Not everything is what it seems on the outside. That’s what Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) probably wished he knew before making landfall on Summerisle, a secluded island in Scotland home to some friendly but rather eccentric individuals. He’s there on official business, the matter of a young girl gone missing, but the townsfolk claim she doesn’t exist. They don’t seem to take too kindly to outsiders here, and that makes Howie more than a little bit uneasy. His badge doesn’t seem to concern them too much, though he eventually manages to get them to play ball and let him investigate the disappearance. It soon becomes clear that there’s far more going on here than meets the eye. An orgy takes place at night. A gaggle of naked women leap across a bonfire while singing and dancing.
The Wicker Man forged a path many other films have walked down over the years. We’ve seen the trope of the idyllic community hiding a dark secret a litany of times over the years from the likes of Blue Velvet in the 80s to Gareth Evans’ new Netflix film Apostle. The second entry in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, the action comedy Hot Fuzz, was a clear take on the same concept. It's easy to see why the film has had such a long reach; it's a very specific tone and flavor, clearly inspired by the free love hippie movement from the 1960s but twisted into gleeful paganism. The people of Summerisle are just so darned happy to be in their little cult. Devout belief is a dangerous thing. People will do anything to defend their beliefs.
The symbol of that mania, a character especially key in the feel of The Wicker Man is played here by the venerated Christopher Lee as the town’s leader, Lord Summerisle. Summerisle is a gregarious personality, happy to help with Howie’s investigation how he can, but cautioning him against staying in town for their May Day celebration. That’s a common refrain on the island, with Howie coming to the conclusion that it may be tied to the missing girl’s disappearance. Howie’s Christianity blinds him, in a way (again, faith can be dangerous indeed); he’s so shocked and outraged by their actions and blasphemy and casual nudity (the school teacher happily explains to the young that the maypole is a phallic symbol, for example, sending him into a puritanical rage) that he can’t see the trap being laid for him right before his eyes.
The entirety of the third act of The Wicker Man is devoted to this festival, and it’s quite the experience. The entire town dons animal masks and parades across the beautiful countryside, dancing and singing songs to their heathen gods and goddesses. For those who know what’s coming, it feels like an extended death march, their jubilance tinged with a sinister air. It’s a wonderfully designed sequence, a marriage of costume and cinematography and choreography that makes the procession feel so alien. That’s the idea, after all. We take for granted that civilization is what we make of it, that modern society is some unimpeachable bastion against the barbarism of pre-industrial societies. We’d like to think that the concept of sacrifice for the benefit of an increased harvest is gone from this world, especially in a Scottish isle in the 1970s. That belief leads to an overconfidence that we can rely on norms and values. But the world doesn’t always work that way.
The Wicker Man isn’t a traditional horror movie. It doesn’t rely on jump scares or boogeymen or blood or bodies. It builds its tension through unease and the sense that this town is hiding something terrible behind the scenes that literally everyone is complicit in. We’re used to horror movies set at night, to stalkers and killers using the dark to hide until the perfect time to strike. Night is a time of eerie stillness, which amplifies sounds and lets the mind play tricks on what it hears. Was that snapping twig just a cat passing through the underbrush or something far more dangerous? We can’t see it, so we can’t know.
The imagination is our worst enemy at times like this. But part of what makes The Wicker Man so effective and so spooky in its own indelible way is the fact that all of the horrors take place during the day and in plain sight. There’s no need to rely on the imagination. It’s all right there. They have no need to hide their deeds because they are in control. It’s a keen sense of despair, to know you’re trapped and know they’ve got you and know there’s nothing you can do because everyone’s in on it. And they can be so brazen about it that they can lock a police officer into a giant wicker structure and burn him alive in a sacrificial pyre in broad daylight, to have the knowledge that there’s nothing you can do, no one you can call. All you can do is burn and scream for a god that will never hear you.