The fear of the unknown is a driving force behind many horror films but, where many find that fear in dark places and wild creatures, The Wicker Man finds its horror in a fear of the unknown that is unfortunately much more prevalent in the world today, the fear of those with different religious beliefs. The Wicker Man employs none of the standard horror tricks, having no jump scares and for most of the film there is seemingly no immediate danger to anyone. t doesn’t fully take the turn towards being a horror film until the final minutes, but a sense of eeriness permeates the film that makes it truly disquieting.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, receives an anonymous letter about the disappearance of a young girl and travels to the town where the disappearance was said to have occurred. As he investigates the disappearance, he is unable to make headway as the locals, a group who still practice a pagan religion, refuse to acknowledge that the girl ever existed, an assertion which is further complicated by seeming to be both a lie that everyone is in on and a byproduct of their religious beliefs. It is Howie’s frustration with the townspeople and their beliefs that directly oppose his that cause the film to become unsettling more so than the actions taken in the name of the pagan religion which often come off as more absurd than threatening (think naked singing and dancing and hand candles, not blood soaked rituals).
Though the film is an eerie mystery, it manages to be quite hilarious and the same contrast between the pagans and the devout Christian Sergeant Howie provides many of the film’s more humorous moments as Howie’s convictions force him to approach these foreign religious principles with extreme naivety. He seems on the verge of a breakdown on multiple occasions when faced with innocuous rituals. Sergeant Howie’s most extreme opposition comes in the form of a cult leader played by Christopher Lee with such unhinged delight that is simultaneously frightening and comical and strikes the same balance much of the film has while easily being the most compelling character to watch. The character’s contrast to Howie is so well played that it keeps the film humorous even in the last minutes as it reaches a stressful and horrific climax.
Like so many of the greatest horror films, The Wicker Man had a long troubled history with cuts being mandated by the studio that reportedly stripped away significant plot points and adversely impacted the film’s continuity according to the director. Though, having seen this version of Hardy’s vision, I would posit The Wicker Man loses none of the aspects that make it so unnerving. The film was eventually released as the B picture on a double billing but managed to gain a following that kept it alive through midnight showings which perhaps, as with other horror films that experienced similar fates, only caused the feeling that watching the film was an illicit behavior.. The Wicker Man would experience four subsequent recuts and a remake starring Nicolas Cage before the release of a final cut supervised by director Robin Hardy in 2013. Though no version of the film features the bees that were famously spoken about in the 2006 remake, The Wicker Man is still an excellent example of balancing humor and horror while delivering a story that could just as easily be believed today.