The print of The Wicker Man that is currently playing on the FearNet pay-per-view cable channel begins with an amusing sight: the original warning by the British film rating system that the movie was rated X. This is amusing not just for nostalgia, but also for some unintentional irony – specifically because The Wicker Man has always been marketed and promoted as a horror movie. Anyone used to today's blood-soaked splatterfests masquerading as horror films will be sorely disappointed with The Wicker Man, because in fact there isn't a lot of horror in it. It's actually a black comedy, and much of the entertainment comes from culture shock more than anything else.
If there's any one movie that modern-day pagans love to point to and say, "this is what we're really like," it's The Wicker Man. This movie was made in 1973, before "Wicca" and "paganism" and "New Age" and the Church of All Worlds had infiltrated bookstores, malls, and Web sites around the world. Paganism was widespread even in those days (as the pagans will loudly note), but it was largely an underground movement. Your typical moviegoer today is somewhat more familiar with May poles, bonfire rituals, the Green Man, and other concepts than the audiences of 1973 were. Back then, these things were as alien as UFOs and Hollywood movie monsters…and the makers of this movie knew it. I'll state right now that I'm not privy to the behind-the-scenes banter and intentions that went into the making of The Wicker Man; but on watching the movie, I became convinced that the filmmakers intended it especially to enlighten mainstream movie watchers – and, in particular, to offend their religious beliefs. This movie is an outright "fuck you" to mainstream Christianity, and it was done over thirty years before the atheists set out to offend us with The God Who Wasn't There. This is why the movie was rated X – yes, there's sex and naked breasts and (some) violence in the movie. But what really offended the censors was the way it skewers Christianity. It revels in blasphemy, makes no apologies, and even ends on a happy (but gruesome) note, rejecting Jesus and God to the very end.
The only way they could market this, of course, was to dress it up in the trappings of a horror film. They even got Christopher Lee to star in it, playing the role of Lord Summerisle – and he enjoyed himself immensely, working for no pay just so he could get the movie made. (I can imagine him cackling to himself, "Finally, a role where I don't have to play another freakin' vampire!") As a result, audiences in 1973 went in expecting to see another take on Village of the Damned, where cult leader Lord Summerisle kept everyone under mind control. (Actually, that sounds like the genesis for Stephen King's Children of the Corn.) And because they knew nothing about "real" paganism, they wouldn't see anything in the movie to contradict this idea. So, for a jaded and naive horror movie fan, The Wicker Man is a movie about an upright Christian police officer trapped on an island controlled by an evil pagan cult – and in the end, the cult wins.
But to those of us in the know, The Wicker Man is one big, running in-joke. Right up to the point where Sergeant Howie "rescues" young Rowan Morrison from her kidnappers, this is practically a commercial for the ideal, idyllic community that most pagans wish they could live in. Imagine a place where the schools teach fertility rites to the kids instead of sending them to Sunday school; where you can bury your dead with the rites of the gods instead of being forced to hold a Christian funeral; and where festivals like May Day are celebrated with a parade through the town, complete with a sacrifice to the gods. That's not horror – that's paradise! (Or at least Elysium.) As the movie unfolds and Sergeant Howie finds horrible blasphemies running rampant throughout the town – children being taught about phallic symbols in the school, fornication going on in the streets, and blatant, casual rejections of God at every turn ("And what of the true God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?" "He's dead. Can't complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.") – he blusters and becomes more and more frustrated and angry, while we laugh out loud at his sheer stupidity. Naturally, Sergeant Howie is portrayed as a complete idiot, someone who hides behind his own religious faith in order to protect himself from the world around him. (In the longer director's cut of the movie, Howie is such a conservative religious nut that he can't even get along with his fellow police officers.) This is the point of the seduction scene, where the luscious and very naked Willow dances in her hotel room, inviting Howie to come over and ravish her. This was actually a test: if Howie succumbed to her temptations and did the nasty with her, then he no longer would have been chaste, and Lord Summerisle's plan for him would have been for naught. But because Howie remains faithful, he becomes the perfect target for Lord Summerisle and his "cult" – and in the end, he gets what he deserves.
Having said this, I'll gladly give credit to Edward Woodward for his portrayal of the buffoonish Howie. While he blunders through the movie and becomes increasingly appalled at the goings-on around him, he never appears cartoony or unrealistic. He's simply a man out of his element, someone totally unprepared for the alien world he's been thrust into – a world that rejects his beliefs utterly. For a person like that, it would be only natural, even noble to cling to his religious faith and use it as a shield at the very end; even though this is what dooms him. His frightened panic at the end is what gives us suspense and horror…that and the cult-like happiness exuded by Lord Summerisle and his followers. At its climax, The Wicker Man does indeed become a horror movie – even, ironically, as it no longer becomes a portrayal of what modern-day paganism is "really" like. (The ancient Druids did perform human sacrifices of this sort, but their descendants have taken pains to let the world know that "we don't do that anymore!")
"No weirdo worth their own classification in DSM-IV can miss this film. It is a vision of exactly how things work, in everyday life - absent the ceremony and witnesses - only THIS time it's happening to someone else, and that's funny." – Profit MooHamHead
From: "Paul B. Thompson" <firstname.lastname@example.org> Newsgroups: alt.slack,rec.arts.movies.past-films,alt.cult-movies,alt.pagan,alt.religion.wicca Subject: Re: The Wicker Man (1971) Message-ID: <ZvXrm.2332$Jd7.email@example.com> Date: Wed, 16 Sep 2009 01:50:49 GMT
I know this movie well. Every now and then I show it to a young audience--college age, usually--and it never fails to freak them out.
I think you miss an essential point of the film though. It isn't just about jolly (if bloodthirsty) pagans versus a numbnuts Christian cop. Summerisle is supposedly too far north to sustain agriculture, but because of the husbandry instituted back in the 19th century the island has had an Indian summer of plenty. This green revolution coincided with the reintroduction of paganism but religion has nothing to do with the island's ephemeral success. Now in Howie's time the crops are failing, hence the resort to human sacrifice. Howie frantically tells Lord Summerisle and Company the island's ecosystem will not sustain them, and that their crops will continue to fail until they utterly collapse. They happily burn him just the same.
TWM is not about free spirited, earth-friendly pagans versus a priggish, uptight Christian. Both religions are shown to be mere bundles of superstition (as they indeed are). The horror--and it is there, quite viscerally--is that the smiling, singing islanders roast Edward Woodward for nothing.