Why The Wicker Man Still Scares Us by Kieran Judge
Released in 1973, Robin Hardy’s British pagan horror movie takes a policeman (played by Edward Woodward) onto the Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a girl’s disappearance. Despite a bad remake with Nicholas Cage, and a spiritual sequel that failed to impress, the original film still has the ability to deeply disturb on a strange, fundamental level. I’m going to outline why I think The Wicker Man, despite its age and lack of blood and monsters, still manages to thrill and scare today.
When Howie arrives on the island, you’re initially greeted by great aerial shots of the little plane flying past the rugged terrain of the island, merely a white speck against the blue ocean. For the rest of the film, Howie is completely removed from the traffic in the pre-credit scenes, away from the churches and the police stations (these scenes re-added in the director’s cut). As Martin-Jones writes of the film, ‘The wilds of Scotland are thus considered a potentially treacherous location where a more ‘primitive’ attitude to life and death persists and duplicity and double-cross are deadly commonplaces against which the unwitting outsider must guard.’ (Martin-Jones, 2009). We’re on our own now in a cut-throat world.
And you get this impression right from the start. Upon landing, Howie asks the townsfolk to send a dinghy out so that he might come ashore, and their reply is they can’t do so without permission. Even announcing himself as a policeman seems to have little to no effect. Not only is this an island from which one cannot easily escape except by plane, but it is an environment where the people are dismissive, if not yet overtly hostile. It’s going to be hard going at the very least to find our missing girl.
The more we explore the culture, trying to get to the very heart of the matter of the missing Rowan Morrison, the more we feel we are intruding too far into a completely different world. Their pagan rituals are everywhere, from the maypole dancing and education at the school, to the chocolates being sold in the local shops. The Christianity that Howie holds so dear to him, (the virtues that Edward Woodward says are the most important values to him of all, in the DVD’s video commentary (The Wicker Man, 1973)) are up against a brick wall that we slowly, horrifyingly, realise is actually a trap, ensnaring us. Kbatz has a great review of the film from a few years ago in which she discusses some of the conflicts between the different religions, and I highly recommend you go and read it if you haven’t already: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/kbatz-the-wicker-man/
Many people have commented on the music in the film, with the cast and crew on the DVD commentary saying that it fits the movie like a glove. I’ve known people to find the songs funny at times, which I think is telling in itself. It isn’t the usual score to a thriller film. Around 13 songs, based on traditional Scottish tunes and poems, form a surreal background to a completely alien world. It’s unnerving, and people trying to laugh it off may be a form of emotional relief
This also highlights that all of the people are genuinely enjoying the festivities. All of the townsfolk are smiling and treat Howie with the greatest of respect because, again referring to the audio commentary, they believe they are doing him the greatest service by plotting to make him a martyr. They believe they’re doing the right thing. And that’s one of the most terrifying things upon reflection, they believe in their hearts that they are rewarding him.
And then of course, for Howie, things go sour in the final act. Like the rotting apples and the crumbling churches, everything falls apart for the modern values of the western world embodied by our policeman. When he tries to leave he finds the plane broken and sabotaged, technology failing. Worshippers with animal masks watch on, and when Howie turns around they hide again. There’s a definite air of malice now, a concrete threat to Howie, and what was unease throughout the film suddenly becomes fear.
As we reach the climax of the film, we, like Howie, are clutching at straws. From feeling like the imposter in a strange land, Howie puts on the outfit of the fool and becomes the imposter. Now we’re in the very midst of the danger, aware that they intend a human sacrifice, and the very Christian policeman has to imitate the very thing that goes against his core values in order to carry out his job. The snapping hobby horse are the jaws of death. It’s a personal conflict of monumental importance, a moment where the personal micro tensions and the theological macro tensions come to fruition, and we have to hope that the man we follow will win out.
The entire parade is dragged out as long as possible for maximum tension. The scene with the sword dance in the stone circle is particularly tense, because for a moment we suddenly realise that there’s the possibility the worshippers know Howie is in the outfit. Thrust into the line, he has no but to go into the ring of swords and trust and hope his disguise holds out. With the chop! chop! chop! we have again a perverse soundtrack, substituting the war drums of conventional movie scores for a pagan call for death.
And then we arrive at the final scene. Howie is thrust into the Wicker Man, crying for his Lord, and we suddenly have to hope for the traditional horror movie to return. Horror films always save the protagonist, give us some kind of catharsis, but there’s nothing to be found here. The helicopter doesn’t arrive, rain doesn’t pour as an act of God and douse the flames licking at the wood, Howie doesn’t manage to escape and run to freedom. The cries for Jesus and the singing of traditional hymns are drowned out by the chanting ring of happy pagan faces as the head finally crumbles, burned to a crisp.
The Wicker Man takes our traditional western values and puts them into a world that has reverted to the past. The crusade Howie goes on fails to convert the islanders to the ‘modern’ ways of thinking. We leave the film having watched the protagonist having journeyed to a strange, unnervingly backward land and burned alive to appease ancient gods. We as an audience, his modern kin, have failed him. In a world of cut-and-paste zombie flicks, ghost girl movies, and lacklustre monster films, there’s just something about rustic terror of The Wicker Man that manages to unnerve. Everything comes together and culminates in a film that defies all the conventions, brings together the best cast and crew possible, and leaves the viewer having watched one of the most terrifying final scenes ever put to film.
Article by Kieran Judge
Follow Kieran on Twitter: KJudgeMental
Martin-Jones, D., 2009. Scotland global cinema: genres, modes and identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
The Wicker Man. 1973. [Film] Directed by Robin Hardy. UK: British Lion.