- Monthly Theme: Religious Cults
- The Film: The Wicker Man
- Country of origin: U.K.
- Date of U.K. release: December 1973
- Date of U.S. release: June 1975
- Studio: British Lion
- Distributer: Warner Bros.
- Domestic Gross: $45,000
- Budget: ?
- Director: Robin Hardy
- Producer: Peter Snell
- Screenwriter: Anthony Shaffer
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematographer: Harry Waxman
- Make-Up/FX: Seamus Flannery
- Music: Paul Giovanni
- Part of a series? Yes. This was the first film in the Wicker Man trilogy, followed by 2011’s The Wicker Tree and 2015’s The Wrath of the Gods.
- Remakes? Yes. Neil LaBute directed a remake called The Wicker Man in 2006, starring Nicolas Cage.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The City of the Dead, etc.). Genre sex symbols Britt Eklund (Asylum, The Monster Club, etc.) and Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. British actor Edward Woodward.
- Awards?: Best Horror Film at the 1979 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
- Tagline: “The residents of Summerisle invited Sergeant Howie to their traditional May Day festival. He didn’t expect to meet… The Wicker Man.”
- The Lowdown: This week we visit with one of the most notorious British horror films of all time. Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the remote Scottish island of Summerisle after a young girl is reported missing. Howie begins to sense a conspiracy on the island as all the residents – even the missing girl’s family – deny knowing who she is or that she ever existed. Howie investigates further and meets a series of strange characters – a lusty innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Eklund), a feisty schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) and the foppish community leader Lord Summerisle (horror legend Christopher Lee) – who reveal that the island embraces a pre-Christian mythology of paganism and nature worship. Eventually Howie solves the mystery of the island, but at a terrible price. Renowned for its goofy musical numbers, off-kilter tone and shocking ending, The Wicker Man has long been a cult classic. It was remade in 2006 by director Neil LaBute with Nicolas Cage in the lead role – the remake is considered a work of supremely misguided, batshit lunacy in its own right.
If you haven’t seen The Wicker Man our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: Can I be Katie Couric and you be some random starlet? I have questions.
Kristine: Do I have a choice? I like how you think flattering me will convince me to let you have your way. It’s more like I am a prisoner on death row and you are Geraldo Rivera.
Sean: Take that back.
Sean: This movie is infamous for the “shock” ending – did you know how it ended going in?
Kristine: No, but I was definitely not shocked. I was sure from the get-go that Sgt. Howie would be a goner. I didn’t figure out the “it was an elaborate plan the whole time” part until the movie revealed it, but it didn’t shock or surprise me.
Sean: Really? You knew the whole time he was going to die?
Kristine: Yes. I’m really glad there was a little twist or else the story is basically just Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but with bare boobs and zombie dance moves and recorder music, right?
Sean: Yes, I agree with that. Did you find the ending to be horrible or upsetting?
Kristine: It was more horrible then I anticipated, especially considering that no death or carnage happened onscreen. I mean, being burned alive is one of the worst possible deaths ever, right? Being at the top of the pyre, listening to all the animals scream in horror and pain… That is pretty bad. The animal screams really got to me. Though I thought Oliver Reed’s slow, blistery burning at the end of The Devils was more visceral, this one was bad also. And you?
Sean: Yes, the pigs squealing are the worst part… I remember the first time I saw The Wicker Man the ending felt even more terrible and brutal because of the silliness of all the musical numbers and the flute music and whatnot. The movie is so absurd and dated for most of its running time, and then all of a sudden the final fifteen minutes are truly spellbinding and horrid. Does that make sense?
Kristine: Yes. I had the exact same reaction. This rarely happens with us, Sean. I completely was experiencing the movie as a campy artifact until the end (and I mean the very, very end). It was an upsetting last few minutes and then it was just… over. I am still not quite sure how I feel about the movie, to be honest with you. A lot of my uncertainty has to do with what you pointed out: the truly awful folk music and the flutes and Lord Summerisle, the effeminate fop as evil overlord (Again… Just like the King in The Devils. We need to come up with a good acronym for that trope, along the lines of RIMA). But it also didn’t help that Sgt. Howie, the protagonist, was so profoundly unsympathetic. It literally took him being burned alive in a ritual sacrifice for me to care about him, and I still cared about the piggies more.
Kristine: So, I have a question for you. Making Howie such a total prick was a deliberate choice, right? What does that mean? What is this movie trying to say??? Sean: Well, this actually leads into my next question for you.
Sean: Who is the viewer meant to identify with? Sgt. Howie? Or the islanders? Who are we supposed to sympathize with?
Kristine: Well, that is my question. I sympathize with neither, but if I had to choose it would have to be the islanders (if you took out the human sacrifice element). Sgt. Howie was a ridiculous, judgmental, self-important ninny. But I don’t know if my reaction is what the movie intends, or if it just plays differently to a 2013 audience. Thoughts?
Sean: This came out in 1973, right? Historically that’s a moment when society is changing, youth culture is rising up, “traditional values” are becoming threatened/extinct. I do think that the movie finds Howie to be ridiculous, a representative of a world order that is better off fading into obsolescence – or being burned the fuck out of existence. I keep thinking of Howie exiting the Green Man Inn (that fucking sign? With the hideous swamp demon face on it?) and finding all the couples fucking in the darkness. At that moment, I think the movie is fully with the hippies. I think we’re supposed to see Howie’s “horrified” reaction as repressed and stupid. That is the point of Willow’’s whole sex-dance musical number, right? To show how repressed and unhappy Howie is?
Kristine: Well, I don’t know. At first I did think that Howie’s obvious repression and kneejerk reactions to sex mean that the movie is on the side of sexual liberation. But ultimately these sexually liberated folks are a fucking murderous cult. I mean, you mentioned the monster pictured on the sign for the Green Man Inn. The islanders are marked by a certain set of monster tropes. I’m not sure that’s very flattering to them. And remember the insane ring-around-the-bonfire choreographed number? That sequence seemed, to me, to be saying that the females on the island are not hypersexual because they are liberated, but because they are obsessed with fertility and breeding (especially with a rich and powerful male). So that makes me think the movie is actually critical of society becoming more sexually liberated and offering up an upsetting explanation.
Sean: I see where you’re coming from. And the islanders are ultimately shown to be hypocrites. Lord Summerisle explicitly says, “We don’t commit murder here – we’re a deeply religious people” to Howie early in the movie and by the end, of course, we know that’s a huge lie. They are murderers. But remember Howie’s response? He says, “Religious!? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests, and children dancing naked…” For Howie, “order” and “civility’ is always patriarchal and is always rooted in Christian tradition. I’m not sure the movie sides with either of them, now that I’m thinking about it. Though it does invest Howie with a tremendous amount of pathos in that final sequence. Like you said earlier, I fucking hated his guts the whole movie but then suddenly really felt for him at the end. Even still, I was happy to see everything he represents get symbolically burned away while a community much weirder and queerer rejoices. That felt kind of radical to me.
Kristine: Sure. I must add I did like the fact that the movie flipped the script a tad and had the virginal sacrifice be a man.
Sean: I know, but a 40-year-old virgin police sergeant? Ridic. He was like, 50. He was 63 practically. What the hell kind of a man is a virgin at that age?
Kristine: Well, I know. I thought the same thing. And again, I think that was a deliberate choice to make Howie seem all the more ridiculous and freaky.
Sean: Oh I have so many thoughts.
Kristine: Spew your thoughts all over me, Sean.
Sean: You said that maybe “the movie is on the side of sexual liberation.” I thought it was really clear that the movie truly IS on that side during all the ridic “sex education” scenes, where Howie is totally scandalized by how frank the islanders are about sexuality. Like the song that all the boys were singing as the frolicked around the maypole/symbolic phallus? “And on that bed, there was a girl/ And on that girl, there was a man/ And from that man, there was a seed/ And from that seed, there was a boy…” I was dying.
Kristine: Oh I know. I’m pretty sure that Harry Dean Stanton sang that song on Big Love.
Sean: I mean, the islanders are so sex-positive and pro-body that it is hard not to love them. Howie represents this self-loathing, repressive, anti-sex mindset that I just find so utterly repugnant. Remember when that awesome diva schoolteacher was like, “Daisy, what does the maple represent? Yes, a penis!” I loved that. I think the movie, overall, endorses the whole tree-to-grave-to-tree mythology outlined by the absurd maypole song. It’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson meets Penthouse meets Aleister Crowley. But I also think the movie is interested in ‘comparative religion’ if you will. Like Howie’s flashback to church service? The sermon reads, “The Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread/ And said ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you/ This do in remembrance of me’/ And after the same manner, he also took the cup when he had eaten/ Saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood/ This do you as oft as you drink it in remembrance of me/ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this wine/ You do show the Lord’s death, till he comes again.’” The whole motif of the cosmos being ruled by cyclical patterns of life, death and rebirth is present in both the horny maypole song and Howie’s sermon. Obviously the movie is trying to draw parallels between the Christian and the pagan. When Howie asks Lord Summerisle, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Lord Summerisle responds “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated I believe by a ghost…” I loved all that stuff. The Bible and the cosmology of the ‘Old Gods’ are not that far removed from each other in this movie. The differences are often semantic.
Kristine: Absolutely. And the movie is invested in getting us to think about how it is all so extreme and ridic.
Sean: But I’d also like to respond to what you said about the islanders being “a fucking murderous cult.” I actually thought the weird backstory for the island delivered in Lord Summerisle’s monologue really complicated all of that. Like, the pagan religion was originally just window-dressing for a scientific experiment, right? He tells Howie, “In the last century, the islanders were starving. Like our neighbors today they were scratching a bare subsistence from sheep and sea… Then in 1868 my grandfather bought this barren island and began to change things.” He talks about how the island has a “unique combination of volcanic soil and the warm gulfstream that surrounded it” and “the growth of certain new strains of fruit that he had developed.” I was struck by how Lord Summerisle talks about the island in such scientific terms, which I was not expecting. The movie is so deeply invested in the aesthetics of the pagan or pre-Christian, I thought it was crazy when all of a sudden there’s this clinical, scientific explanation for everything. Lord Summerisle tells Howie that his grandfather managed to “rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods… [and] as a result of this worship the barren island would burgeon and bring forth fruit in great abundance.” So the pagan religion was just a tool of social control, basically, implemented in order to help Lord Summerisle’s grandfather “develop new cultivars of hearty fruit suitable to local conditions,” all fostered by “the music, the drama, the rituals of the Old Gods.” That idea, of the pagan mythos being invoked in order to further science, strikes me as totally weird and out there. I’m not sure what to think about it. Remember that the islanders learn “to love nature and to fear it and to rely on it and to appease it when necessary.” But isn’t he just talking about social control? About brainwashing? I’m still not sure about what the movie is trying to say about the relationship between science and superstition, but Summerisle is a place where the two are working in concert. It’s so bizarre. The religion on the island starts out as something that’s purely symbolic but then, over the generations, it becomes “real.” People really start to believe.
Kristine: Yes, I agree. But I maintain that the movie would have been very different (and have a less obvious message about the danger of all extreme dogmatism) if it had presented a truly unique social order on Summerisle. The character of the Lord, I think, exists to show that the new boss is same as the old boss, right? The islanders might hold some different ideas about sexual mores, but they still are under the thumb of a rich, control-freak patriarch. There is no real liberation here at all. I have always been fascinated with how certain populations, due to geographic isolation, can have completely different social constructs then the populations that neighbor them. They might be very close to “the rest of the world” distance-wise, but some geographic feature (like being on an island or isolated in some other way) has let them completely do their own thing. I think that is fascinating and is a big middle finger to anyone whom argues that this or that social more is “the way” people are hardwired to be. The movie would have been more interesting to me if that was the phenomenon being explored, as opposed to some weirdo and his crop experiments and hunger for power.
Sean: Oh, I agree with everything you just said but have arrived at a different conclusion. I feel like the emphasis on the patriarch ruling the island (almost monarchically, since he is the third in a family line that started with his grandfather) is the thing that makes this movie sort of radical and/or feminist. The movie doesn’t sentimentalize the character of Lord Summerisle. He’s depicted as being a kind of freak. I think there is blatant social critique packaged up in Lord Summerisle’s monologue about the history of the island. The fact that he is descended from this “distinguished Victorian scientist, agronomist, free-thinker” and yet now he is leading a cult in mass murder is a kind of comment on groupthink and religious dogma, no?
Kristine: Oh, I absolutely think the Lord is portrayed as an evil freak. Remember, he is the evil fop, á la Louis XIII in The Devils. His speech about the history of the island shows that, as does his insane behavior during the May Day rituals, being a controlling little bitch about everyone’s customs and his total disregard for human life with the weird sword/guillotine game. So, yes, the movie is critiquing the patriarch as absolute leader. But since it fails to present an alternative scenario, I don’t know if that little dash of critique is enough to make the movie feminist in spirit. Is it? Or do you have to present an alternative? Can you just critique something and offer no solutions?
Sean: Well, earlier you said “the females on the island are not hypersexual because they are liberated, but because they are obsessed with fertility and breeding (especially with a rich and powerful male). So that makes me think the movie is actually critical of society becoming more sexually liberated and offering up an upsetting explanation.” And I think you’re taking things too far with that statement. When Howie goes to have his first meeting with Lord Summerisle and he passes all the naked women dancing in the Stonehenge-esque circle, he asks what they’re doing and Lord Summerisle says, “They do love their divinity lessons” and then says that what the women are learning through the ritual is “parthenogenesis…reproduction without sexual union.” The women are trying to summon the power to conceive children without men. I thought that was a pretty cool and interesting idea and overall, I thought the women in the community seemed to be fairly liberated and unashamed about sex. In fact, I feel like the movie’s main beef with Christianity (and there are shades of The Devils here) is how anti-sex it is and how much lady-shaming it engages in. All of Howie’s juvenile rants about nudity or about how saying the word penis to a group of 12-year-old girls is some kind of vile sin…. We’re meant to see him as a ridiculous prude. The schoolteacher, to me, is a feminist character who openly challenges the patriarchal beliefs of dumb Sgt. Howie. I love how they quibble over language. She says, “The building attached to the ground in which the body lies is no longer used for Christian worship, so whether it is still a churchyard is debatable.” She keeps undermining his authority and insisting on alternative ways of thinking/being.
Kristine: Okay, you make some good points. However. You didn’t find it striking that the island’s main cause célèbre is the phallus? Remember the (awesome) giant penis shrubbery on the grounds of Lord Summerisle? Maybe there was a vagina fern there, too, but I doubt it. Reproduction without union is certainly a radical idea, but I personally do not find it feminist. I think it is sad. These ladies want so badly to escape their fate of having to fornicate with some “acne-scarred artisan” (the Lord’s words) that they spend all day jumping naked through flames? Sounds gross. For me, a feminist movie would represent women as actually enjoying sex and not having it always be linked to reproduction. I mean, the fire-jumping scene and the Lord’s explanation proves that these women are not feverishly coupling with any and all males because they are enjoying their sexuality, they are doing it because they are obsessed with reproduction. If they could accomplish the goal sans physical encounter, they would. In fact, they literally pray for it. How is that pro-female sexuality?
Sean: Fair enough. It’s still more feminist than The Devils.
Kristine: Well. That brings me to my question for you. The tables, they are rotating…
Sean: Yes’m? What is your question?
Kristine: There has been a strong theme of people, specifically women, being controlled by males in authority in all the movies we have watched this month, no? Is this a result of your curatorial choices or because of the very real social shifts going down in the 1970s?
Sean: You’re absolutely right about that, and it is just a happy accident. I had no specific agenda when I selected these movies other than wanting to pick the best and most interesting movies from the time period that deal with cults and conspiracies. I was thinking about that theme only, without any subtext. But it is fascinating that they all have these features in common. You can literally see the social fabric unraveling in these movies, no?
Sean: Next week’s movie, Suspiria, should be interesting to think about in this context.
Kristine: Will you address a couple of things for me?
Sean: Of course.
Kristine: I want you to agree that Lord Summerisle is presented as a (evil) queer character.
Sean: You know, you’re right about that. But I wasn’t thinking about him that way during my re-watch, which is kind of shocking. Maybe I get too distracted by the Christopher Lee of it all. When we watched The Devils and The Brood, I couldn’t stop thinking about how those movies foregrounded the queerness of these decadent men in power. I don’t know why that wasn’t on my mind as I watched The Wicker Man, because of course you’re right. Lord Summerisle is totally queered.
Kristine: I want you to agree that it’s cool when a “lost tribe” of people are found living like, 5 miles away from a modern socialized place, but because there is an iceberg or wharves or something isolating them, they have totally different concepts about everything.
Sean: I don’t know anything about that stuff, but it sounds cool.
Sean: Also I consulted my notes and here’s another feminist moment: When Howie goes to see the death records, the woman asks him “Do you have authority?” all dismissively. See? Ladies only questioning male authority.
Kristine: Wrong. Because all he has to say is that she better do as he says or he will tell her Daddy and she will be in big trouble and she submits. So, nope.
Sean: She still openly questions his authority. That is more lady-chutzpah than most of the other movies we’ve seen this month. Only The Stepford Wives had similarly sassy women being rebellious.
Kristine: Sgt. Howie is such a lame authority figure anyway, and I did love how the movie consisted of him running around accusing everyone of interfering with his investigation, all huffing and puffing and being a 63-year-old virgin. No one on the island respects him in the least and it is hilarious.
Sean: When he goes to the graveyard he reads aloud from a stone: “Here lieth so-and-so, protected by the ejaculation of serpents.”
Sean: You’re right, this movie is obsessed with the phallus and with manspunk.
Sean: Remember in the pharmacy? Jars marked “Foreskins” and “Hearts” and watery vats of sheep fetuses?
Kristine: Ugh, yes. And hares. Fucking like bunnies.
Sean: Yeah, what was up with the hares? The dead hare in Rowan’s coffin. The little girl drawing the hare. Hare chocolates in the candy shoppe.
Kristine: I am telling you, the hare is the symbol of the ultimate fertile male, spunking on everyone left and right and breeding up a storm. Basically, everyone in this movie is gross. There is no one to cheer for, only one to feel mildly bad for. The end.
Sean: The schoolteacher makes me cheer.
Kristine: The schoolteacher is indoctrinating the youth, ensuring that they properly worship the phallus. No cheers for her.
Sean: I cannot find fault with someone for simply saying, “Cock is awesome.” She is right. It is. Remember when she keeps dissing Christianity to Howie’s face? She says, “The children find it far easier to picture reincarnation than resurrection. Those rotting bodies, they’re a great stumbling block for the childish imagination.” Rotting bodies, Kristine.
Sean: What did you think of the musical numbers? And how Willow’s dad was a flaming fairy with a neckerchief?
Kristine: I am amazed that you took note of Fairy Dad and not of Lord Summerisle being such a bitchy queen. Hello? He was staging that May Day parade like it was opening night of Gypsy on Broadway.
Sean: Oh right, he was in drag in the end. I forgot. He put zero effort into it, though.
Kristine: As for the musical numbers, my reaction ranged from being mildly amused to being bored/irritated. But that shit is not my taste, no matter what, so I don’t have a good specific analysis of whether or not they worked in this movie. Like, that tv show Glee is all about stuff I love (high school dramz, the gays, the fats) but I have never watched a single episode because I can’t with the musical numbers. It is an affliction.
Sean: The song that the townspeople sing when Howie first arrives at the Green Man Inn? “Much has been said of the strumpets of yore/ Of wenches and bawdy house queens by the score.” And then, “She’s not the kind of girl to bring home to your mother/ When her name is mentioned, the parts of every gentleman do stand up at attention.” Is this Donovan’s favorite movie? In fact, is this “Donovan: The Movie”? What did you make of the big orgy in the grass? And that one naked woman all clutching the gravestone, either weeping or laughing hysterically?
Kristine: It seemed sad and weird and not joyful. It was no orgy on a giant stone Jesus face. So the point goes to The Devils.
Sean: What about all the costumes in the last 20 minutes? That hobby-horse?
Kristine: Okay, the costumes and the scary animal masks were cool. I’ve said it before (probably on this blog) and I’ll say it again – primitive bird masks with ominous long pointy (phallus) beaks are always good and creepy. See Twin Peaks, et al.
Sean: When the people all slowly rise up from behind the wall in all their woodland creatures masks, were you creeped out?
Kristine: I was like, awesome. Finally a creepy moment.
Sean: Would you sit on that hobby-horse’s penis-head?
Sean: What did you think of Britt Ekland as Willow? The morning after her sexdance, when Willow is like, “I thought you were going to ejaculate into my pussy last night?” to Howie and then is like, “but I guess you’re too… gallant for that.”
Kristine: At first, I thought she was great and I was into it. And then her role totally peters out. Her dance was… There are no words.
Sean: When she is slapping her own ass? And then Howie is all clawing at the walls in his room, overwhelmed with sexy desires? Howie is so disgusting.
Sean: Britt is shit.
Kristine: Her face is… weird.
Sean: They had to dub her voice with a different lady because of her Swedish accent. Just fyi, this movie also featured another sex symbol, Ingrid Pitt.
Kristine: Who was she?
Sean: She was the Librarian, the one who Howie demands to see the death records from and then later finds naked in a tiny little weird bathtub.
Kristine: Oh. Meh. There are zero remotely attractive males on this island, btw.
Sean: I just want to praise Edward Woodward’s acting in the last 15 minutes. Total panic, existential terror and trembling rage. I felt it in my bones.
Kristine: I agree. The last few minutes are a totally different cinematic experience than everything that’s come before.
Sean: I also have never been more happy to see a daddy burn. Bye-bye, Daddy. That’s why I ultimately think this movie is radical. It fucking burns up the old order in the end.
Kristine: Do you think that when he was burning he was thinking, “I should have gotten laid”?
Sean: He was a repressed nincompoop.
Kristine: Sorry, I still say – the new boss, same as the old boss. Whether your boss is Lord Jesus or Lord PowerQueen, if you still have a boss daddy telling you what to do, then shit has not changed.
Sean: No. I don’t agree that the Lord Summerisle is quite the same as the old boss. You be crazy. I thought the fesitval looked fun. I wish something creepy and phallic happened like that to me. I want weird pervy animals slinking around and eating candy and then swords and then deathfire.
Kristine: Ummm, Día de los Muertos happens EVERY YEAR in Tucson.
Sean: That shit is too vanilla for me, sorry. Too family-oriented.
Kristine: Okay, basically what you want is Burning Man, and that is so gross.
Sean: No. I want this Summerisle thing. But with puppies running everywhere. Also, I’ve heard the Burning Man can be surprisingly great.
Sean: I want to say that I had remembered not liking this movie very much. I watched it when I was like, 20 years old and thought “Eff this.” But I found this rewatch to be very enjoyable.
The Girl’s Rating: Nice try, folks AND Too much phallus (and not in the good way)
The Freak’s Rating: Better than I remembered! AND Provocative and problematic