Over at Teleport City I have a new piece up about that heartwarming, holiday classic, The Wicker Man. Well, it was posted on the Summer Solstice, but I was too caught up in pagan revelry to share it here before now. Here’s a little bit and you can click through for the rest and more on The Golden Bough, unwrapping mummies, Lord Summerisle’s hair, the reason for the season, and how sex and naps could save your life.
On the surface, The Wicker Man is the story of how one police constable’s attempt to scrooge up a town’s May Day revelries fails miserably when the community comes together to celebrate the reason for the season. But The Wicker Man is a film with complex depth, and delving into those murky waters is aided considerably by a few of the key texts that went into crafting the film’s story. Specifically, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890); Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult In Western Europe (1921), and the companion book The God of the Witches (1931) give you a big head’s up on what’s happening in and just under the surface of the movie.
Part of the reason The Wicker Man is more successful than its occult thriller descendants like The Wicker Tree (2011) (and I am making warding signs averting The Wicker Tree) or even Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), is that The Wicker Man is grounded in a comprehensive belief system. You could dress Christopher Lee up in a bunny suit and he still wouldn’t be able to lead me to the Wicker Tree. Kill List lost me at the end with its kinda arbitrary jerk cult. Sure, maybe they were just a bunch of rich jerks playing at having a cult, but I felt a little let down. And, no, I’m not going to talk about Nicolas Cage and bees in The Wicker Man (2006). The original Wicker Man does gets some of its power from the audience not being sure what the hell is going on, but the people in the film understand what they are doing. There is a logic to everything that Lord Summerisle and the people of his island do.
In the film, Scottish police sergeant and high church Anglican Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) takes a seaplane to Summerisle in the Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). The people of Summerisle pleasantly assure him that there never was a Rowan Morrison. Rowan was never enrolled in school. She is not buried in the cemetery of an abandoned church. And the picture of last year’s Queen of the May is just out for cleaning and repair in preparation for the upcoming festivities, why do you ask? The islanders assure Howie that Rowan will certainly not be sacrificed on Beltane to ensure a good apple harvest after last year’s crop failed. As Howie investigates, he discovers the people of Summerisle: dancing ’round the Maypole; leaping over fires (naked, of course—doing so clothed would be far too dangerous); smooching each other in the fields; singing raunchy songs; and teaching children fascinating things about fertility symbols that aren’t part of the current core curriculum.
Increasingly frustrated and suspicious of the islanders seeming lack of concern with the fate of Rowan, Howie interviews Lord Summerisle played by Christopher Lee with a mustard yellow turtleneck and a remarkable head of hair. He tells an alarmed Howie that the people of Summerisle believe in the old pagan religion. Summerisle’s grandfather was a Victorian gentleman agriculturalist and had discovered remarkable new strains of fruits and vegetables. Like many Victorian gentleman, Grandpa Summerisle also had an elaborate theory about how the perfect society should be organized. It’s easy enough for me to see the Lord Summerisle taking notes from Frazer or Murray in mapping out his pagan utopia. And so, because he felt it was good for the harvest—and it gave the farmers and fisherfolk something to do—the late Lord Summerisle reintroduced paganism to the island. Dissatisfied and grumpy, Howie continues his investigations and becomes convinced that Rowan will be sacrificed. In his heroic attempts to find Rowan, he refuses to leave the island. He also refuses the attentions of Willow (Britt Eckland), who sings to him to come to her all naked-like. Sadly, in maintaining his virginity, Howie dooms himself—kinda like an inverted final girl from a 1980s slasher movie. The moral of this story might be that sex and naps could save your life.