(Originally posted on Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 2
12. The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy
The Wicker Man is a film that oozed into my consciousness, interestingly, through its appearance in another cult-classic English fright film, Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave. Ewan MacGregor's character is seen sitting on the sofa watching some movie in which some guy is screaming "Oh Christ!" at the top of his lungs. It's an eerie image, one that casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. (I think it may be the most effective use of an image from the 1970s rural-horror cycle in a 1990s horror film--sounds like a limited reference pool, but you'd be surprised--except perhaps the glimpse of the finale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in American Psycho.) The Wicker Man is also referenced throughout British music--the Doves covered a song from its soundtrack, and Plaid, a drill'n'bass group signed to Trent Reznor's Nothing Records, has a song called "Think What You're Doing" that's actually named after a quote from TWM's protagonist, Sgt. Neil Howie. It's a film that's infiltrated underground culture to a surprising degree. Doubtlessly, this is because it offers a startlingly cogent critique of both the prevailing conservative culture--and of the romanticized rebellion against it. It frightens us because we're not sure what side it's on, but we're reasonably sure it's not on our own.
The Wicker Man's power lies in a deft philosophical sleight-of-hand it works upon the audience. The film stars Edward Woodward as an aggressively straight-laced Christian police sergeant, Neil Howie, from the West Highlands in Scotland. He receives an anonymous tip that a girl has disappeared in the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, and travels by seaplane to investigate. He discovers, to his mounting disgust and indignation, that the residents of the island have rejected Christianity en masse, having adopted a nature-worship pagan religion that reveres "the old gods." It seems they credit their heathen ways with the island's incongruous capacity to support the growth of delicious, plentiful apples, which have become their sole cash crop. But Sgt. Howie soon discovers that the crop has failed, and wonders if the disappearance of the girl might be tied into the Summerislians's attempts to placate their angry gods.
But forget about all that scary-sounding stuff. The bulk of this film centers on the prudish Sgt. Howie's righteous indignation at the islanders' practices, which in the main consist of an extremely enthusiastic embrace of human sexuality. Bawdy songs are sung about the landlord's daughter, who sings right along--as does the landlord himself. Couples rut in the fields, several at a time. Little boys dance around the maypole singing exceptionally frank songs about the cycle of life, while little girls are instructed about phallic symbols and how the penis is worshipped as a symbol of the generative power of nature. Virgin teenage girls cavort naked over a fire, hoping it will impregnate them. And virgin teenage boys are offered to that landlord's daughter (played to earthily sensual perfection by Britt Ekland and her rear-view body double) to be deflowered as a sort of sexual human sacrifice. Howie, a virgin himself, is as horrified as he is tempted. (It's not just sex that riles him, though; he's similarly aghast at the island's "sacreligious" burial rites, and most importantly, at the complete lack of Christian education.) Throughout, the filmmakers take great care not to show Sgt. Howie as an obnoxious, self-righteous prick: Oh, he's righteous, alright, but there's no sign that he's anything but a true believer, one who has found great comfort and strength in his beliefs. It's not that he's a would-be Torquemada, or that he's a hypocrite, that turns the audience off his religion: It's that the Summerislians' is just so much more fun, more earthy, more humane, more human.