I spent most of my first viewing of The Wicker Man (the 1973 film, not the remake) in a state of bewildered readjustment. Before watching it, I’d heard only enough about it to know it was generally regarded as one of the great British horror films, and this had of course primed me with a number of preconceptions, all of which were thoroughly dashed the moment the folk of Summerisle started singing their cheery, bawdy ditty, “The Landlord’s Daughter”. By the end, I really wasn’t sure what sort of film I’d been watching. I knew it had a powerful ending, but as to the film that preceded it, I didn’t know if I liked it.
But I kept thinking about it. Perhaps this is true of all the best works of art; they’re like problems you’re compelled to solve, sometimes long after they’re over. They haunt you, and require you to watch or read or listen to them again, and again, and perhaps again, always learning something new, but never all there is. So I found myself watching The Wicker Man again (and again, and again), trying to work out what it was, what had drawn me back to it, and why I was coming round to thinking of it as a truly great film.
I suppose, when it comes down to it, I was wrong-footed from the start because I can’t quite think of The Wicker Man as horror. It doesn’t fit my own (no doubt rather quirky, and never put into words) internal definition, though it certainly has one of the most shocking endings of any film I’ve seen. (Though not the usual horror-film version of shocking, in the way that, say, the hand shooting out of the ground at the end of Carrie is shocking. That’s shocking because it’s unexpected. If anything, the ending of The Wicker Man is shocking despite being so very expected, which is all the more a feat.) Anyway, I watched it again a few days ago, and I think I might have finally worked out why I don’t think of it as a horror film. It all comes down to a bit of a confession.
Throughout, I find myself identifying with both sides of the story — both Police Sergeant Howie and the Summerislanders — but in different ways. Howie, you can’t help identifying with because he’s your point of view; you start from his position of knowing nothing about Summerisle, and learn about Summerisle as he does. The only thing is, you don’t get to like him, however much time you spend with him. In fact, you get to like the Summerislanders a lot more. They’re such a down-to-earth, happy bunch. They’re so refreshingly uninhibited. They sing, they dance, they have a good time. What’s more, they work as a community (whereas Howie isn’t even liked by his fellow policemen). And they have the wild-haired but dashing Lord Summerisle as their leader, who, as he’s played by Christopher Lee at his most charming, can only be a plus point.
This does tend to blind you to just how nasty what they do to poor Sergeant Howie is. It was only when I stopped and thought about it, after watching the film for a fourth or fifth time, that I realised how wrong it is to accept what the islanders do to Sergeant Howie, and even to feel he deserves it. (And I don’t even have the islanders’ excuse that they think it’ll improve their crops. I’ve no doubt that, as Sergeant Howie says, doing the wicked wicker thing to him won’t make the slightest difference, and next year it’ll be Lord Summerisle’s turn. So in a way, I’m even worse than the islanders. I’m happy to see Howie die simply because he’s a prig.)
Perhaps this is because, rather like Lord Summerisle himself, The Wicker Man has such an open sort of charm. It’s not as suave as Christopher Lee, but it has the same earthy honesty and pagan vitality. The central conflict of the film is repression (in the form of uptight Sergeant Howie) versus folky-bawdy disinhibition. Howie, in his starch-stiff uniform and starch-stiff face, his clipped, disapproving accent, his devotion to the law, hasn’t the flexibility of mind to even comprehend that there might be other ways of life than his own, and is horrified to find there are. (And then is so affronted by the forms they take, he’s incapable of appreciating how many underlying similarities there are; for instance — as Lord Summerisle points out — the belief in parthenogenesis, and the redeeming power of sacrifice.) Howie is identified with modern civilisation, through his constricting uniform, his aeroplane, his robotic-voiced loudhailer. The Summerislanders on the other hand wear loose clothes, sway their hips, speak in a free folky lilt, sing, drink, frolic in graveyards, jump naked through fires, and generally enjoy themselves. They’re not hung up on sex and death, but have quite come to terms with them, and with their own bodies; Howie, on the other hand, has holy-fied sex and death into something remote, codified and unliving — into something quite literally disembodied. Compared to Sergeant Howie — even though we spend almost the entire film in his company — the Summerislanders are just so likeable.
If only they weren’t a bunch of murderers!
That’s the thing. By the end of the film, I’m so much on the islanders’ side, it takes an effort to appreciate what an awful thing it is they do. And, when it comes down to it, I guess I don’t think of The Wicker Man as a horror film simply because I’m too much on the side of what I really ought to be calling the monsters.