monster Boyfriend, in which she talks about the racial coding of monster movies, dating all the way back to Birth of a Nation.
So yes, while I think The Wicker Man does a good job maintaining some suspense and tension, despite giving a lot away in its title and DVD box art, I also think that it presents an overblown, unfair stereotype of Pagans. And some things that the movie wants you to be unnerved by are less evil than they are just generally frowned upon in a prim and proper society with Judeo-Christian roots. Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter, is painted as an evil siren seductress, and we’re supposed to be shocked by how much sex she has. I’m sorry, but isn’t this taking place in the 70’s? Wasn’t there a big sexual revolution around that time? I mean, how dare she be active and consenting in her relationships with men and like it as much as she does!
I watch this movie once a year, usually on May Day itself, and I think it is worth watching because it’s more complicated than it appears. Also, Christopher Lee is arguably the best thing about the whole production. He even gets a song in the extended version!
*Note: None of the images used in this post belong to me.