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Empire List #485: The Wicker Man

Yet another film seen at the residences of UBC in the summer of 2009 thanks to the iTunes movie library. When you are far from your home and your movie collection, it helps to be able to rent a classic for a relatively low price off the Internet. In this particular context I was living on the campus of the University of British Columbia studying German, Drama, and History of Cinema for the summer. I didn’t know a lot of people, so I had some pretty quiet evenings, sometimes spent renting movies such as the 1973 British cult film “The Wicker Man.”

This movie is a lot of things: a horror film, a mystery movie, the tale of a missing person, and a statement about religious extremism. Nicolas Cage starred in a remake, which I haven’t seen but the highlights on YouTube are hilarious. I do believe there is also an homage to it in an episode of The Simpsons, a proof of being culturally relevant if there ever was one.

It begins with British police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving at the Scottish island of Summerisle. An anonymous letter has summoned him to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Howie is the epitome of British austerity: he has no gun, believes he represents the law with his mere presence, is morally righteous, and is a devout Christian. This is the kind of British officer that would walk into a bar after a fight and say: “I say, what’s all this then?”

To say that he is out of his element in Summerisle would be an understatement. The townspeople have no respect for his authority and find his concept of law and order laughable. Much to his horror he discovers that none of the citizens are Christians but are in fact pagans who worship nature and engage in fertility rituals and sexual magic. This is a major issue for Howie who not only associates paganism with heretics, but is himself a virgin since he firmly believes in abstinence before marriage. All over the island there are sexual symbols that make him uncomfortable and convince him he is dealing with a bunch of degenerates who should all be locked up.

His search for Rowan Morrison hits one brick wall after another. Some people claim they have never heard of her, while others say she is dead. As a result, he does what any investigator does when things go wrong and demands to speak with the person in charge. The person in question is Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the owner of the island and town magistrate. When Howie confronts him with accusations that he is teaching heathen traditions to his citizens, Summerisle calmly defends his religion and even compares it to Christian beliefs. Although Howie is not sold on the idea, anybody who has ever studied the history of any religion will admit that all religions have their fair share of bizarre and borderline dangerous traditions. You only need to look at the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials for a few examples of when Christianity went overboard.

Yet as Howie begins to seriously research the religion of these bizarre people, he becomes convinced they have gone from simple worshippers of nature to cold-blooded murderers. A library book (the old-school way of finding information) informs him that when crops go bad, these particular Pagans will perform human sacrifices to appease the gods. Could it be that these heathens are planning to kill Rowan as part of an old heathen tradition? Howie shutters at the thought, but that is not the answer to the mystery.

The answer is where the horror of the movie comes from, which is why I will not give any more details about the plot. What I will say is that it is impressive for a horror movie to touch on so many themes while spilling so little blood. As a missing person scenario, it is also highly effective. When a person goes missing in a small town, there are only so many places to hide. There is evidence that Rowan exists, but where on Earth is she? A montage involves Howie literally going through every nook and cranny in the village in a desperate one-man search to find her.

Whether you are Christian, Wiccan, or just plain old agnostic, you will find this movie interesting from a religious point of view. If you watch it all by yourself in small room off your laptop, the ending won’t scare you, but you will find it disturbing.

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