An amphibious plane flies above umber fens and grassy tidal marshes while an upbeat dirge plays. The landscape is beautiful, haunting and lonely; moors and cliffs tumble down into the sea but they are flat and barren - only grass rises to meet the eye. This is Summerisle, a remote Hebridean Isle off the northwest coast of Scotland, and the pilot is Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) who's been sent to the isle to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a young girl.
Once there, Sergeant Howie is frustrated by the townspeople's indifference and their seemingly deliberate obfuscation of his inquiry. To compound this frustration, the inhabitants of the remote isle practice a pre-Christian form of Celtic paganism that offends the devoutly Christian Sergeant. Their paganism is frightening to him; they copulate in public, prance around naked in fertility rituals, believe in animal and tree spirits, and engage in medical practices that are based on folklore. Predictably, the celibate Sergeant is shocked and taken aback, and treats Summerisle's residents with a contemptuous condescension that is all too recognizable contemporarily in police officers and devout adherents of nearly every faith. However, its more poignant here, as we can recognize the attitude that early Christians in Britain must have had towards the native, pagan religions - a superciliousness that necessitated the abolition of the original beliefs.
In time, to make headway with the uncooperative, repellent townsfolk, the Sergeant meets with Lord Summerisle, the Lord of the isle, played by Christopher Lee (who looks infinitely younger and no less regal than when he played Sauron in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy). Lord Summerisle is a rational man, and he explains that his grandfather encouraged the isle's inhabitants to abandon Christianity and return to their original pagan religion as a method of benevolent subjugation so that he could take advantage of the isle's location in the warm Gulf Stream and develop a robust agricultural export economy. A mundane reason to turn to paganism, no? Perhaps. But Summerisle's residents believe wholeheartedly in their interpretations of the universe and more importantly, in the efficacy of their rites, which include sacrifices designed to appease crop gods.
Sergeant Howie begins to suspect a conspiracy in which Rowan's fate was covered up - a fate closely tied to the isle's upcoming Mayday celebrations. He investigates further and (at the risk of sounding like a movie poster) is, shall we say, surprised at what he finds.
Is the 'The Wicker Man' a horror movie? The film magazine Cinefantastique called it "the 'Citizen Kane' of horror movies," and I would have to agree. There are two specific attributes to the movie that render it an effective horror movie, while the general quality of the film and its magnificent score attest to its cinematic consequence.
Firstly, the movie builds slowly to a shocking conclusion that is continuously hinted at throughout the movie but never explicitly revealed. The movie proceeds in such a way that while viewing, we gradually become aware of the true intentions of the villagers only as the constable does - and we find ourselves jumping to the same wrong conclusions, only to have our suspicions confirmed and simultaneously upended. Watch the movie for a second time, and the Summerisle villagers' obstinacy and reluctance to help the policeman looses its peculiar backwoods oddness and gains a noticeable menacing character.
Secondly, the villagers' paganism plays an interesting roll in offending our sensibilities. They aren't shocking or horrifying, but they are different, and present a society that is like us in so many ways and yet holds such different beliefs. This can be disconcerting. Certainly some of the scenes of nudity and copulation were more controversial when the film debuted in 1973. But I think even today the idea of a society that has no use for what we see as 'normal' concepts of death, god, religion, or morality can be frightening to many people. Horrifying? No. But the fact that it can evoke a guttural reaction of rejection is interesting. The film exudes a general feeling of off-puttingness which sets the stage for the unforeseen and terrifying conclusion.
Overall, the film's greatest success is in generating an atmosphere of folky Britain. Summerisle is a place of nostalgia, in a sense; a slice of pre-commercialism, pre-Christianism, and even pre-industrialism and all that came with it. It's the type of place where crusty old harbor masters with nary a tooth in their head sing raunchy songs at the pub-cum-inn, while the entire population of menfolk accompany them with the instruments that they've brought. It's an isle of green fields, of lutes and country instruments, of harvest festivals and peasant mythology, phallic symbols and monoliths; a verdant oasis that's captured in all its beneficence, picturesqueness, and communal jollity.
One last aspect of the film deserves to be mentioned, and that is its soundtrack. It is filled with traditional arrangements, some hundreds of years old, and contemporary arrangements that don't try to incorporate modern styles of music and thus mesh well with the traditional ones. The songs are similar to that of Fairport Convention, or 'The Battle for Evermore' by Led Zeppelin - heavy on strings, flutes, etc., airy compositions that set the tone of the movie well. The music is foreign, almost, haunting at times, and childlike in its simplicity, but that is all right - Summerisle is an uncomplicated place, steeped in tradition, folklore, and ritual, and the music reflects that, at times masking the darker side of the isle with an exuberant innocence that the people themselves exude.