Can we all agree that religion is weird?
Welcome, dear reader! It’s time again to look into the dark and see what stares back. For this go-round, we’ll be exploring the world of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, a one-time underground cult movie that has since broken out to become one of the most revered horror films of all time.
In 1973 Scotland, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate a young girl’s disappearance. There, he encounters unhelpful townsfolk who deny any such girl exists. Unconvinced, Howie begins searching the island, meeting a bizarre pagan culture that directly clashes against his puritan/Christian beliefs. As the mystery unfolds, Howie falls deeper into a realm of rituals and practices that are not entirely holistic.
Folks, this movie is good. No. Really.
My initial encounter with “The Wicker Man” was the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage, and while I love me some Cage, that version is certainly not the way to introduce yourself to this story. Please. Just watch this clip and save yourself the trouble. This version, however, is where the party is! It’s not just a creepy horror movie, but a character-centric thriller about the ferocity of belief systems. What tickles me the most about this flick is how it navigates warring religious ideologies. The filmmakers pull from various corners of history and folklore to concoct a unique mixture of myth, doctrine and horror.
Pagans. You love them. You loathe them. You can’t get enough of them! But in all seriousness, you might not know all that much about them. In The Wicker Man, they are the bane of Sgt. Howie’s existence. From almost the moment he makes landfall on Summerilse, the village folk’s strange and outward behaviors accost the puritan copper. His first night, he walks out of a pub to the sight of a moon-lit outdoor orgy. He sees a nude woman crying at a gravestone. Later the next day, a mother breastfeeding in the ruins of a long-abandoned chapel. There are cheery folk songs. Maypole dancing. Topless women leaping over open bonfires. Every which way he looks, Howie’s natural sense is struck by so-called depravity. For it’s the pagan way, baby! But what degree of these rites is fact versus Hollywood?
In creating the world of their film, director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer elected to take a more literate approach instead of blood and guts. What started as an adaptation of the novel Ritual by David Pinner, in which a puritanical Christian officer investigates the ritual murder of a young girl in a rural Cornish village, soon took on a life of its own. The filmmakers looked to history, anthropological studies and folk customs to weave their tapestry. The Golden Bough, a seminal work by British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, was an inspiration the filmmakers pulled from liberally. The study examined the spiritual beliefs, practices and institutions of cultures across the globe. Armed with the background, the filmmakers applied their academic knowledge in creating a believable pagan society.
“We thought it would be quite good to create a society where the actual Celtic religion informed everybody,” said director Robin Hardy in talking of the film’s inception. “We went for all the religious and quasi-religious things which informed the mythology of various nations going back, back, back.”
It’s an amalgam. The customs may not stem from any single culture, but they maintain a basis in reality. To me, these details heighten the film’s authenticity and terror.
The people of Summerisle are of a Celt background and practice specific rites attributed to the Druids. The Celts were a collection of tribes in Central Europe who had similar traditions, languages, religious beliefs and cultures. Their origins appear to go as far back as 1200 B.C., with some of the first documented records of them coming from the Roman Empire in the seventh or eighth century B.C. Celtic tribes encompass the Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Galatians. The Romans affectionately referred to the Celtic people as “Galli.” their term for barbarians. The Romans also killed thousands of Celts across the land in an attempt to destroy the culture. Charming. Within some sects of the Celts, there were Druids, the tribe’s religious leaders. They served as teachers and judges as well and did not keep a written record. As a result, the information about them comes almost exclusively from outside sources. Can you count on the people who hate your culture to paint you all in the best light? Julius Caesar wrote in The Gallic Wars of the Gauls peoples’ proclivity towards superstitious rituals, including burning men alive in giant wooden structures to please the gods. Thus history gives us the wicker man! Screenwriter Anthony Schaffer remarked it as one of the most alarming, imposing images he’d ever imagined.
To many of us, pagan practices must seem strange. Indeed, for Sgt. Howie, they are of another world. Paganism follows a polytheistic persuasion and holds an affinity towards a divinity within nature—a principle that flies in the face of Christianity’s monotheistic God, the sole creator of everything. Paganism is rooted in the Latin paganus, or those who live in rural areas. Christianity’s domination within the Roman Empire held firm in the cities, while people in the country maintained the “old ways.” These folk became known as pagans. The pagans of The Wicker Man pray to the Old Gods, rejoicing in a sexually liberated society. Their outward displays of sexuality and “primitive” behaviors profoundly unsettle Howie. His search for the missing girl eventually brings him to Lord Summerisle, played by the late great Christopher Lee, in a performance he ranked as his absolute best. You’d be hard-pressed to argue Lee’s point. The scenes between Howie and Lord Summerisle are undoubtedly the most excellent sequences in the film. Lord Summerisle, handsome, educated and magnetic, not only matches Howie wit for wit but seemingly outclasses him. Howie, challenging the Lord on the worth of paganism, is himself taken to task when Summerisle refers to Jesus as:
“Himself, the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.”
It’s a line that perfectly sums up a particular notion: if you look at it long enough, any religion can seem ridiculous. But when coupled with a stubborn will and unyielding confidence in one’s creed, you’re likely to get a nasty product. Such is the case in The Wicker Man. Desperate to restore their failing harvests, the villagers of Summerisle believe they must appease the gods with, you guessed it, a sacrifice. Howie thinks it’s to be the missing girl. However, the truth of the matter is a revelation that serves one of the most unsettling endings I’ve seen in a horror movie.
The Wicker Man is a disturbing picture, not only for what it shows but for what it implies. That beneath the veneer of modernity and enlightenment, we humans are still capable of committing atrocities in the service of fanatical beliefs. And the film casts no judgments. Howie isn’t a knight in shining armor; he’s a prick who goes around barging into people’s homes, shaming their views whilst flexing the superiority of his own. Nor are Lord Summerisle and his folk painted as out-and-out villains. No doubt they do some objectively terrible things, but for the most part, they’re a band of farmers who prefer to stuff toads down their kids’ throats rather than shell out for Robitussin. Both parties fall prey to their pride, which in turn brings out the absolute worst in them.
If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, The Wicker Man is a folktale horror that will take you on an irregular journey of erotic worship and deadly deceit. Even 47 years after its release, it is unlike anything else out there.
Next Blog Hint: HOLIDAY ALERT ⚠️ Give me something good or die.
— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.
Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.