The Wicker Man may be a film title that most people associate with bees and Nicolas Cage. If you find yourself thinking “That movie was a piece of a shit, how the hell can someone even insinuate that this is an undiscovered gem?”, I’m not. The 2006 version is a remake, and while a lot of the original story is present, the original 1973 film is significantly better and vastly different bit of unique cinema.
The 1973 version of The Wicker Man is one part musical, one part mystery and one part horror, and in all honesty, those three things sound like they go together about as well as pasta, yoghurt, and sardines. It really shouldn’t work, but in this one instance, it somehow does.
The Wicker Man plays out similar to Alice going deeper into the rabbit hole. It descends into a psychedelic acid fever dream, with musical numbers throughout the film that display a cheery disposition that hints at something more disturbing lying beneath the surface.
Sargeant Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous letter informing him of the disappearance of a teenage girl named Rowan Morrison on the remote privately owned island of Summerisle, owned by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Upon arrival on the island Howie, who is a devout Christian, notices that the locals worship Pagan gods, they fornicate in public at night and use toads to heal ailments. The island locals also seem determined to obstruct Howie’s investigation. Everything isn’t as it seems on the island and there is an unsettling feeling the moment Howie arrives, it’s almost obvious to the audience that Howie will suffer a terrible fate at the end of the film, but regardless of this obvious feeling, it is the journey that is interesting.
The Wicker Man is capable of being a horrifying movie without the need for gore, blood or violence. It’s a lot more psychological, the use of imagery of locals with animal masks, stalking Howie when his plane won’t start, in one scene there is a moment that is a definite foreshadowing of Howie’s fate.
Christopher Lee is optimistically horrifying as Lord Summerisle; he piously and absolutely believes in his pagan rituals. Howie being a devout Christian offers a nice contrast and hints at an interesting subtext that points out the absurdity of religion. By the time the final act twist is revealed and the big wooden effigy of a man comes out, the sinister motivations of the locals creep out. You’d never know that Lee in a greyish beige blazer, yellow turtle neck shirt, denim and gym shoes could be horrifying, but he is.
People cheerfully killing someone is always disturbing, especially in an idyllic setting. The Wicker Man is a great exploration on how to be disturbing on a more psychological level, for me personally I always find people with dogmatic and absolute conviction in particular ideological or religious beliefs to be more off putting than straight up gore.
A modern film that utilizes this concept well is in Kevin Smith’s religious horror film Red State, particularly the first sermon in the film. This does have gore, but it’s that mentality of absolute righteousness that is horrifying and fucks with me. I think it’s because it’s a real threat, it’s an actual evil that exists in the world, it’s not some unrelatable otherworldly possession or demon it’s just bat shit crazy dogmatic beliefs. This is why The Wicker Man is terrifying, the remake fails because it completely abandons what made the original good and instead becomes derivative of the mystery/horror genre.
That being said, I feel The Wicker Man works because it belongs in a particular era and it was very much ahead of its time. If you haven’t ever seen the original Wicker Man, please do not let the remake put you off from watching the original, they’re both extremely different films. In fact, skip the remake entirely and just watch this gem.
Have you seen The Wicker Man? Or will you be stopping by Summerisle? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook! And if there’s an Undiscovered Gem that you’d like to recommend, let us know!