Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…