Dear The Wicker Man (1973),
I count myself as being among the fortunate few that was able to see you before your seemingly inevitable remake had to show up and tread all over your name. In this day and age it should be no surprise to those who follow the world of film that remakes will never be as good as the original, and it should be equally obvious and expected that an original film should not be judged based on the quality of its remake. Still, I fear that the cultural infamy of your remake might cast a shadow long and dark enough even to blot out your very admirable figure. This is, of course, a massive shame, as in spite of having the same 1970s trappings that made The Dunwich Horror so discordant, you mark yourself out as a truly worthy and enduring horror icon.
The entirety of your success, in fact, can be tied those ’70s era themes which hampered and made The Dunwich Horror laughable, but which add a level of cultural and social reality to your proceedings which galvanizes your place among great horror films. You see, in The Dunwich Horror the rites of fertility and the general addition and emphasis on sex was wildly out of place. The existential and scientific terror of Lovecraft’s creations rested on their complete otherness among human life. The Elder Gods have no interest in sex, and therefore the inclusion of any kind of sexuality in their rites and practices was just open pandering to a generation that was blossoming into a more sexually liberated generation.
You, though, The Wicker Man, set up a story and setting which serve as a perfect means to explore and exploit the growing sexual permissiveness of the 70s. In your tale, a prude and reserved British constable, Sergeant Howie, arrives at the agricultural commune of Summerisle on an island off the Scottish coast. He is there to investigate the reported disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, but his investigation is hampered by the stonewalling of the commune’s citizens, a collection of pagans whose religion and agrarian culture revolve around the fertility rites and gods of old. In addition to the unresponsive population, he must also contend with Willow, the sexually aggressive young woman who attempts to chip away at his chastity. Frustrated and confused by the uncooperative nature of the commune and repelled by their loose, ungodly sexuality, Sgt. Howie finds himself slowly unraveling as he seeks the truth behind Rowan’s disappearance and behind the May Day ritual everyone is preparing for.
Now that is a story that has something to gain from explorations and conversations regarding sexuality. Every bone and sinew of your story is woven with the subtexts of sex and fertility, meaning that the era of your creation and your narrative works perfectly in tune with your plot, rather than abrasively against it, as was the case with The Dunwich Horror. The conflict set up between Howie and the entirety of Summerisle’s society is so layered and intrinsic that every facet of context is a source of friction. You are the story of modern Christianity coming up against old world paganism. You are the story of early 20th century morality and prudishness butting against 1970s ideas of free love and sexual liberation. Authority versus communistic anarchy. Society versus nature. This is no surface level lack of understanding. In every way Howie and the world he has entered are set up to be perfectly, weirdly antagonistic.
What also helps you to perfectly execute your brand of pagan/sexual oddity is the fullness with which you commit to the idea. This was another failing of The Dunwich Horror in terms of theme – the sexuality was discussed, displayed, but never truly embraced. You, meanwhile, create an entire society in which fertility and sex are the cornerstones of daily life. Children are taught the phallic significance of a maypole. People sing songs relating to childbearing and procreation. Naked women jump through fires to ready themselves to receive a man. Every bit of the world you create is shot through with the meaning and importance of sex and nature to these people, which makes Howie’s inability to comprehend or accept their mores even more of a cause of concern.
The kind of horror you practice is the sort of social, hard to pinpoint horror of not fitting in, of being in a place that you cannot understand and knowing at all times you are an outsider. No one likes to feel put out of place, and to be submerged in a society that not only won’t accept you, but that indulges in practices that are contrary to your entire being, is a great source of tension and unease. Add to this already hostile environment the fact that a whole community may be complicit in the murder of a young child, and you have a perfectly unnerving experience.
So congratulations, Wicker Man. You have succeeded where many other films have failed; you crafted a film unabashedly of its time, and yet used the culturally and socially specific elements of that time to create a narrative that transcends time or place. Through your delicate manipulation of tone and your devious story, you crafted a tale well worth revisiting.
Brian J. Roan