Like “Midsommar” would do nearly a half-century later, “The Wicker Man” (1973) taps into a subgenre called folk horror. These films are not traditionally scary or horrific in any given instant, but the whole is more terrifying than the sum of its parts. The vibe tends to be weird, with many WTF moments. Such films hold a viewer like a magnet even if it is objectively slow-paced, and maybe even boring to those whose pulse tends to run at the speed of an action movie.
Writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy start with a heckuva good mystery hook: A Scottish police detective (Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie) responds to a letter about a missing girl on a rarely visited island that’s part of his jurisdiction. When he arrives at Summerisle, every one of the hundred or so residents – including the supposed mother and sister — says they’ve never seen this girl, Rowan Morrison.
One could say “Midsommar” is a beefier version of “Wicker Man,” which is only 88 minutes long. To be fair to this classic film, I have to remember that what happens in “Wicker Man” must’ve been shocking in 1973, and even today it boasts several OMG moments that hold up.
The early scenes set up the weird vibe. Woodward portrays the stiff Howie’s increasing frustrations with the citizenry’s obfuscation and the fact that they’re more focused on the upcoming May Day festival than Rowan’s disappearance. The first blast of strangeness comes when he gets a room at the local inn, and the innkeeper subtly offers up his daughter, Willow (the sexy Britt Ekland), as a sexual bribe of sorts. The patrons gather in a folk song they know by heart that has increasingly inappropriate lyrics about the attractiveness of this girl-woman.
The sequence where Willow tries to seduce Howie is sexual, uncomfortable, bizarre and yet thematically on point. She provocatively dances naked against a wall while he’s in the room next door. The film sets up its conflicts right there, and they’ll all be revisited in even stranger ways later. Howie believes in solid Christian religion and morality; these pagans believe in the older gods. Howie believes in modesty; this group is utterly unashamed about sexuality.
A less symbolic portrayal of the Howie-versus-village conflict comes when the detective chats with Lord Summerisle (an effectively understated Christopher Lee). Summerisle calmly explains how the old gods and their cycle-of-life beliefs work better for this island than Christ does — as girls dance naked around a fire outside his office window as part of standard daily teachings and rituals.
Howie is even made to seem prudish and foolish when he sputters that their religion is clearly wrong because, well, the girls are naked. It’s a circular argument kind of like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography being “you know it when you see it.”
“The Wicker Man” will be challenging to some viewers. They will say Howie is obviously right because he represents Christianity and this group rejects it, but that’s a biased viewpoint. For his part, Howie – noting that Scotland is “a Christian country” — is bursting in here trying to break up the community’s freedom of religion.
Although leisurely paced, “Wicker Man” is not a relaxing film. It achieves a tense vibe because it doesn’t take sides. Howie is the protagonist, and his laudable goal is to solve the mystery of a missing girl – maybe even save her life if she’s hidden on this island somewhere. Yet he is reactionary when anything challenges his Christian beliefs; he’s not a live-and-let-live or separation-of-church-and-state type.
Meanwhile, most Western viewers – even if not Christians – will cringe at things like the islanders’ grade-school sexual education and the fact that desiccated umbilical cords are placed on grave markers. In being open-minded, we’ll say “Well, if it works for them, and if no one is getting hurt …” But then we’ll feel dirty for thinking that. But yet we don’t totally want to be on the prude’s side, either.
In addition to the core “Where’s Rowan?” mystery, “The Wicker Man” has intrigue because we don’t know the reason for the title until the closing minutes. Again, knowing that “Midsommar” follows in its tradition, a modern viewer misses out on some of the shock factor. Yet even when the islanders’ scheme becomes clear, it’s pretty darn creepy in that daylight horror vein. We don’t need darkness or jump scares to be creeped out. Sometimes there’s nothing more disturbing than out-in-the-open human behavior.