My opinion on depictions of cults in cinema is that they can only spring forth so many ways, meaning originality should not be too lofty an achievement. In fact, it need not be strived for as a setup. One need only look past a few set of tropes to break new ground. So it is not what that hypothetical cult does to both prey and adherents but rather how it lures said subjects, respectively, into its trap and thrall. Usually that’s the promise of hedonistic reward and/or salvation from some doomsday calamity in return for the unquestioned fealty to a charismatic chieftain. Demise is imagined, heightened, exploited and, most importantly, the façade is maintained. Appearances are kept and, sometimes, so are the promises. Methods may vary, but in The Wicker Man‘s case the intrigue lied beyond simple machinations. It was in the periphery where the film leaves a mark.
From a distance, The Wicker Man‘s façade is lively and feel-good but insidious and uncanny upon closer inspection. Working on both the audience and the protagonist (both group outsiders), the effect is manifold and undeniable. Palpable to be exact. Song and dance numbers—whose lyrics are risque—punctuate tense plot movements concerning the whereabouts of a missing girl. If truly missing, there are few places in which to hide her on the small and fictional Summerisle in Scotland’s remote and isolated Hebrides, themselves a set of two real archipelagos. Worse yet, if a more nefarious fate was plotted for her, sorting through suspects among the uncooperative citizenry is a gargantuan undertaking on more than one front.
You see, Sargeant Howie is a devout Christian, and though engaged to be married, he is a prototypical forty-year old virgin before we had one. He is an embodiment of both Crown and Cross, and he arrives with his own prejudices and biases. His professional and pious sensibilities are provoked by the goings-on on this assignment although, by most indications, he is more than up for the challenge. And what of Summerisle, the possible crime scene, and its residents? They, too, have their own point of view; a pagan wonderland; an Arcadia replete with nude women congregating in pastoral tranquility; a carnal utopia where the way of the flesh reigns and the sole interest in academia is reserved for the cycle of life—chiefly, the role of the regenerative powers of the phallus.
Robin Hardy’s seminal film is a study of that clash and tension, and of proximity and distance, both physical and ideological. Howie being divorced from his constabulary and its safety anchor is evident from the start, but his being separated by travel from his fiancée is put to the test by neighboring Willow’s bedroom, the innkeeper’s daughter and town vixen. Her siren call beckons though he remains steadfast and tethered to his commitment to his fiancée and mission. The bulk of the film shows no blunt suggestion of the sinister, despite ample inferences of the grotesque and sacrilegious. By virtue of being a few years removed from the hippie heyday, the film registers like an extension of its free love, back-to-the-land ethos and orientalist spirituality. The latter part is expressed as a pagan renaissance for actual ancient Gaelic religions and it is where the line is blurred between contemporary counterculture outside the film sets and the documented history of pre-Christian paganism that the events in The Wicker Man become truly unsettling. But in Sargeant Howie, the viewer is not offered a suitable proxy, or a transplant, for the reason that not everybody is that religious, if at all. Perhaps his devoutness is resonant with an everyman for that time though not necessarily a one-size-fits-all audience surrogate.
Yet a lingering unease is sensed as something is off the moment he arrives by seaplane. And from the outset, docking his transport fifty-odd yards from the harbor ought to have signaled transience, a short stop in a journey marked by celerity. Instead, in asking for a dinghy, it augurs a dependency that erodes his credibility over time and, throughout, his authority is undermined by evasions and boldfaced diversions. And he’s brought his suitcase along which prolongs his stay. As he ventures farther from civilization, which frames his trek and whereabouts in tangible isolation, he passes several points of no return. None detail that transition as one expository monologue by Lord Summerisle in his manor. And every warning sign goes unheeded.
A true case of capturing lightning in a bottle, as Hardy’s scant filmography would never reproduce another pitch toward such soaring heights, The Wicker Man wears its iconography on its (Blu-ray) sleeve. The stark imagery of Sir Christopher Lee—arms raised in praise and back turned to a towering, featureless effigy—casts a domineering shadow on the beholder. The film sat in my watchlist for some time, swaying in and out of consciousness, awaiting the right occasion to be played. It was, then, a testament to the events on offer, unfolding through the deft hands of their architect, that I altogether forgot to look for Sir Christopher, shed the memory of its iconic poster and, with it, all spoiler effect, while losing track of who the wicker man was in reference to. A film stacked with overwhelming oddities that read like a document for its time, and a mirror of the prevailing climate amplified by proximity to the Manson murders, perfecting them even, if one didn’t know any better.