When Sergeant Howie of the Scottish West Highlands Constabulary receives an anonymous letter reporting the disappearance of a young girl, he travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the charge. To his horror, the righteous and devoutly Christian Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers on Summerisle a flourishing pagan society, openly devoted to the worship of ancient gods and goddesses. As Howie pursues his case, he is at first convinced that the villagers have murdered young Rowan Morrison during their pagan rites; soon, however, he comes to believe that she has not yet been killed, and is in fact the planned sacrifice for the upcoming Beltane fertility ritual. Howie attempts to rescue the girl, and only then does he discover the true nature of the Beltane celebration on Summerisle.
The Wicker Man is a film that defies classification; it can’t be neatly slotted into a tidy genre, filed away and forgotten in a pack of similar pictures. There is simply nothing like The Wicker Man. Is it a horror film? Well, yes, there are parts of the movie that are horrifying. Is it erotica? Definitely, and unapologetically so. Wonderful lyrics and dances move the plot forward in several scenes, so it is also a musical. With so many different elements involved, director Robin Hardy states that it is most closely related to the genre the French refer to as “film fantastique”.
First let me note that the pagan rites shown in this film are well documented in many academic texts. Writer Anthony Shaffer and his brother Paul did more than 18 months of research while writing this movie, and their diligence is apparent in every scene. Modern neo-pagans and Wiccans practice these rituals in varying forms today, though I’m pretty certain that there aren’t any groups out there still performing human sacrifices, and even those who condone animal sacrifice are extremely rare.
The traditional Maypole, as noted in the film, is certainly an ancient phallic symbol, with the weaving of ribbons about the pole representing the sheathing of the male member in the female body. Nude young girls leap through the flames at Beltane, seeking fertility; Sgt. Howie is naturally horrified at their nudity, but as Lord Summerisle drolly notes, it would be terribly dangerous to jump through fire while clothed! The March hare (nowadays called the Easter Bunny) is an icon of fertility and is omnipresent in the film. Poor, pious Sgt. Howie nearly becomes apoplectic at the sight of young couples openly making love just outside the Green Man Inn, but sex in the fields at Beltane is a time-honored rite designed to ritually symbolize the fertilization of the land.
It would have been easy for Woodward and director Hardy to allow the repressed and humorless Howie to become a joke, a caricature. To their credit, Howie never loses his humanity. He even retains a certain nobility, for his unwavering faith in his Christianity remains absolute. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Howie staunchly stays behind his locked door in the Green Man while the innkeeper’s luscious daughter Willow (Britt Eklund) dances nude in the next room. As she entices him with her suggestive song and passionate, ritualized dance, he is sorely tempted to give in to her wiles. And yet, though he is obviously tortured, he passes up the temptation. He remains steadfast in his beliefs.
But the folk of Summerisle are equally steadfast, and this is the true beauty of The Wicker Man. Where many filmmakers would have chosen to portray the pagan islanders as evil, here they too, are portrayed as devout. This is a joyous place, a happy and productive society, albeit with undertones which appear sinister to the modern viewer. Sgt. Howie is literally unable to communicate his shock and disgust to the villagers, and they are utterly unable to explain their joy in their religious beliefs to him. In each exchange, it’s as though they are speaking an entirely different language, and in many ways they are. Yet both viewpoints are clearly communicated to the viewer, and this makes the chilling climax of the film even more shocking because it’s nearly impossible to decide whom to sympathize with. If The Wicker Man is indeed a horror film, it is a horror film without a monster.
The atmosphere of this film is absolutely perfect, which is incredible considering this film about spring fertility rites was shot in Scotland in October and November! Cast members had to suck ice cubes constantly to keep their breath from steaming in the freezing air. Almost all scenes take place in full daylight, another touch which makes it difficult to succumb to the idea that there is anything sinister going on. The costumes…well, let’s just say that the costumes are for the most part the garb of 1973, and leave it at that. With the exception of the beautiful masks and costumes in the final Beltane procession, the clothing is quite the weakest point of the film.
This film is psychological thriller, detective story, action film, comedy, all of these things and more. Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) considers it the finest film that he ever made, and it has a cult following that shows no signs of lessening almost 30 years later. On the most visceral level, I would call The Wicker Man a film about the nature of faith.
I would absolutely urge you to see this amazing and brilliant film. Get the special edition on DVD, which includes rare lost footage and the half-hour documentary The Wicker Man Enigma. Be prepared, though, because this “thinking man’s horror movie” is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
(Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1973)