Monday Morning Movie Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

I watch quite a few movies, and most of them come and go without leaving much of a mark.  Indeed, I pretty much only watch movies now, with the exception of a few shows (like Bob’s Burgers).  Some of them probably deserve more attention than I give them, as I’m usually multitasking—poorly—while watching them.

But for every eight duds there is one film that will stick out.  These are usually the ones I write about.  Typically they stick out in a positive way, though Ponty has encouraged me to write some reviews of movies I don’t like (you can read one such review here).  This week’s selection really made an impact on me, and it’s one I heartily recommend.

The flick is 1973’s The Wicker Man, based on a 1967 novel by David Pinner called Ritual.  The film is, perhaps, one of the most Christian (and pro-Christian) movies I have seen in a long time.  I don’t think its creators intended it as a Christian film, but I’ll make the case for it in this review.

That said, if I’m correct, The Wicker Man probably has the most nudity of any Christian film ever made.

The Wicker Man falls into the category of “folk horror,” a style that has enjoyed a renaissance of late, especially with A24 films like Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019).  (I would not recommend any Christian watch these films; they are very good, but deeply unsettling.  Hereditary in particular is hard-to-watch, in the sense that it will touch your soul in a dark way; it’s not worth the risk.  Midsommar is not as bad, and equates most directly to The Wicker Man, but proceed with extreme spiritual caution).  Folk horror is horror based on real or fictionalized folk practices, often pagan in nature, and usually involves people from outside stumbling into a traditionally pagan folk group, and slowly coming to the realization that their lives are in peril.

What makes folk horror so scary and creepy is that there is a plausibility to it:  people did used to engage in the kinds of practices depicted in these films—ritual sacrifice, fertility rites, sex magic, and etc.  Christianity and modernity, in their own ways, eradicated, suppressed, or refocused those rituals (for example, we no longer need to sacrifice pure lambs or untainted virgins because Christ provided THE Sacrifice for our sins—forever!).  But folk horror implies that these practices—or, at the very least, their primal brutality—still endure in the darker corners of society, lurking just below the surface of our civilized façade.  The genre just takes those dark, suppressed urges and places them in the open—often, as in the case of Midsommar, in broad daylight—which further enhances their terror.

So it is with The Wicker Man, perhaps the quintessential example of folk horror.  The story involves a police detective, Sergeant Neil Howie, flying a seaplane to Summerisle, a remote Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides.  Sergeant Howie has received word that a young girl on the island has gone missing.

Upon his arrival, things are immediately amiss.  The townspeople are wary of outsiders, and answer his questions vaguely, if at all.  He also struck by their apparent attachment to debauchery:  the pub (where he takes a room while he conducts his investigation) is rowdy, as pubs are, but the patrons sing ancient folk songs about loose women (well, that’s not too far from reality).  The innkeeper’s daughter performs a lurid, tribal dance while naked in the room adjacent to Howie; while he cannot see her, her dancing—which includes pounding on the wall adjoining the rooms—sends him into a fevered state of arousal, which only through prayer he resists.

It is quickly established that Howie is a very devout Christian in the Church of England.  He is also a virgin, and is engaged to a woman on the mainland.  He is virtuous to a fault, and dogged in his efforts to find a missing girl—a girl whose own mother denies her existence.  Throughout his stay, he witnesses a number of pagan or pre-Christian practices:  young boys dancing around the Maypole; a classroom of girls learning about sex and fertility at far too young an age; people hanging around the graves of their loved ones naked, sometimes even engaged in intercourse on the graves.

All of these practices disgust Howie, who demands to know why people behave this way, and if they have ever heard of Christ.  The island’s inhabitants, including the flamboyant Lord Summerisle himself (wonderfully and creepily played by horror legend Christopher Lee), explain that they abandoned Christ and returned to the old gods because the pagan ways improved the yields of their fields and orchards, which grow produce of an almost tropical stripe in a section of Scotland that is normally cold and damp.

As Howie dives deeper into the search, he finds that the missing girl, indeed, exists, and was even enrolled in school on the island.  He also discovers the rituals of May Day, in which the lord dresses as a woman; another resident dresses as a hobbyhorse; and a third dresses as a fool.  A group of six men carrying six swords use the swords to form a six-point star, which is used to behead (symbolically, it turns out) a member of the procession.

Howie manages to disguise himself as The Fool and engages in the parade.  He then sees the girl he is meant to find, seemingly on the cusp of sacrifice.  He grabs her and the two escape through a cave… only to find Lord Summerisle and the rest of the island’s residents waiting for them.

Here’s the twist:  the girl’s disappearance was staged, and the whole ordeal was an elaborate ruse to lure the virginal Howie to the island.  The previous year’s crop failed for the first time in many years, and the islanders believe their sun god and earth goddess must have a sacrifice to ensure a productive harvest.

Howie is intended to be that sacrifice.  He loudly shouts at Lord Summerisle that, should the harvest fail again, the islanders will come for Summerisle next.  Summerisle—now fully pagan—rejoinds that the sacrifice will work, and is the only way to save the island.

Howie is placed  in a large wicker statue in the shape of a human.  Inside the titular wicker man are animals to be sacrificed, as well as kindling.  The pagans set fire to the statue as Howie recites Scripture, calling out to Christ for salvation, begging for a swift death so he can live in Eternity with Christ.

It’s a powerful, unsettling scene, but Howie’s faith to the end—he even tries to convert the islanders to Christianity in his final appeal—is a powerful testament to his belief.  He dies a martyr, in a method that, while sensationalized for film, was the fate of thousands of Christians who boldly preached the Gospel in hostile lands (and continue to do so).  Burning of martyrs was just one of many ways in which Christian proselytizers died bravely for Christ.

Thus it is that The Wicker Man is a Christian film.  Howie resists overwhelming temptation and stays true to his course, fulfilling his mission to find the missing girl.  Even though he is duped, he boldly proclaims Christ to the terrifying end.

How many of us would do the same?  We live in an age in which Christians are not eager to stand up for their faith, much less to die for it.  Would I go into the wicker man proclaiming Christ?  It’s a hard thing to contemplate; even in a fictionalized way, it’s hard to watch.

24 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

  1. Excellent review, Port. 🙂

    The insular behaviour of the community in the film isn’t that uncommon. Go to some of the villages in this country and outsiders are viewed with suspicion, or that’s how I saw things 17 years ago – I remember my ex’s dad and I subjected to stares and mutterings at a village pub on the way back from my graduation and in a Yorkshire village, around the same time, we had a Slaughtered Lamb moment when we walked into a pub and everything stopped (chatter, music) to look at us. Maybe now it’s different, what with the march of progress (urgh) stamping its authority on sheltered communities.

    That said, away from the stares and the chatter, those people were your average working Joe’s, talking about work or the weather, the sport or whatever else was going on, not too different to those portrayed in the film. I think that’s one of the creepiest parts of good horror films – the normality and realism. When you’re not expecting the wizard behind the curtain because your environment is relatively simple.

    I’d advise anyone who hasn’t seen it to watch this film. Just please don’t go for the horrible Nic Cage remake. That film is a horror in its own right but for very different reasons.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your story of walking into a village pub and everything going quiet—even the music—is hilarious (and unsettling). I didn’t realize such things happened outside of movies. Was there a record needle that was suddenly ripped across the vinyl? I love the idea of everyone yucking it up and dancing around and then it’s like “scriiiiitch!” Some guy in the corner drops the dart he was about to throw. Another gentleman stops throwing up mid-wretch. A high ball glass thuds to the floor.

      And, yes, the normalness of it is what makes it so creepy. Everyone is just living their lives, but there’s this sinister element to it. What’s scarier is that they are such a part of it, they don’t even recognize it as evil!

      I will probably check the Nicolas Cage version out just as a public service to readers (and because I love Nicolas Cage), but, yes, this film seems to defy remaking. I don’t see how it could be improved upon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an outstanding review, Port. Excellent. I haven’t seen the movie in a dog’s age but I think I may revisit it. As I read your synopsis, I didn’t remember half the story but have a very clear mental image of the Wicker Man.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh boy.

    The Wickerman (Original, not the 2000-something remake) is one of my guilty pleasures.

    It’s just filled to the brim with somewhat twisted, mis/re-contextualized parts of my specific religion and utterly “anvilicious” in its Christian bias and sentiment. BUT it’s a damn well-done movie! And, my butt isn’t fragile enough to get hurt over it. 😆

    And hey! Who of my kind wouldn’t want to burn a Christian alive by way of vengeance for how many of us they burned? 😉 And, for my path in particular, doing so in a many that would test his courage and faith, and give him a chance to do the same to the faithful, would be a high sacrament.

    But… While I can give them, with a head tip and a squint, that Howie is an enemy captured in battle, given the nature of their problem, it should have been Lord Summerisle, as the Lord of those people, in The Wicker Man, either on his own or beside Howie.

    Side Note: There are a few places in Christendom where animal sacrifice is still performed. Off the top of my head, a town near Jerusalem, and the entirety of Armenia.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, I was eager to get your perspective on this flick, jonolan, as you’re the only pagan I know (at least, the only one that reads my blog). Sorry about the burning we did to y’all; we’ll overlook the infant sacrifices to Baal if you look the other way on that one. ; D

      Pretty wild that animal sacrifices still occur in some Christian sects. It’s totally unnecessary now—Christ is The Lamb (and the High Priest!). What I’ve always wondered is why Judaism, which rejects Christ as the Messiah, no longer sacrifices unblemished lambs and doves and the like. When did the rules change?

      Yes, I think Lord Summerisle should have been the sacrifice, and Sergeant Howie even makes that point—if the crops don’t succeed following his sacrifice, the people will come for Lord Summerisle next. Summerisle seems to accept that fate, though, but he also seems to think it won’t come to that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hehe… Ba’al’s people aren’t mine; my rite finds children to be unacceptable sacrifices, not the group in the movie, and not impacted by the Burning Times due to the Romans pretty much exterminating them in 146 BC. 😛

    As for the Jews’ ending animal sacrifice – That happened in August, 70 AD when the Second Temple was destroyed during Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem. Simply put, no Temple equals no sacrifices (qorbanot) since the Temple was the only place to properly do them. (OK, there was a BRIEF resurgence during the Jewish-Roman Wars of the 2nd Century AD. They will, however, resume when the Temple is rebuilt.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. First, apparently we have similar viewing habits. I watch movies and some YouTube. Been doing it for years. Dumped cable. It’s beautiful. I miss TCM but that’s it. I make YouTube lists that simulate TCM.
    I have mainly been watching pre-code films. Most are background noise. Some draw periodic interest. A handful demand I put everything down and get lost in the film. I love how it all works. I think slogging thru the crap makes you not only appreciate a good movie more, but puts good movies into context. You can see a favorite actor in total shit for 6 films then one brilliant film that stands the rest of time.

    Wicker man. I haven’t watched it in ages. Bat shit crazy film that leaves an indelible mark on your brain.
    I enjoyed the review. You do the word crafting well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, dude, I think we are very much on the same wavelength. I am getting more and more in classic films; I like your idea of creating a YouTube list to replicate TCM. Would you be willing to share a link to that playlist with me sometime?

      I think you’re absolutely right—wading through the crap makes the genuine gems all the more beautiful.

      It really left an impression on me. What a film!

      Thanks, Mike! Glad you appreciate my wrod crafting, haha. I’ll keep at it.

      Like

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