This month’s Final Girl Film Club, Stacie made an interesting choice. Heavy with religious themes, especially that of Christianity versus Paganism. A sneaky choice for the Christmas season.
1973’s the Wicker Man, starring the late Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee is one of those hard to classify films. For one, while it is considered horror, it’s a movie lacking much carnage. The horrors center around the mystery and the struggles of young, repressed Police Sergeant Howie.
Beware of dreadful Spoilers…
Almost immediately, Sgt. Howie finds himself at odds with the locals, who initially refuse him access to Summerisle, a rather isolated Scottish island, as it is private property. Once he provides his reason, a letter he has received indicating a child has gone missing from the isle.
But very quickly Howie finds the situation more than a bit perplexing. The woman he was told is the mother states her child is not missing. He is introduced to her daughter. Presuming he was mislead, he plans to spend the night. The townsfolk in the local tavern/inn offer no help in finding the mystery girl. He finds himself disgusted by the local cuisine and behavior. Here we meet the luminous Willow (Britt Eklund), whom has a very alluring presence. Howie notices several picture-they are from each years’ May Day. But the previous year picture is missing. Later, Howie slips outside, where he sees people in the graveyard, weeping, passionately having sex and other rituals. Howie watches, appalled by what he sees.
We soon discover Howie is a devout Catholic. He prays fervently, as we seem flashbacks to him reading scripture and partaking in communion. This leads to one of the films more…silly…but memorable moments. Willow lies in the room next to Howie’s singing a song to tempt Howie, putting his purity to the test. Howie struggles in his room to fight the temptation. Did I mention Ekland performs the entire scene naked?
The next day, Howie seeks to try and continue his investigation. When he goes to the local school, he becomes appalled (Howie is like a one man Catholic League). The teacher (Diane Cilento) is telling the children of the meaning of the penis in their worship. Initially, all claim that the young girl, Rowan Morrison, he seeks never existed. But Howie notices an empty desk. He finally forces the teacher to let him see the class list, which shows Rowan as a student. The teacher suggests that there is no death, but that he might find her in the graveyard. He questions if she means the churchyard, but she explains the church is no longer used. He is troubled as he notices the graveyard is devoid of crosses and makes one out of some wood after he destroys a pagan offering. He speaks to the groundskeeper who shows Howie the grave of Rowan. When Howie asks of the Church Priest, the groundskeeper just laughs.
When Howie goes to the Summerisle library, the Librarian shows him the death records, but Rowan is not among them. He decides it is time to meet Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) at the Lord’s mansion. Howie is surprised to hear he is expected. While waiting, he looks out the window to see a small Stonehenge like set up where young people are frollicking naked. Summerisle enters and asks if Howie finds them refreshing, of course, he does not. Howie becomes more and more incredulous, asking how they function with a false religion. Know they nothing of Jesus? But Summerisle proclaims Jesus dead, and the old gods still living.
Howie can barely stand the things Summerisle tells him, giving the history of the island’s citizens turning from Christianity to the old pagan ways. That evening, when they go to exhume the body of Rowan so Howie can bring it back to determine the cause of death, they discover her casket contains, instead of the young girl’s body, that of a dead rabbit. The groundskeeper reacts not in shock, but laughter. Enraged, Howie returns to Summerisle. Miss Rose tries to say that the rabbit is Rowan. This further angers Howie.
Howie goes through pictures and is able to locate the missing image from the previous May Day celebrations. Unlike the other photos (all a young woman surrounded by the Harvest), Rowan is sitting sans harvest. Howie does some research and comes to a new conclusion.. Rowan is not dead, she is going to be the Mayday sacrifice because the crops failed.
Howie plans to take his plane to the mainland and bring back reinforcements. But his plane doesn’t start. He starts to search the island and spies the town members preparing for their May Day celebrations. They proclaim that the evening will bring a sacrifice. Howie decides to conduct a house to house search. The twonspeople are surprising cooperative, but his end results are less than he had hoped for.
While napping, Howie over hears Willow and her father talking about doing something to induce a longer sleep. When he finds they have left the room, he sees a candle made of a human hand, startling him. He sees Willows father dressing up as a Punch Doll and uses the candle stick to knock him out. Stealing the costume, Howie slips into the festivities. Awkward at first, he soon loosens up to play the fool. Soon they arrive at another Stonehenge like setting where everyone must pass between swords as people chant “Chop!”.
Suddenly he sees her! Rowan is standing atop stone steps by the sea. Howie runs to help Rowan who leads him through the caves so they can escape her captors When they reach the surface, Howie is shocked to discover that Rowan led him right to Lord Summerisle. She asks the Lord if they did it right.
It now becomes clear that they never planned to sacrifice her. They were always seeking Howie. A pure, virginal and devout adult man. They were studying him… and found him to be the ideal sacrifice they needed. Even the costume of the fool was meant to be. They tell him his rebirth will be through the harvest.. .but, Howie, tells them, “I am a Christian… and as a Christian, I hope for resurrection. And even if you kill me now… it is I who will live again. Not your damned apples.”
Howie is cleaned and then dressed in a ritual fashion. He makes more faith pronouncements. Summerilse quietly-thoughtfully tells him this is a good thing for him as well, for he is being given a martyrs death. He will have life eternal and be seated with the saints. He is marched up the hill to see the Wicker Man. Howie is clearly terrified, crying for mercy and out to God as he is forced to the Wicker Man. A giant wooden statue of a man, the Wicker man is full of food and cattle. Howie is placed in it’s stomach. Howie calls out prophesying that they will be cursed by God for such an evil… but the [people are on movies. They set fired to the Wicker Man, and begin to sing songs to their gods. Howie sings hymns to Christ as he burns. He spends his final moments in dedicated prayer.
It is this clash of religions that makes the film so effective. The joyous celebration of Lord Summerisle and his people as their sacrifice burns is a frightening juxtaposition. The film is a mystery, with a heavy sense of dread pervading it. Is Rowan real? Is she dead? Watching Howie struggle to find the answers, and also dealing with his temptations, never realizing that he is being played for a fool creates a compelling tale. Woodward plays Howie both sympathetically and with a repressed rigidity that really sells the character. His devoutness is never in question. This is not the typical “Christian Hypocrite” of mainstream film. Howie is dedicated to his job and faith, and the film never makes light of this. Of course, not being some terrible hypocrite is really the point of the story. Even when he is angry, Howie maintains a sense of cool.
On his opposite is Lord Summerisle, whom Lee portrays as always calm. I am not sure he ever even gets angry, to be honest. He is a calm, gentle and confident man. It’s effective watching him and Howie, as Howie never seems able to offend him, but he can kindly get under Howie’s skin.
The three women most prominently featured in the story, seem to represent different ideals of the religion. Willow is the siren, Miss Rose is the educator and the Librarian the religion’s administrator.
Also notable is the use of music, you could easily argue this is a musical. The music is fun and folksy, very tied to the folk music of the British isles. It’s far more effective than one would expect, as these cheerful songs cover a dreadful truth.
One of the reasons the 2006 “re-imagining” of the film starring Nick Cage is such an abysmal failure is it does away with the fight between Paganism and Christianity. They replaced it with a poorly realized battle of the sexes and a tortured and flawed “hero.” Howie needs to be less “flawed” and more pure. Otherwise his character does not truly stand out from the citizens.
I really love the ambitiousness of the end. Howie’s death could be seen as a loss for him. But I think, it strikes me more of…Howie is the victor. He may not want to die, but he retains his faith to the end, which intrigues me. A character like Howie, who is dedicated to his faith without a deliriously crazy eyed fanaticism or a villainous streak, is almost unseen in modern film. But you could see Summerisle’s followers as devoted people protecting themselves from religious imperialism.
In the end, I consider this one of my favorite films, because it is horror, dark and foreboding without relying on cheap thrills and scares. It’s beautifully filmed, well acted, written and directed. It’s a film worth checking out.