The resounding flop of Midsommar should send horror fans back to a rather more effective treatment of similar ideas in the form of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man, generally voted to be one of the best, if not the very best, of tBritish horror films . That’s quite an accolade, because Robin Hardy’s thriller is quite an odd proposition for any number of reasons. Largely shot in daylight, there’s no violence until the final scenes, the main character is devoutly religious, and the stakes are deliberately low; the failure of the story to work for sequels or reboots indicates what a unique proposition this singular film is.
The expanded cut fleshes out Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) in more detail that the more widely seen version; arriving in a small village, he disparages graffiti saying “Jesus saves’; ‘ There’s a time and a place for it,’ he says, indicating that his beliefs are best kept private. Although in a relationship, Howie is a virgin, and does not suspect that he may be the victim of entrapment when an anonymous letter reaches him telling of a young girl’s disappearance.
Standing between Howie and the truth is a village of pagan-worshippers who openly fornicate outside the pub, worship phallic symbols, and allow their children to understand the world in sexualised terms. Howie is shocked, and his attempts to assert himself over his environment are blocked by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in tweed jacket and elbow pads. Ingrid Pitt and a dubbed (and body-doubled) Britt Ekland also make an impression, as does Lindsay Kemp as the pub’s landlord; there’s a gallery of strange locals for the honest copper to deal with.
The Wicker Man’s true horror is that of dying for nothing; Howie realises too late that his faith is no protection against unbelievers, and that his death will do nothing to alleviate their plight. In an original twist, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Howie’s investigation is turned on its head, revealing that he, in his hubris, is the real victim. Locating a beating pagan heart behind Scottish superstitions, The Wicker Man shows civilised man at a loss, out of his depth and helpless in the face of a fervent radicalism he thought had long-since vanished.
The various versions and spin offs have created a new myth that may never had any basis in fact. Indeed, to die or be sacrificed by people who repeat old mistakes is horrible. The movie, loosely based on a book called the Ritual (I think) and bits of info from Frazer’s Golden Bough and 1 sentence written by Caesar about Druids and straw casket/baskets, makes the pagans the bad guys. It’s really another version of the sacrificed deity. The Wicker Man is just a big ol poppet, used in magic for 1000s of year. I suspect there’ll be another film…perhaps the sacrificed will save him/herself and change the dynamic next time???
You are right on all counts; Allan Brown’s book Inside The wicker Man has some reflections on the origins of the story, as well as some interesting stuff about unmade sequels. The Wicker Man fascinated me as a kid because, as a Scot, I felt that we were being cast as the ‘bad guys’ in this story! Thanks for the comment!