Oooooh, what a wicked little movie. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, that is. Polymorphously perverse, to steal an expression. Suggested Alternate Title: Sergeant Howie Meets the Old Gods and Loses Himself. The Wicker Man is a confounding, astounding foray into the left field of cinema. Good or bad, how long has it been since a movie really surprised you? This one probably will.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a virginal, middle-aged Scottish constable, is the right man in the wrong place at the absolutely wrong time. His nightmare begins with an anonymous message about the disappearance of a young girl on the seemingly idyllic, privately-owned domain of Summerisle, off the Scottish coast. The unfortunate Sergeant, self-righteously replete with a contempt for the Sin & Lust & General Moral Depravity of modern life, doesn’t find Summerisle’s townsfolk much to his liking. The situation’s akin to Daniel leaving the lion’s den to go for a stroll through Sodom & Gomorrah.
Rustic Summerisle plays by its own set of rules. Christianity has been deliberately short-circuited. The place is somewhat….pagan. Ummm, entirely pagan, to tell the truth. The regulars in the local pub sing tributes to the carnal virtues of the innkeeper’s daughter (Bitt Ekland), and said daughter ritually initiates young men into adulthood to the strains of music from the selfsame regulars. The local school teacher (who doubles as a high priestess) teaches her young charges about the phallic origins of the May Pole. Coffins are found to hold march hares instead of bodies.
Sergeant Howie has entered his own worst nightmare—a world where you can’t denounce sin because no one knows or cares what it means. And then there’s always that innkeeper’s daughter—dancing naked in the room next to Howie’s, slapping the wall between them in a rhythmic invocation that’s more erotic than anything in Last Tango in Paris.
And if the torments of the flesh were not enough, Christopher Lee steps into the picture as Lord Summerisle to play mind games with Howie as cruelly as a cat with a mouse. Lord Summerisle lays down the Gospel According to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Those who were fans of Christopher Lee in Hammer Studios’ Dracula films will savour his role here—perfect urbanity combined with utter amorality.
I mentioned that benighted Sergeant Howie had picked the wrong place and the wrong time. It’s May Day, the most pagan of festivals. The unbridled celebration of fecundity. The time of the Hobbyhorse, the Fool, the sinister Teaser, the Six Swordsmen, and the Old Gods. The time of masked revelry and praise to the goddess of the sun and the orchards. And if the crops have failed and the Waste Land threatens, it’s also the time of the Wicker Man.
Sergeant Howie’s going to need help. Lord Summerisle is welcoming him home….
Look Back & Second Thoughts
A blurb on the back cover of my DVD of The Wicker Man quotes Cinefantastique magazine: “The ‘Citizen Kane’ of horror films.” I’m not sure I’d go that far (and what does that even mean, anyway?), but this is a movie that definitely benefits from multiple viewings. What struck me most the last time around was how consistently perverse this movie is. Not a moment goes by when something isn’t “off”—an erotic goddess pastry in the bakery shop, a furtive or cunning glace from a villager, a gravestone that announces its subject as “protected by the ejaculation of serpents,” a ruined church, a school lesson on phallic symbols…. No village has ever celebrated paganism as unabashedly as Summerisle. Nothing says “heathen” like the occasional public orgy, a pub called The Green Man, and a black-haired, lion-maned, Christopher Lee as Summerisle’s lecherous lord. The final villager’s procession through the hills and to the coastal cliffs is, for those who get the reference, like a Sunday Starbelly Jam parade co-opted by the Dark Lords
The British seem very good at conjuring up creepy villages—just think of The Prisoner, multiple episodes of The Avengers, Village of the Damned, and the most twisted episodes of Midsommer Murders. I’m surprised someone hasn’t yet turned Wordsworth’s Lake Country into the setting for a TV series about a murderous nature cult. Maybe next year.
The original theatrical release of The Wicker Man ran 88 minutes, cut from a significantly longer print that ran over 100 minutes. The full print and the original negatives apparently accidentally wound up as landfill in the building of a London motorway. The extended versions are now available, but all I’ve ever watched is the shortened version. I can’t really say that I feel that I’m missing much. An extra seduction scene and a longer speech by Lord Summerisle aren’t going to make this picture more thoroughly perverse than it already is. This is a story that benefits from a good dose of dream-like discontinuity.
I paid a lot more attention to the idyllic setting this time around, relishing the tension between pastoral bliss and atavistic bloodlust. That same tension is —- by the film’s use of folk music—superficially trippy and peace & love sweetness and yet under laid with a sense of something gone rancid.
Lord Summerisle himself has a real-life avatar. The infamous occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a brilliant, charismatic adventurer who managed to combine debauchery with illumination, a man who both inspired his followers and destroyed their lives. The epithet “wicked” doesn’t begin to describe him. To Crowley we owe one of the two most popular Tarot decks in existence, and several studies of occultism which have never gone out of print. As with Lord Summerisle, a face-to-face meeting with Crowley could as easily be seductive as it was gag-inducing. It always struck me as a guilty pleasure to be reading original Chapbooks of Crowley’s poetry in the Special Collections room of the Simon Fraser University Library.
Speaking of Crowley, he would likely have heartily approved of Britt Ekland’s attempt to seduce poor strait-laced Sgt. Howie by dancing naked in the bedroom next to his, slapping the walls in erotic invitation. Her nude dance, even if partially handled by a body-double, remains one of the sexier moments in horror movie history. Imagine John Bunyan bunked next door to Fanny Hill.