Have you seen the horror film about a gormless, well-intentioned westerner lured to a lush, sparsely populated isle in search of meaning, only to find paganism, unbridled sexual politics, folk dancing and abject violence?
I’m not talking about Midsommar, the 2019 folk-horror hit by auteur Ari Aster that freaked out audiences with its broad-daylight senicide and twee ritualism. I’m referring to a film that came out nearly 50 years earlier, and which often out-weirds and out-wilds its younger cousin despite containing none of the gore or violence. I’m talking about The Wicker Man, the 1973 British horror-musical that popularised the folk-horror genre, and endures to this day as a masterpiece of the form.
Directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man is a strange but essential B-movie artefact, one which has, over the past 20 years, been reclaimed as a masterpiece of British cinema and now has a home on prestige streaming platform Mubi. Starring Edward Woodward and iconic 60s actress and sex symbol Britt Ekland, the film follows police sergeant Neil Howie who receives an anonymous tip that a young girl has gone missing on the far-off Scottish island of Summerisle.
When he arrives, he finds that he’s bitten off far more than he can chew. Not only are the island’s residents cheerily working together to obfuscate the details of what happened to the girl, they also seem to have given up on Christianity entirely – worshipping pagan gods and conducting a sinister masked procession on May day.
The devoutly Christian sergeant is appalled – villagers roaming naked and having sex in the lush fields, churchyards overrun with wildlife and entirely devoid of Christian symbology, school lessons on the phallic origins of the maypole, and a suave, smartly dressed lord, played by Christopher Lee, who rules in place of an elected official. Most sinister of all is that despite their wide grins and penchant for song and dance, Howie is pretty certain the missing girl has been given up as a human sacrifice in exchange for an abundant harvest.
Devoid of any “traditional” horror devices – jump scares, gore and the like – The Wicker Man instead asks viewers to draw their own conclusions about the traditions of Summerisle. (As with Midsommar, I found the supposedly barbaric villagers to be sympathetic and perversely reasonable, but the film allows for any number of interpretations while still being straightforward and accessible, one of its greatest formal triumphs.) What transpires over the course of the film is unsettling and often bizarre, but also poses salient questions about tradition, judgment and moral relativism. And it does it all in a breezy, evenly paced 88 minutes. Although sometimes arcane in its references, I cannot express how bracing, exciting and downright funny a first watch of The Wicker Man is.
Part of this is due to there having been few films like it, before or since. Even Midsommar, despite narrative and visual similarities, is entirely different in tone from The Wicker Man’s surreal, musical landscape. That the film is so reliant on musical sequences – sweetly sung diegetic folk songs drift in and out of the film as Howie walks around Summerisle, occasionally giving way to full musical numbers of traditional British folk as reinterpreted by composer Paul Giovanni – gives it an immersive quality, aside from the music’s other function as a kind of meta commentary on the nature of language. (The villagers often communicate in song, which the straightlaced Howie can’t stand.)
Altogether the film is a wild, rare confection – a product of true vision made for little money that endures both as a film and as a key object of influence on much of the great art that has come since. (The soundtrack’s reissue in the late-90s sparked a British folk revival that eventually parlayed into the 2000s freak folk scene, typified by artists like Devendra Banhart.) Like Howie’s visit to Summerisle, a viewing of The Wicker Man is a trip you’re likely to find hard to shake.