1973’s the Wicker Man, starring the late Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee is one of those hard to classify films. For one, while it is considered horror, it’s a movie lacking much carnage. The horrors center around the mystery and the struggles of young, repressed Police Sergeant Howie.
Beware of dreadful Spoilers…
Almost immediately, Sgt. Howie finds himself at odds with the locals, who initially refuse him access to Summerisle, a rather isolated Scottish island, as it is private property. Once he provides his reason, a letter he has received indicating a child has gone missing from the isle.
Howie is revealed to be a devout Catholic. He prays fervently, as we see flashbacks to him reading scripture and partaking in communion. This leads to one of the films more…silly…but memorable moments. Willow (Britt Ekland) lies in the room next to Howie’s singing a song to tempt Howie, putting his purity to the test. Howie struggles in his room to fight the temptation. Did I mention Ekland performs the entire scene naked?
Howie seeks to try and continue his investigation. When he goes to the local school, he becomes appalled (Howie is like a one man Catholic League). The teacher (Diane Cilento) is telling the children of the meaning of the penis in their worship. Howie runs into trouble when people claim the young girl never existed in the first place.
When Howie goes to the Summerisle library, the Librarian shows him the death records, but Rowan is not among them. He decides it is time to meet Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) at the Lord’s mansion. Howie is surprised to hear he is expected. While waiting, he looks out the window to see a small Stonehenge like set up where young people are frollicking naked. Summerisle enters and asks if Howie finds them refreshing, of course, he does not. Howie becomes more and more incredulous, asking how they function with a false religion. Know they nothing of Jesus? But Summerisle proclaims Jesus dead, and the old gods still living.
Howie can barely stand the things Summerisle tells him, giving the history of the island’s citizens turning from Christianity to the old pagan ways. That evening, when they go to exhume the body of Rowan so Howie can bring it back to determine the cause of death, they discover her casket contains, instead of the young girl’s body, that of a dead rabbit. The groundskeeper reacts not in shock, but laughter. Enraged, Howie returns to Summerisle. Miss Rose tries to say that the rabbit is Rowan. This further angers Howie.
Howie goes through pictures and is able to locate the missing image from the previous May Day celebrations. Unlike the other photos (all a young woman surrounded by the Harvest), Rowan is sitting sans harvest. Howie does some research and comes to a new conclusion.. Rowan is not dead, she is going to be the Mayday sacrifice because the crops failed.
Howie plans to take his plane to the mainland and bring back reinforcements. But his plane doesn’t start. He starts to search the island and spies the town members preparing for their May Day celebrations. They proclaim that the evening will bring a sacrifice. Howie decides to conduct a house to house search. The townspeople are surprising cooperative, but his end results are less than he had hoped for.
It is this clash of religions that makes the film so effective. The joyous celebration of Lord Summerisle and his people as their sacrifice burns is a frightening juxtaposition. The film is a mystery, with a heavy sense of dread pervading it. Is Rowan real? Is she dead? Watching Howie struggle to find the answers, and also dealing with his temptations, never realizing that he is being played for a fool creates a compelling tale. Woodward plays Howie both sympathetically and with a repressed rigidity that really sells the character. His devoutness is never in question. This is not the typical “Christian Hypocrite” of mainstream film. Howie is dedicated to his job and faith, and the film never makes light of this. Of course, not being some terrible hypocrite is really the point of the story. Even when he is angry, Howie maintains a sense of cool.
On his opposite is Lord Summerisle, whom Lee portrays as always calm. I am not sure he ever even gets angry, to be honest. He is a calm, gentle and confident man. It’s effective watching him and Howie, as Howie never seems able to offend him, but he can kindly get under Howie’s skin.
The three women most prominently featured in the story, seem to represent different ideals of the religion. Willow is the siren, Miss Rose is the educator and the Librarian the religion’s administrator.
Also notable is the use of music, you could easily argue this is a musical. The music is fun and folksy, very tied to the folk music of the British isles. It’s far more effective than one would expect, as these cheerful songs cover a dreadful truth.
One of the reasons the 2006 “re-imagining” of the film starring Nick Cage is such an abysmal failure is it does away with the fight between Paganism and Christianity. They replaced it with a poorly realized battle of the sexes and a tortured and flawed “hero.” Howie needs to be less “flawed” and more pure. Otherwise his character does not truly stand out from the citizens.
In the end, I consider this one of my favorite films, because it is horror, dark and foreboding without relying on cheap thrills and scares. It’s beautifully filmed, well acted, written and directed. It’s a film worth checking out.
One final note, but I am blocking it because it is a massive spoiler.
I really love the ambitiousness of the end. Howie’s death could be seen as a loss for him. But I think, it strikes me more of…Howie is a victor. He may not want to die, but he retains his faith to the end, which intrigues me. A character like Howie, who is dedicated to his faith without a deliriously crazy eyed fanaticism or a villainous streak, is almost unseen in modern film. But at the same time, you could see Summerisle’s followers as devoted people protecting themselves from religious imperialism and remaining faithful to the old ways and traditions.