If you’re after copy of ‘The Wicker Man’ on DVD, you’ll be most likely to find it in the horror section.
But is it a horror film? The ending’s definitely horrific and the subject matter is paganism and the extremes of religious belief. And yet it’s not a horror film in the way ‘The Omen’ or ‘The Exorcist’ are horror films.
It’s not a thriller either, not really … although there are elements of that genre. It’s not a mystery or crime film, even though the main character is a police officer investigating a disappearance.
If Zavvi or HMV had curio sections, or oddity sections, that’s where ‘The Wicker Man’ would end up. The fact that the only genre you could legitimately assign it to is the musical (there are at least five carefully choreographed musical numbers, all of them pertinent to the narrative) just makes it the more curious, the more odd.
Devout Christian Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) – a man so pious he’s saving himself for the marriage bed – receives a letter summoning him to the remote island of Summerisle where a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing. How remote? Howie needs a small flying boat to get there! He goes alone (bad move) and rubs the locals up the wrong way from the word go (bad move part two).
Not that Howie and the islanders were ever going to hit it off, though. Not when the younger contingent fornicate publicly while there elders lasciviously serenade Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord’s sultry daughter at The Green Man. Not when the local chemist has jars of foreskins and foetuses on his counter. Not when schoolteacher Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) discusses phallic symbolism with a class of girls in their early teens, or one of her colleagues leads a group of similarly aged boys in a sexually suggestive song and dance around the maypole. Not when he witnesses a fertility rite in progress whilst making his way to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)’s ancestral seat to voice his suspicions that Rowan is not just missing but murdered.
Lord Summerisle: I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We're a deeply religious people.
Sgt Howie: Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests and children dancing naked.
Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Sgt Howie: But they a-are naked.
Lord Summerisle: Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on.
Sgt Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.
Sgt Howie: What?
Lord Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Sgt Howie: What is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion! Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Lord Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.
On the off-chance you haven’t seen ‘The Wicker Man’ and the picture I used on yesterday’s post didn’t give it away, here’s a
The clash between Howie’s belief system (staunch, pious, puritanical Christianity) and Summerisle’s (paganism, fertility, sacrifice … you know, when necessary) is the life blood of the film. It’s what gives ‘The Wicker Man’ its structure, its tension, its symbolism and its power.
His values and moral rectitude are challenged by the islanders’ sexual liberalism, culminating in his ‘tempting’ by Willow (the darkly erotic tensions that have informed the proceedings thus far get kicked up a notch with Ekland’s renowned dance sequence); casual acts of blasphemy and heathenism fuel his slow-burning sense of outrage; obstructions to his investigation only strengthen his determination to find Rowan.
And of course it’s all, as Summerisle blandly informs him, a game. With Howie as the pawn. The sacrificial pawn. “Animals are fine,” Summerisle opines, “but their acceptability is limited. A little child is even better. But not nearly as effective as the right kind of adult.” In other words, a virgin. (Remember that line in ‘Scream’ – “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex … Big no-no. Sex equals death”? Scratch that!)
It’s when the islanders advance on Howie and bind him and drag him up the hill to the eponymous effigy that ‘The Wicker Man’ makes the leap from compelling and well-made if somewhat offbeat movie to completely unforgettable cinematic experience. The roles played in the May Day pageant are made devastatingly clear. Howie has played the fool and been king for a day – “and who but a fool would do that?” He will, he is told, undergo death and rebirth. Not his rebirth, though; that of Summerisle’s crops. “As a Christian, I hope for resurrection,” Howie retorts, “and even if you kill me now, it is I who will live again and not your damned apples.” Summerisle reminds him that it’s a rare privilege for a man of his religious values to be granted a martyr’s death. Indeed, when Howie is stripped, anointed and dressed, prior to his sacrifice, in a white robe (arms held out at shoulder height in a crucifixion pose), the ritual is almost Christian in its iconography.
Howie warns Summerisle that another failed crop might result in his sacrifice. “The crops will not fail,” comes the defiant response. The debate – the battle, as it were, of beliefs – continues even when Howie’s been secured in the wicker man and the kindling around its base lit. As Lord Summerisle leads his people in a full-throated rendition of ‘Summer is i-cumen in’, Howie gives it some 23rd Psalm, his voice carrying over theirs. He calls down a curse upon them. He beseeches his God to receive his soul.
The closing shot shows the wicker man consumed by flames, a raging fire against a yet more fiery sunset. There’s an almost blood-like quality to the image that’s wholly appropriate for a film about the conflict between two men of equal but divergent religious fervour – one orthodox, one rooted in supposedly less enlightened times – and the fine line between faith and madness evident in both of them.