The Wicker Man: The Horror of Belief


“Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.”
Commentaries on the Gallic War, Julius Caesar


I want to begin my analysis of the 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man with a counter-example, which is in this case the majority of films belonging to the horror genre. I am not one to generalize, especially when discussing film, but a formulaic horror movie is generally a few minutes of establishing scenes, preparing the audience to the main thrills of the feature, and then a relentless assortment of gore, violence, jump scares and any other tool intended to make the viewer’s heart drop, and over the last century, that has gathered a large section of devout fans that have loved these “chills and thrills” with passion as the genre continuously morphed and redefined itself from one sub-genre and movement to the other, but none of these films (bar a few that defined their subsequent sub-genres) have been too memorable, for the horror films that have managed to be engraved into the cinematic conscience very often did the exact opposite and relied entirely on other more subtle and literate elements to achieve their desired goal. The Wicker Man is a prime example of these films.

Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man tells the story of Police Sergeant Neil Howie, who travels to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl and is shocked to discover that the inhabitants of the island have long abandoned Christianity and endorsed paganism and “the Old Gods” of the island, and thus begins an investigation that is now fueled by the sergeant’s belief that the young girl was sacrificed in a pagan ritual. The Wicker Man was made during a very difficult time for the British film industry, and so was shot on a very small budget with some of the participants working for no pay at all, most notably Christopher Lee, who was very passionate about the project and wanted to make something other than the films he was best known for with the famous studio Hammer Horror.

The film’s script is thoroughly researched and tries to accurately display pagan rituals, something that makes the overall aura of The Wicker Man ever more threatening. The cinematography of the film is immaculate, with the film being shot in various locations in Scotland; green scenery, beautiful islands and other interesting locations, with a faded color template and an incredible focus on details results in a gorgeous feat for the eyes. That, combined with a score that constantly switches between harmonic melodies and beautifully-sung folk songs that date back to the 13th century lends a surreal atmosphere to the film, a dream and nightmare coming to a compromise.

The Wicker Man utilizes a narration method made famous by the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which is essentially the majority of the film building up to a strong climax, so for 1h20 minutes of its runtime, the film practically doesn’t contain any horror elements, just the doubts and sentiments of the main character, through whose eyes we experience the story, but they are thoughts that are never directly confirmed, just hinted at, a technique that is paranoia-inducing and most importantly, exciting and thrilling.

After a long build-up, the climax scene becomes ever more powerful, and in it, the ideologies the film criticizes clash openly and are made bare. Looking beyond its horror aspect and its surface themes of the modern world clashing with the old, and subsequently, the religions of both in mortal conflict, The Wicker Man can be seen as a criticism of belief in its extremes, for the final scene displays both hunter and prey being wrong and desperate, in two different fashions. Desperation with power and desperation in the face of death are both portrayed as equally ridiculous, as both parties strongly cling to their beliefs in the mortal context with moments of doubt that are only betrayed by a look or an action that lasts only a second. The sergeant as he burns in the flames and cries out for Jesus and recites the bible, eventually gets muffled by the cries of the animals burning with him, and the chants of the cult dancing in front of the pyre are equally muffled by the outcries of their sacrifices. There is no one true truth, and there is no one true voice, it is a question of belief, and here, it is portrayed in its most dangerous and absurd form.



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