Summerisle. Come for the festivities. Stay for the wicker man.
This is theme week on 31 Days of Horror and I’m celebrating different horror holidays. The Wicker Man is the third film in the week and takes us to a not-so-fun May Day celebration.
It’s hard to discern what The Wicker Man is about from watching the trailer. The only thing you can get for certain is that a police officer is looking for a missing girl. Other than that there’s a lot of weirdness going on in the town he visits. Folks dressing up in strange animal costumes. A girl being fed a frog. A hand shaped candle. Some sort of ritualistic festival. Come with me and let’s see if The Wicker Man is a good film or a rattan one.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
An amphibious plane arrives at the Scottish island of Summerisle piloted by Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). He has come to investigate an anonymous tip about a missing girl named Rowan Morrison. The older men that greet him deny that girl even exists on this island. But his search leads him to find May Morrison (Irene Sunters), supposedly the girl’s mother. She introduces Howie to her only daughter. Unable to get to the bottom of this, he books a room in the Green Man Inn where he witnesses public depravity as at least a dozen couples make love on the tavern green in full public view.
He inquires about a missing photo from the previous year’s May Day festival, but is informed that it was broken. That night he witnesses Lord Summerisle, the leader of the island, offer a young boy to Willow (Britt Eckland), the sexy and free-loving daughter of the innkeeper. The next day he visits the island’s school house and is distraught over the lessons being taught to the children. Open talk of sexuality and phallic symbols to the young girls insult his Christian upbringing. He bullies Ms. Rose (Irene Sunters), the teacher, to show him the school registry where he discovers that Rowan was a student until recently. She cryptically tells him that Rowan is dead.
Investigating the local cemetery he is shocked by the lack of crosses on the graves and makes one out of a broken apple box for Rowan’s grave. He then visits with Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) to get permission to exhume the body, since no one on the island will do anything without the Lord’s permission. Apparently the Lord’s grandfather settled the island and developed a strain of fruit trees that could grow in Scotland’s climate. He developed a series of pagan practices to appease the old gods and help the island prosper. The current Lord continues these traditions. Howie is affronted by the lack of respect for the one true God and vows to arrest anyone that tries to interfere with him.
Raising the coffin reveals a march hare inside, a favorite animal of Rowan’s, but no body. Howie believes now that Rowan is still alive, but will be murdered by “pagan barbarity” at the May Festival the next day and vows to return to the mainland and return with more police officers to stop the ritual. That night he hears the erotic song and dance performed by Willow next door, and while aroused by it, he chooses to pray and stay in his room. In the morning he is told it’s best to leave prior to the festivities by many people, but his plane no longer works.
He sees Lord Summerisle preach that they are to make a sacrifice to the sun and harvest gods. While the preparations for the festival take place, Howie begins searching the houses finding many odd pagan elements but no Rowan. He sees an opportunity to find her by knocking out the innkeeper and stealing his costume, which is Punch, also known as ‘The Fool.’ He joins the parade as the island folk make a sacrifice of ale to the sea god, and then bring Rowan out of a cave for the main sacrifice. Howie unties her and they flee through the caves but when they exit, Rowan runs to Lord Summerisle and asks, “did I do alright?”
The whole sacrifice and missing girl have been a ruse to bring Howie to the island to serve as a strong sacrifice to their god. He has come of his own free will, represents the power of a king (as a member of the police force), is a virgin, and also a fool. He is anointed as a king and readied to be their sacrifice. He screams that the sacrifice will be for naught and next year it will be worse for them, while Lord Summerisle reassures his followers that all is well. They put Howie in a large wicker man statue and set it ablaze. He recites the 23rd Psalm as the structure burns, killing him before the setting sun.
“You are the fool, Mr. Howie. Punch, one of the great fool-victims of history. For you have accepted the role of king for a day. And who but a fool would do that?” – Ms. Rose
The Wicker Man centers around the May Day celebration of a small Scottish island, which is traditionally celebrated on May 1st. It’s a celebration and ritualistic festival of spring dating back to Roman times. The film is also solidly a horror film, but in a non-traditional sense. Based on the 1967 book “Ritual” by David Pinner, The Wicker Man creates dread in the most mundane situation and provides a parable for the ages: mind your own business.
Predating the advent of the modern horror film, usually marked with 1974s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man is an entirely different type of horror film. It’s terror boils down to a main character who is so certain of beliefs and authority that he cannot see that he is furthering his own demise. Sgt. Howie is a staunch Catholic, whose devoutness to his religion is depicted at several points throughout the film. Near the beginning he is seen leading communion at his local church–which is a ritual where the participants eat bread and drink wine that represents the body and blood of Christ in order to remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Later he prays at the side of his bed, presumably to request salvation for either himself or the inhabitants of the town who he sees as heathens and blasphemers. Additionally he follows the strict guidelines of his beliefs and refrains from intercourse prior to marriage. He is perfectly confident that his belief structure, and rituals, are the one true way. He also knows that his god is the one true God. Unfortunately, Howie is out of his element having entered into an entirely different culture, with different rituals and belief structures. One that he is not prepared to understand, let alone recognize.
As with some of the best horror films, the audience is well aware of the danger for the character long before he is aware of it himself. Howie enters the scene with the full authority of the local police constabulary. As he is is misled, he increasingly leans further and further on that authority believing that the threat of incarceration or arrest will cause these “ignorant villagers” to bow down to his social authority. He then sees sights that affect his morals and values. At that point he invokes his duty, as a Christian, to deliver them from the wicked ways and show them the enlightenment and goodness of Christ, his savior. The Wicker Man could be viewed as anti-Christian in its portrayal, but instead is a master-class on xenophobia. Howie believes himself to be enlightened and on the correct moral path, ignorant that any other group could have another way to enlightenment, or would pose him harm. He is truly the fool, as the townsfolk label him. His path is much like the beetle he sees tied up in Rowan’s school desk. Attached to a nail it continuously walks in the same direction, winding itself tighter and tighter, until there’s nowhere left to go.
Disrespect for other cultures is not only impolite, it can be down right dangerous, as the film proves. Howie treats the others as backwoods pagans, yet these people, whom he feels superior to, are the ones that tricked him into coming, tricked him to stay, and led him to his death. They provided him ample ways out, but like the beetle, he could not turn his back on his duty to his country or his god. His last warning comes from May Morrison. She tells him “you’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.” And whether the villagers of Summerisle were correct or not in their beliefs, it doesn’t matter. Because in the end Howie still did not understand his sacrifice (from their standpoint), hoping to be resurrected through Jesus Christ.
Howie attempts to reason with Lord Summerisle at one point while still mocking his beliefs. Scoffing at the ludicrous attempts he sees at parthenogenesis (literally, reproduction without sexual union, says Summerisle), Howie is flabbergasted. “Oh, what is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion… Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?” Summerisle turns his own beliefs back at him, “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” At every turn the film seems to show that neither the Christian rituals nor the Pagan rituals are better than each other. They are both strong belief systems held by their practitioners. And when an unyielding outsider enters one of those systems, they are no match for those people.
The Wicker Man is still a disturbing film, but maybe not in the way its creators intended it. The disrespect shown by Sgt. Howie for the people he is sworn to protect is entirely too close to home in the trouble times of 2020. Police are sworn to protect the public, but also need to understand the various cultures that they serve and protect. It doesn’t matter if the neighborhood you patrol does not follow the cultural norms of the greater country. Tolerance is a necessary skill when dealing with the other cultures and the unknown, and Howie came in completely unprepared. Thanks for joining me for another scary holiday film and join me the rest of this week as I look at other horrific holidays.
- There are several different versions of this film, including the original cut, a director’s cut and a “final” cut. They all tell basically the same story but include a little more or less of Sgt. Howie’s interactions with the locals.
- The Wicker Man was remade in 2006 and starring Nicholas Cage. As with the last two holiday horror films, My Bloody Valentine and April Fool’s Day, the sequel was not well received. A “spiritual sequel” entitled The Wicker Tree was released in 2011, directed by Robin Hardy, the same director as the original.
- As many know, Christopher Lee is a horror icon, having starred in dozens of horror films, including the Hammer films Dracula and Mummy series.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.