With The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy crafted folk horror as we know it today – and he did it to chart the folk revival of the 60s as it turned sour on the brink of a new decade. The opening credits chart an evolution from traditional to modern folk, even as the visuals take us back in time, following a police airplane as it travels from the mainland to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle, where Sergeant Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward, is travelling to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a young girl. This dissonance between sound and image sets the scene for the film that follows, which traces Howie’s efforts to get to the bottom of the case in the face of a local community that seems to be oblivious to his mission at best, and to be thwarting it at worst – all under the aegis of Lord Summerisle, the owner of the remote island, played by Christopher Lee in one of his eeriest and subtlest roles.
For much of The Wicker Man, Hardy adopts a kind of ethnographic naturalism that nods in the direction of Robert J. Flaherty’s Man of Aran, another study of a remote island community in the British Isles. We learn that the inhabitants of Summerisle have regressed – at least this is the way Howie sees it – to a feudal and pagan state. They perform rituals during the year to assuage the natural world in order to ensure their crops, and pay homage and tribute to Lord Summerisle for his beneficence in protecting them. From Lord Summerisle himself, we learn that the island lies at a unique confluence of the Gulf Stream, and contains an unusual brand of volcanic soil, that has led to the production of new cultivars. In a kind of heterodox reversal of the Garden of Eden, Summerisle’s family encouraged the locals to adopt a pagan-feudal outlook to keep them invested in the labour needed to make these new cultivars agriculturally profitable. It is this outlook, Howie suspects, that has led to Rowan vanishing.
Yet if Summerisle were merely a relic of the past, it would be more limited in the threat it poses to Howie, who sees in it a harbinger of the future envisaged by the hippie movement as well. Hardy’s ethnographic approach focuses on the music of Summerisle, which is where the community tends to be most overtly sexual, as well as their main point of contact with the counterculture unfolding in the present. Linking sexual liberation and pagan sexuality, the continuous music always has a sensuous edge, and always feels like it is trafficking in obscene euphemisms, even or especially when it seems to be most innocent. The promiscuous proximities of the community fundamentally challenge Howie’s ideas of what it means to be human, perhaps explaining why they are so often figured in terms of the intrusion of invertebrates into private space and orifices. We first meet Summerisle extolling the virtues of his community as two snails caress in close-up, while Howie’s investigation also encompasses a beetle chained inside a desk, and a frog that is ingested to cure a sore throat.
As the music spills over and through Hardy’s ethnographic mise-en-scenes, it becomes a vehicle for Howie’s primal fear – that the folk revolution of the 60s has unleashed atavistic pagan energies that cannot be easily contained now that they are out of the box. Much of the horror stems from the way in which paganism and liberation, ancient and modern versions of Britain, intertwine and interpenetrate in Howie’s overheated paranoid imagination. From one angle Summerisle plays like a feudal lord, from another more like a cult leader, while the sexual ceremonies he encourages on his land could be taken equally from medieval fantasy or from the film adaptation of Hair. Seeping through this general fear is a more specific anxiety that Britishness itself will turn out to be irreducibly compromised by its pagan past, and that all the achievements of empire will be eventually distilled to a sexual lexicon. The more twee the Summerisle locals become, the more perverse their ceremonies seem, most memorably a maypole that transforms into a cult of the phallus before Howie’s horrified eyes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these anxieties crystallise around the public and private thresholds that are conventionally used to demarcate the role and function of women. Time and again, women simply appear to Howie without any immediate context, or any clear identification with either the domestic or public sphere. No woman on Summerisle is fully anchored in a husband or father, partly because Lord Summerisle has absorbed both roles, to the point where we never see anything resembling normal middle-class life, family or parenthood, despite all the trappings of cosy British homeliness. Bizarre rituals of procreation and continuity are substituted for the bourgeois nuclear unit, producing an uncanny vision of British society in which reprofuturity has been entirely removed, but everything else has been left to remain (seemingly) as normal. As the film proceeds, these women who appear, spontaneously, take on an increasingly sexual drive for Howie, who starts to long for social convention as a mechanism of repression for desires that threaten to utterly consume him. The threshold between men and women breaks down completely when Lord Summerisle dresses as a woman during the Harvest Festival. For all Lee’s grumbling about it as mere political correctness, it’s not hard to see why the 2006 remake featured a female cult leader.
In attempting to solve the disappearance of Rowan, Howie’s ultimate task is thus to restore phallogocentrism, and re-establish Christian law and order as a buttress against both the pagan past and the neopagan future. In doing so, he foreshadows the neoconservatism of the 1980s as the renewal of a theocratic police state: “I must remind you that, despite everything you’ve said, you are the subject of a Christian country.” All the hallmarks of the Thatcher era are present in his manner and bearing, particularly his moral anxiety about the ways that the counterculture might corrupt the religious minds of children, who “find it easier to picture reincarnation than resurrection.” In a brilliant touch, we learn that Howie is a virgin, and that his chastity has become his own peculiar perversity, a way of hoarding pleasure against the future that breaks down in the face of the Summerisle pleasure-principle. Interestingly, Lord Summerisle doesn’t play as a straightforward hippie either, but as a disinterested and somewhat cynical businessman who has learned that both the pagan and neopagan lifestyles are the best way for him to keep his feudal hold of the island in perpetuity. He’s closer to a modern Republican, policing other people’s pleasures so he can revel in his own unhindered.
Even as these critiques are buried in The Wicker Man, the film maintains a picaresque and picturesque veneer until the very end, which of course throws the horror of the iconic sacrifice scene into traumatic relief. Scene for scene, and beat for beat, this is one of the most sobering and terrifying transitions that I have seen in a horror film, suggesting, as it does, an utter inexorability, the total failure of Howie’s project. And the effect is even eerier for the fact that Lord Summerisle is not really opposed to Howie at all, at least not ideologically, but is instead an opportunistic corporation of one, of the kind that would come to be so powerful during the Thatcher years that lay on the distant horizon. Between Howie and Lord Summerisle, between rampant ideology and cynical big business, lies the zero sum game of the neoconservative 80s, which Hardy glimpses here not as a discrete political event, or even a future period in British history, but as a structure of self-consuming, self-immolating feeling.