On July 1, British film director Robin Hardy passed away at the age of 86. He didn’t have a huge filmography, but the one movie of his I’ve seen (and most people have seen) is one that will live on forever. His 1973 film The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer, is one of the best horror movies of all time, for its slow-build suspense far more than outright scares. It also has the distinction in my life of being the very first film I ever got on my brand new Netflix account, back when it was only discs. It still terrifies me.
I’m gonna age myself, but when I was a senior in college—that’d be about 2005 or 2006—I signed up for my first Netflix account. It was like opening up a treasure chest full of cinema history. For the first dozen or so movies I added to my queue, I chose horror movies I’d never seen but saw on, of all things, a Bravo TV special series called The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The one that most intrigued me was The Wicker Man. It looked very unlike any of the usual Italian gorefests, Universal Monster movies, or mid-90s thrillers that graced the list. It seemed eerie on a level to which I was unaccustomed. As the years have gone on, my love of gore has gone down, but my fascination and fear of cults have only increased.
The story begins with a murder mystery and ends with a horrifying reveal. The uptight, very conservative and religiously devout Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) heads to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. He’s immediately very “professional” and not very nice to the townsfolk whom he quickly believes is trying to cover up the disappearance, and possibly even committed murder of the girl. The people of Summerisle are a decidedly non-Christian people; in fact, they’re a joyously pagan community, all preparing for their May Day ceremony. Their chief export is apples, and the apple harvest has not been very good for the last several years.
Steadily, as Howie stays on the island, he starts to be made more and more uncomfortable with the open sexuality of the community, all copulating happily and running naked in the night. The librarian (Ingrid Pitt) openly lies to him about there even being a Rowan Morrison, and even Rowan’s mother starts being shady when the questions come in. He stays at a hotel and the landlord’s comely daughter (Britt Ekland) attempts to woo him to join in the celebration, but saving himself for marriage is not only a thing he chooses to do, it’s a thing he must do for his religious sanctity. But the longer he stays, the more people seem to be waiting for him for some reason, expecting him, and laugh off his open derision of their whole livelihood.
His looking down on them all comes to a head when he meets with the island’s patriarch, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who seems to Howie as a wealthy, lecherous, satanic figure, despite his politeness and demeanor. Howie in his heart wants to do good by this little girl and uncover the conspiracy, but at every turn he openly shows his disdain for these people who do not live the way he does, and that’s to his detriment. As the May Day ceremonies begin, and everyone dons a costume and begins to march and chant, Howie believes he’s getting close to finding Rowan, and indeed does, running with her to where his boat was. But he was deceived to the end, believing his values and beliefs would save him. But it’s not Rowan who’s the sacrifice…it’s somebody much more worthy of bringing back their apples.
What makes the movie truly unsettling is the idea that everyone on the entire island is in on this conspiracy, that not even the mystery that brought Howie there is genuine and he’s been duped from the start. The friendly cultists you can’t escape is something that’s been done many times before, in movies like Rosemary’s Baby, and was a major influence on Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. But it’s here, with Hardy’s stark direction and the smiling, grinning faces of the townspeople. And you wonder every time you watch The Wicker Man, maybe this time Howie will just join in the festivities, but he never does. His fate is always the same.
The final act of the movie is scarier, I’d say, than any horror movie ever made, and not because of any jump scares or monsters, but from the growing realization that it’s all gonna happen and there’s not a single soul around to help him. As Howie is brought toward the massive titular idol/prison, and he pleads to his Christian God for salvation and later last rites, slowly burning to death in a pyre along with goats and chickens, the entirety of the island sings its happy songs as the sun sets on the celebration and life. “The Lord’s My Shepherd,” Howie sings, while the laughing faces of an entire community spell his doom. It’s chilling and cautionary, whether you were raised particularly religious or not.
The legacy of The Wicker Man was tainted by the laughably bad Nicolas Cage version, remade by Neil LaBute, but if you watch the original, you’ll see a movie that’s as potent, as disheartening, and as endlessly fascinating now as it was in 1973. There’s a reason Christopher Lee called it the best film he’d ever done and agreed to do it for almost no money. The performances are wonderful, the implications are troubling, and the finale is literal fire. Seek it out, on the quick side.
Images: British Lion Pictures