Hhave you seen the horror movie about a well-meaning, capsule-free westerner drawn to a lush, sparsely populated island in search of meaning, to experience paganism, unbridled sexual politics, folk dancing and abject violence?
I’m not talking about Milieu, the 2019 folk horror hit from author Ari Aster that frightened audiences with its open-air senicide and twee ritualism. I’m referring to a movie released almost 50 years earlier, which often overtakes and surpasses its younger cousin, although it contains neither gore nor violence. I’m talking about The Wicker Man, the 1973 British horror musical that popularized the folk-horror genre, and which continues to this day as a form masterpiece.
Directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man is a weird but essential B-movie artifact that has, for the past 20 years, been considered a masterpiece of British cinema and now has a place on the plate. -Mubi prestige streaming form. Starring Edward Woodward and iconic ’60s actress and sex symbol Britt Ekland, the film follows Police Sergeant Neil Howie as he receives an anonymous report that a young girl has gone missing on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle.
When he arrives, he finds that he has bitten more than he can chew. Not only are the island’s inhabitants happily working together to obscure the details of what happened to the young girl, they also appear to have abandoned Christianity altogether – worshiping pagan gods and leading a sinister masked procession on May 1.
The devoutly Christian sergeant is dismayed – villagers wandering naked and having sex in the lush fields, cemeteries overrun by wildlife and entirely devoid of Christian symbology, lessons on the phallic origins of the Maypole and a suave and elegantly lord dressed, played by Christopher Lee, who reigns in the place of a chosen one. Most sinister of all is that despite their broad smiles and penchant for song and dance, Howie is fairly certain that the missing girl was sacrificed as a human sacrifice in exchange for a bountiful harvest.
Devoid of any “traditional” horror device – fear of jumps, bloody, etc. – The Wicker Man instead asks viewers to draw their own conclusions about the lore of Summerisle. (As with Milieu, I found the so-called barbarian villagers to be likable and perversely reasonable, but the film allows for a number of interpretations while still being straightforward and accessible, one of its greatest formal triumphs.) What happens over the course of the film is unsettling and often bizarre, but also poses important questions about lore, judgment, and moral relativism. And all this in 88 airy and rhythmic minutes. While sometimes obscure in its references, I can’t express how invigorating, exciting, and downright funny a first watch from The Wicker Man is.
This is partly due to the fact that there have been few films like this, before or since. Even Milieu, despite the narrative and visual similarities, is totally different from The Wicker Man’s surreal musical landscape. The fact that the film relies so much on musical sequences – softly sung diegetic folk songs drift in and out of the film as Howie walks through Summerisle, sometimes giving way to full musical numbers of traditional British folk reinterpreted by composer Paul Giovanni – gives it an immersive character. quality, apart from the other function of music as a kind of meta-commentary on the nature of language. (Villagers often communicate by singing, which the right Howie cannot stand.)
All in all, the film is a wild and rare confection – a product of a true vision made for little money that endures both as a film and as a key object of influence for much. great art that has since emerged. (The re-release of the soundtrack in the late ’90s sparked a revival of British folk that eventually made its way into the 2000s folk freak scene, characterized by artists like Devendra Banhart.) Like Howie’s visit to Summerisle, a vision of The Wicker Man is a journey that you might find hard to shake.