31 Days of Horror: The Wicker Man (1973)

by Jim Rohner

When the calendar page turns to October, we Rejects have only one thought: horror. To celebrate this grandest and darkest of months, we’ll cover one excellent horror film a day for the entirety of the month. That’s 31 Days of Horror and 31 Films perfect for viewing on a dark, chilly, October night. If you, like us, love horror and Halloween, give us a Hell Yeah and keep coming every day this month for a new dose of adrenaline.

Synopsis: Alerted to the disappearance of a young girl, staunch Catholic Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate. The island is overseen by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who acts as a shepherd for a flock of citizens that adhere to a system of ancient pagan beliefs that celebrate sexual fertility and mankind’s connection with nature.

The progressive attitude of the island not only challenges Howie’s faith in what he believes, but also his investigation as the mystery of the girl’s disappearance and the motivation behind it seems to thicken at every turn.

Killer Scene: Similar to Mr. Hunter’s entry for The Mist, truly the most powerful and resonating scene in this film comes during its finale. which has to unquestionably be one of the bleakest in the history of cinema. In the interest of avoiding spoilers though, I’ll reference the scene in which Sergeant Howie finally receives permission to exhume the grave of the supposedly dead young girl only to find the corpse of a hare occupying the coffin. It’s not gory, it’s not shocking, it’s not scary, but it further clouds the mystery of the girl’s disappearance and really makes you wonder, “what the hell is wrong with this island?”

Kill Sheet

Violence: Near the end of the film, some Summerisle clown gets punched out by our pious copper, but you won’t find a drop of blood in any frame of this film, with the only real death being implied rather than shown. Having said that, though, holy shit – what an awful way to go.

Sex: The citizens of Summerisle worship the gods of fertility and are quite celebratory of what they believe to be the sacred act of sex, so that translates to plenty of boobies for us happy viewers, much to the chagrin of our betrothed, abstinent protagonist. At various points, Sergeant Howie walks through an open field populated by fornicating couples, is unsuccessfully (barely) tempted by the bartender’s daughter who serenades him through his bedroom wall while completely nude, and spies a group of nude young women engaging in ritualistic worship of fire.

Scares: For about 83 minutes of the film’s 88-minute run time, there is virtually nothing in this film that will scare you in the superficial “boo!” sense of the word. There are certainly some unsettling moments where we see the apparitional citizens of Summerisle donned in animal masks during their May Day festivities, but the biggest fright this film offers is that of the psychological kind by asking us – what if everything we’ve devoted our entire lives to is baseless?

Final Thoughts: The tension from this film all stems from the conflict between dichotomies: the old and the new, faith and disbelief, monotheism and polytheism. Those looking for something pleasing on a surface level may very well find The Wicker Man to be disappointing and probably even pretty boring considering some curious soundtrack choices and the fact that those not viewing the Director’s Cut, which even then is lacking, will be viewing an incomplete, edited version of Robin Hardy’s vision.

Still, there’s enough of a core premise in place to make the ending sufficiently terrifying. As I mentioned above, that question of, “what if what I believe in fails me when I need it the most?” is one that keeps people up at night, has shifted the histories of people and cultures throughout and, most importantly for this film, is a question that is not only applicable to the staunch Catholic sergeant, but also to the outwardly confident Lord Summerisle. With The Wicker Man, Hardy seems to asking questions about mortality and eternity, the answers to which none of us can ever be 100% certain while we live. Admittedly, it’s a different kind of horror, but it still lingers with you when the credits roll.

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