Review: Wicker Man

by Ronan Doyle

What makes a great horror film? It might seem a frivolous question, a near rhetorical one to which the answer “a film which scares” is obvious. Yet few would interpret The Wicker Man, the 1973 British cult classic, as particularly scary in the traditional sense. It is in the themes and ideas behind the film, however, that the element of horror is to be found. Like its American contemporaries The Exorcist and The Omen, The Wicker Man deals with that most effective of horror themes: religion.

Having been anonymously alerted to the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from the remote Scottish island community of Summerisle, Sergeant Neil Howie encounters difficulties in his search for answers in the form of the obdurate islanders, who fervently deny the girl’s existence.

That a film so regularly ranked highly in horror “best of” lists can contain traces of a musical might seem perplexing, even contradictory, the mutual exclusivity of the genres surely set in stone. Much of The Wicker Man’s effect, however, can be attributed to its musical heritage, its eerie atmosphere of impending threat engendered primarily through the heavy usage of folk songs. On the second day of his visit, Sergeant Howie encounters a group of children dancing around a maypole, the increasingly rapid tempo of their song lending a sense of unsettling urgency to their otherwise harmless actions. The song outlines the basis of the community’s beliefs, namely reincarnation and the old gods of the earth and the sun. The paganism which characterizes the islanders immediately establishes the film’s religious commentary. Howie is a fundamentalist Christian, his views steadfast and self-assured. He is repulsed and repelled by what he encounters in Summerisle, the openly practiced sexual rituals and teaching to schoolchildren of phallic symbolism the direct antithesis to his conservative views of celibacy and quietly reverential worship. Played inimitably by Edward Woodward, Howie in many ways represents 1970s British society itself, at one point sternly reminding Lord Summerisle—the leader of the island, authoritatively portrayed by the great Christopher Lee—that he remains the subject of a Christian country. The dynamic that exists between the two characters juxtaposes their respective faiths, Howie’s protestations that Summerisle is a place of heathenism and the community’s practices ludicrous indulgences in sacrilegious nonsense countered immediately, the similarly far-fetched elements of Christian doctrine highlighted, scrutinized, and ridiculed as just as unbelievable and absurd. Lee brings an avuncular grace to his performance, his retorts simultaneously firmly definitive and benignly inoffensive—a description, incidentally, which rather effectively summates the film itself. Whilst not strictly anti-Catholic, the film takes a skeptical stance to organized religion, Woodward’s depiction of his character as uptight and immovably fastidious deliberately preventing the audience from meaningful identification with him. Summerisle and its population are presented in such a way that we are made to question whether the strict society Howie represents is really a more appealing prospect. The island is inexplicably opulent, its crime rate all but non-existent, its inhabitants close-knit and undeniably satisfied with life. Indeed, even Howie himself is tempted by the allure of this alternative way of life, a particularly memorable scene in which the young woman in the room next to his nakedly dances, pounding his wall and singing a hypnotically mesmeric song conveying the testing of his ideologies. Like the audience, Howie is fascinated by this culture and, though he maintains an austere facade, sees in it the kind of free-spirited life which he can never himself enjoy.

Effectively utilizing music to create an atmosphere of tense unease, The Wicker Man is a film replete with religious imagery, symbolism, and detailed commentary upon the role of religion in society and its effect upon its followers. Impressively acted—particularly by its two leads—it is the kind of film which remains embedded in the mind long after viewing, its chilling effect making it impossible to forget. After all, isn’t that what great horror should do?

83/100 - Effectively utilizing music to create an atmosphere of tense unease, The Wicker Man is a film replete with religious imagery, symbolism, and detailed commentary upon the role of religion in society and its effect upon its followers.

  • Celestial Elf

    Great Post :D
    Thought you might like my machinima film,
    The Lammas Wickerman
    which features Welsh poetry and original music by The Bard of Ely
    Bright Blessings

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