“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”
‘The Wicker Man’, directed by Robin Hardy in 1973, is strange, subversive, creepy and just a little bit perverted. The plot is simple: a policeman, Sergeant Howie, is lured to a Scottish island called Summerisle to solve the case of a missing schoolgirl. Whilst there he discovers the island community has turned pagan, ruled by a lord played by Christopher Lee. Howie is tested, tempted and teased – subtly guided through his investigation. The film ends shockingly with the revelation that Howie has been tricked into coming to the island because the islanders need someone of his moral and sexual purity to sacrifice in the ‘wicker man’ of the title. As the islanders circle the burning effigy, Howie’s sings Christian hymns until he collapses. Finally Bungle the bear from Rainbow appears, dances and then pulls Howie to safety (he doesn’t – but this would have made the ending more cheerful and oddly wouldn’t entirely have been out-of-keeping with the film).
‘The Wicker Man’ is a dark and weird film – but it’s not just the plot that sets the subversive tone for the film. The movie has a quite unique and startling approach to genre forms that adds to its unsettling reputation. Its adoption and subversion of genre may even be perceived as a meta-textual twist on could be called ‘counter-parochialism’ – the collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary in screen depictions of the village.
With all this in mind, here’s a choice selection of different genres ‘The Wicker Man’ adopts, uses and subverts to demonstrate how the film playfully undercuts audience expectations.
The Horror Film
Generally regarded as one of the more innovative horror movies of the 1970s, ‘The Wicker Man’ is often seen as the pinnacle of Christopher Lee’s macabre career, not least by Lee himself. But is it really a horror film? Of course it bloody is! They burn Edward Woodward to death in a gigantic wooden effigy. But does it follow the rules of the horror movie? No. ‘The Wicker Man’ is far from a conventional horror. So what makes it a horror movie – well Christopher Lee for starters. The casting of Lee at the time with his long background in Hammer productions was enough to position the film in that particular genre. The film also contains moments of gore – a disembodied hand, a corpse or two, Howie’s death.
Most of the time, ‘The Wicker Man’ is pretending to be a horror movie. Throughout the film the audience is teased with the possibility of something horrific happening only for the director to pull the rug from under their feet. Take the final procession to the sacrifice – by this time the audience is almost convinced that Howie is wrong. He’s become over-zealous in his persecution of Lord Summerisle and the islanders. Halfway through the procession a masked villager is surrounded by other sword wielding villagers who ritualistically move to decapitate him. For a second we’re supposed to think this is what has happened – but it’s shown to only be a fake head on top of the mask. On numerous occasions, the film subverts the expectation of horror in this way so that by the end the audience is uncertain who to believe and even who to root for. The effect of this uncertainty is to both increase the tension involved in watching the movie, but also to increase the uncertainty. Watching ‘The Wicker Man’ is a confusing act – we are bombarded by different and opposing cultural references, unable to anticipate where the film is going and unclear what we are supposed to think or feel about the events. This is also a factor of the next genre influence:
The Whodunit/Police Procedural
Howie is a policeman, a crime has apparently been committed, Howie flies onto the island and begins to interview the islanders. So far so ‘Midsomer Murders’. But has a crime been committed? Are we supposed to be suspicious of the islanders and be behind Howie’s desperate search for the missing girl? As the film progresses, Howie’s investigation becomes increasingly unlikely. Howie takes on the appearance of a puritanical persecutor and, slowly, the audiences sympathies are directed towards the islanders rather than the policeman. This, of course, isn’t supposed to happen in a whodunit. In a whodunit the formula is simple – the crime is committed, the investigation is undertaken, the criminal is unmasked, everyone heads home for tea and scones. In ‘The Wicker Man’ only Howie is convinced a crime has taken place, his investigation is aimless and desperate and he is ultimately revealed to be the victim of the crime. The film turns the whodunit on its head – it makes the audience dislike the policeman and even doubt the crime. Howie appears to spend the film investigating the islanders but by the end it is revealed that the islanders have been investigating him.
So what is the effect does all this have? Like the subversion of the horror conventions the use, and abuse, of the whodunit tropes leaves the viewer unsettled and uncertain. Ultimately the audience is led up the same garden path that Howie is during his investigation. The islanders effectively write the crime story for Howie to follow in the same way the filmmakers hope the audience will. By the time the film reaches its climax, Howie and the viewer are as one: outmanoeuvred by the islanders and the filmmakers and, crucially, both fooled by the expectations of the crime story. And to empathise with Howie at the end of ‘The Wicker Man’ is not a healthy thing to do. This idea of the filmmakers and the islanders somehow working in conjunction is a tricky one – but it is supported by the next genre influence:
Yes, the documentary. You have to squint to see it but the tropes and formal conventions of the documentary genre are there. Think about when Howie first arrives on the island and begins to question the inhabitants. The shots of the locals are done in a strange way – from Howie’s point of view. This occurs throughout the film and is reminiscent of folk documentaries by directors such as Donald Alexander or Paul Rotha. So many parts of The Wicker Man are made as a fabricated documentary – it even opens with a caption thanking Lord Summerisle and his people for their assistance in making the film. Rather than attempting the heavily stylistic appearance of the other horror films of the same time, it draws instead on realism in the way the camera moves: occasionally focusing on the unsettling imagery. The form of the film is almost ‘fly-on-the-wall’, following Howie around the island capturing his every reaction.
The effect of this is profound and a strong contributor to the general aura of unease and oddness the surrounds the film. Combined with the genre confusion created by the casting of Christopher Lee and the subversion of the whodunit form, the documentary touches complete the circle, firmly attaching the audience to the events that are occurring in time for the shocking finale. Just as in a conventional documentary, the subjects of the film, the islanders, and the makers of the film seem to be working together – and this is perhaps the most sinister thing about the while movie. But this realism is neatly undercut by a final and distinctive slice of oddness – the final, and most unusual, genre influence I want to highlight is…
Such is the cult popularity of the film the fact that ‘The Wicker Man’ is studded with musical numbers seems to be forgotten. But it is – which makes it as much a musical as ‘Grease’ or ‘Chicago’. The musical elements in ‘The Wicker Man’ squat in a curious place between the documentary and the fantasy aspects of the film. The scenes all feature villagers performing in their natural environment – unlike other musicals where the songs tend to spring from nowhere, in ‘The Wicker Man’ they are framed as a part of the fabric of the island. The songs are also shown in the film to be a part of a wider seduction/intimidation of Howie which makes them incredibly sinister.
But unlike other musicals, the songs, while they have a place in the plot, don’t progress the narrative. They don’t offer a shortcut to the emotions of the people singing they just give a weird texture to the film, adding to the already strong sense of the uncanny that permeates every scene. This is, in a way, another genre subversion. The musical elements used not to explain or express, but to disconcert. But the songs are essential within the film as they weave the ordinary documentary elements with the extraordinary fantasy/horror element. The music in a sense gives the audience a bridge between the disparate genre forms.
This is perhaps the final piece in the puzzle of a film where the audience doesn’t know where to look or who to side with. The brutal climax is made all the more shocking because, through these confusions of genre, the viewer is by that stage simultaneously empathising with both the doomed Howie and the murderous islanders.