More noise than signal

The Wicker Man

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Not, we hasten to add, the Nic Cage version. This late 1973 outing, directed by Robin St. Clair Rimington Hardy, sees mainland police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) get wind that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing on the remote island of Summerisle. He hops in the seaplane to start an investigation, but isn’t prepared for what he finds when he gets there.

Suspicions are immediately raised when the local bumpkins deny all knowledge of Rowan’s existence. Thinking they’re hiding something, Howie checks various sources such as the local school’s register, finding that Rowan was indeed present recently. On trying to uncover why the locals are lying to him, he finds himself exposed to the local religious beliefs, which are even more shocking to him.

Howie is a fiercely devout Christian, and the residents of Summerisle most certainly are not. While his mind appears to be blown by the school teacher describing to her kids that the maypoles to be used in the upcoming harvest festival are phallic symbols, it’s presumably starting to dribble out of his ears when he stumbles across a field full of folks copulating with wild abandon.

He appears to be thinking of a way to mass arrest the entire island when an invitation to see Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears, who explains, to an extent, the reasons behind the island’s peculiar religious views. His Victorian ancestors created a strain of fruit trees that would thrive in Scotland’s not hugely welcoming climate, and convinced the economically depressed islanders that worshipping the old pagan gods of the land, sun and sea would help their crops growth and, well, it sort of stuck, in defiance of all farming knowledge, even at the time. It’s not like the nitrogen fixing cycle is a modern discovery or anything.

Anyhow, Howie is led to believe that Rowan is not dead, as the islanders now claim, but that they intend to sacrifice her to improve the harvest. He sets about searching door to door to finder her, while being mocked in quite obscure fashion by the islanders, eventually infiltrating their celebrations in order to find and rescue Rowan. This does not work out well for Howie, and I remind you about that spoiler warning at the top of this show, as it transpires that this has been a trap for Howie, not a rescue mission, as the pure, virginal Howie is captured and burnt as a sacrifice to the old gods in the titular wicker man. Oh God. Oh Jesus Christ.

Now, viewing this through the lens of history, one of the more interesting things about it is how this subverted the genre norms even before they’d been properly established. While anyone who’s watched Scream will know the broadly accurate Rules of Horror, in particular that those who give in to temptations of the flesh are first in the firing line, The Wicker Man is almost the complete inverse. Our hero remains chaste, even when Brit Eckland is somehow trying to seduce him from another room, but it’s this that makes him the target, and rather than being the only one that survives, he’s the only one that’s killed.

This is another of the more experimental horrors on this list, which is something that’s not so common in modernity. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a modern horror film with such a strong affinity for folk music, for example. Indeed, ending aside, this isn’t really making any effort to horrify you, unless perhaps you’re as puritanical in your worldview as Howie is, which I don’t believe was the majority opinion in Britain back in ’73 and certainly is not now.

There’s perhaps a case that it’s unsettling, as we’re pretty much kept as much in the dark about what’s going on as Howie is, and the local customs are, by our standards, odd, although only because they have a rather less effective PR department than Christianity – communion is hardly any less objectively daft a belief than reincarnation, but again that might be the rationalist in me speaking out.