Most things aren’t scary without context. Loud noises and other “cheap” scares rely on universal knee-jerk reactions, but atmosphere, subtext, and the overall feel of a good horror movie are inextricably linked to the preconceptions of the audience. Smart horror builds off of existing fears and subverts expectations, forcing the audience to confront everyday discomforts and concerns in a new way.
The Blair Witch Project is an effective horror film because it summons up things the audience can identify with: feelings of helplessness and isolation, the creepy feeling of being alone in the woods, hearing the snap of a twig and the far-off howling of the wind, and suspecting you’re not alone. Even slasher films are scary for deeper psychological reasons than “Oh no, a man with a knife!” They show the audience a dark caricature of what we secretly suspect may be lurking right around the corner, playing on our fears of senseless crime and the inscrutability of outsiders (notably the disabled in Halloween and Friday the 13th… and janitors in Nightmare on Elm Street, I suppose). Witches, guys with knives, and janitors with melty faces aren’t scary concepts per se; they’re only scary in the right context and atmosphere. Even jump scares are most effective when they come in the right atmosphere, amid moments of built-up tension and dread.
There key thing about fears and preconceptions is that they’re not static. They change over time. This is a big part of why so much of the horror of yesteryear now feels tone deaf or just chintzy, although special effects and production definitely plays a part, too. Some things are timeless, of course — Psycho is no less effective today than it was to audiences in the 60s — but other topics and themes lose their heft. You’re unlikely to see many modern horror films that play on the Soviet threat or fears that surgeons are defying God’s plan, but go back a few decades or centuries and they’re all over the place.
And all that brings me, at last, to the film at hand. 1973’s The Wicker Man came at a time of cultural upheaval. It was the early 70s, the hippie aesthetic had been sniffed out and demonized, and churchgoing, white-picket-fence America was fretting over the presence of those wacky kids with their goofball fashions, far-out spirituality, and casual disregard for everything good, Christian, and American. The Wicker Man was a British production, but that same mood of topsy-turvy culture war was just as evident across the pond, and it informs basically the entirety of the film.
The hero of the film, Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward, who also played TV’s The Equalizer), is a straight-laced, God-fearing man of rules and authority. He comes to the distant Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, but he’s immediately thrown off his game by the island’s wacky pagan inhabitants. They run around in the nude and fornicate in fields! They teach their children about phallic symbols and harvest rituals! They’ve even converted the village church into a house of heathen worship! Woodward is deliberately uptight even by the standards of the day, but he’s experiencing many of the same fears that then-modern audiences would’ve felt when confronted with long-haired hippie types and their goofball new-age spirituality, free love, and rejection of authority.
Which is not to say that the inhabitants are hippies, because they aren’t (despite some rather gratuitous nude dancing scenes featuring buxom young blondes). The people of Summerisle are capital-P pagans of the old school, as Sgt. Howie discovers when he meets with Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, sporting some truly righteous sideburns and working double-time to distance himself from all those Dracula films). Summerisle explains to the Sergeant that the community was founded by his grandfather, a 19th century aristocrat and scientist who decided to rekindle the old Anglo-Celtic belief system to inspire the villagers to aid him in testing out his revolutionary theories of botany and agriculture.
There’s another recurring theme that permeates the plot of The Wicker Man: the impotence of mainstream authority. Not five minutes into the film, Howie finds that he can barely convince the inhabitants of Summerisle to let him dock his seaplane. At every step, the authority of his uniform is questioned and maligned. That he’s a policeman is of no consequence to the villagers; it’s clear that Lord Summerisle, not the Crown, is the one calling the shots. By the film’s third act Sgt. Howie isn’t just a man without authority, but a walking joke, too. When he disguises himself in the costume of the jester Punch to infiltrate the village’s May Day festival, the filmmakers are not-so-subtly letting us know who the real idiot is.
I don’t want to say that The Wicker Man is part of a dead genre of horror, but it’s certainly one that’s been greatly diminished over the years. Very little of what transpires in the film would pass as “horror” to a modern audience; by today’s standards, it’s more of a slow-burn thriller or an especially confusing murder mystery. When a modern film like The Sixth Sense or Silence of the Lambs goes the full-atmosphere, minimal-scares approach, there are usually still enough blood-and-guts and jump scares scattered around the film that audiences remain in the horror film mindset even though there isn’t a monster running around ripping heads off.
Not so The Wicker Man, however. Before the film begins building to its maddening, frenetic climax, it’s very much a sleepy crime procedural with some very minor occult elements. Sgt. Howie wanders around meeting the townspeople and following leads, growing ever more uneasy and alienated but never really catching a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes. Only in the closing minutes of its running time does The Wicker Man really embrace its horror elements and bring the dark, violent subtext of the film to the fore.
It’s a trick that few modern filmmakers would be willing to attempt in any genre. Modern audiences want to know what they’re getting into, and they expect consistency of tone and events throughout. If a film is an action film, it better open with a big action setpiece and keep your pulse up for the entire running time. If it’s a rom-com, there better be a prat-fall or grinning-old-lady joke every minute or two. Modern films constantly remind you of what sort of film you’re watching, and even major twists and turns tend to be tonally consistent. A Die Hard film isn’t going to suddenly shift gears and become a serious discussion of John McClane’s shambolic private life and aging, broken body.
One especially notable exception to this is 2006’s Hot Fuzz, which actually does switch abruptly from slow-moving British murder mystery to all-out action epic. It also not-so-coincidentally shares numerous plot elements with The Wicker Man and even features Edward Woodward in a major role. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright make no bones about their love for the original 1973 film (or their hate for the 2006 remake).
The third act and ending of The Wicker Man have been well and truly spoiled thanks to the infamy of the Nic Cage remake, but in observation of internet etiquette I’m still going to separate my discussion of the ending from the rest of this article. If you somehow don’t know the ending of the film, I encourage you to read no further and just go watch it for yourself. They say true art can never be spoiled, but I find it hard to believe that nothing is lost.
The Wicker Man is a really clever film, although maybe not one suited for a boozy Halloween party. It deftly uses subtle filmmaking and storytelling techniques, deploys a surprisingly well-researched exploration of paganism, and explores themes that while maybe not timeless are at least still relevant. It would’ve been easy to make the film a conventional giallo-style 70s horror exercise with some hippies-terrorizing-the-normals bits, but the filmmakers decide to go a much trickier and ultimately more rewarding route. There’s a reason the film’s been called the Citizen Kane of horror.
Again, scroll all the way down for my discussion of the ending.
In the final act of the film, of course, it turns out that Summerisle really has gone back to the old ways… up to and including human sacrifice. Sgt. Howie realizes that the missing girl was taken by the villagers and sacrificed to the gods of the harvest after the island’s crops failed. However, once he exhumes the girl’s grave, he discovers only an empty casket and the carcass of a hare. Now believing that the girl is alive and will be sacrificed during the May Day ceremony the that afternoon, Howie disguises himself as one of the villagers and follows them to the place of sacrifice. There he reveals himself, rescues the girl, and flees into a seaside cavern.
It’s then we learn that the truth is much darker and more twisted. Rowan was never meant to be the sacrifice, only the bait. She leads Sgt. Howie back to Lord Summerisle and his attendants, where Howie is mocked by the Lord and the villagers, pronounced the king of the May Day festivities, and ultimately sacrificed inside a giant burning effigy filled with other animal sacrifices.
Before leading him to his doom, Summerisle explains to the sergeant that he is their religion’s ideal sacrifice: a virgin, a representative of the king, and a man who came willingly to be sacrificed. The entire plot has been a ruse, from the “disappearance” of the girl to the mysterious letter that brought Howie to the island. It’s here that the notion of Howie as the fool comes to total fruition: his authority is now completely gone and in tatters, and he has been reduced to a pawn in the machinations of others.
More to the point, the act of Howie dressing up as Punch is revealed to be even more symbolic than it originally appeared, harkening back to the pre-Christian origins of the character as the traditional fool-king of the Saturnalia festival (as described by anthropolist James Frazer, whose work The Golden Bough had an indelible influence on the film). According to Frazer, the fool-king – or Lord of Misrule – was pronounced a sort of temporary king, accorded all the rights of royalty, and then sacrificed. It’s a neat trick by the filmmakers.
Howie doesn’t go down without a fight, of course… well, not without a rhetorical fight, anyway. He warns Summerisle (now using Christopher Lee’s booming Saruman voice) that if his own sacrifice doesn’t bring back the harvest, the villagers will turn on him next. He descends into a sort of religious frenzy, taking on the semblance of an early church martyr (Lord Summerisle even explicitly calls this out), doomed in his attempts to Christianize the heathens. And as the flames rise higher and begin to surround him in his wooden pyre, Howie curses the villagers and Lord Summerisle, telling them that they brought their poor harvest on themselves by scorning God with their heathen ways.
It’s a bleak ending, and one befitting a horror film classic. Does Lord Summerisle believe his own religion? Does he actually believe the sacrifice of the policeman will bring back the harvest? It’s impossible to say, and the film is extremely reticent to give even the tiniest hint one way or another. Pagans, man. Who the heck knows?
Next Week: In The Mouth of Madness