The Wicker Man remains frightening even today, 45 years after its original release.
Most horror film fans know The Wicker Man’s classic, shocking twist by now. And the fact that the film takes place almost entirely during the day has brought it back into the conversation recently given the release of the similar (but also very different) Midsommar. But the real horror in The Wicker Man comes from neither its twist nor its sunshine. Like its cousin, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man’s unsettling dread comes from that old fear of being tricked, a fear that was at the forefront of people’s minds in the Cold War era of the film’s 1974 release.
When Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie arrives on Summerisle to search for the missing girl Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), he immediately finds himself surrounded by strange, backwards locals. Just as Rosemary is led astray by a seemingly innocuous, elderly neighbor, Howie finds himself in the company of an assortment of nonthreatening weirdos. Though there is a sexual nature to their eccentricities, Howie doesn’t fear them (this despite their obvious lies about Rowan).
The fear of the known is an element that has driven many horror films. The zombie genre at large puts this to good use, with the faces of loved ones coming back as hellish, murderous beasts. In The Wicker Man, Howie’s world-weariness has him believing that he’s met people like the denizens of Summerisle before and that, given their pagan principles and backwater location, he is both mentally and morally superior. This attitude causes him to completely miss signs that are rather obvious, particularly during repeat views.
This is what brings fear into the daylight. The idea that not only can no one be trusted, but that everyone could be conspiring against you. Howie finds his own condescension towards the locals mirrored back at him when he finally discovers that he’s been targeted because of his virginity and his religious beliefs—he had spent the entire film judging the citizens of Summerisle because of their sexual practices and pagan rituals.
The Wicker Man remains frightening even today, 45 years after its original release. And yet the scares don’t necessarily come from the conclusion, which is still striking, perhaps even more so now than it was during an initial viewing. I went into this revisit with the false memory that That Wicker Man simply had a quick final twist but then ended. That isn’t the case. The Wicker Man’s ending is scary because of how drawn out it is. Howie has no escape, and as they let him in on the secret, they send him (and a bunch of farm animals) to fiery deaths.
Midsommar is an excellent addition to The Wicker Man’s small folk horror subgenre, joining The Ritual, Apostle, Kill List and others. All of these films gain momentum with weirdness and discomfiting images, but they all revolve around the illusion of trust and the destruction of that illusion. The Wicker Man plays the audience for fools just as the citizens of Summerisle do to Sergeant Howie, lulling us into a sense of security and then shocking us when the rug is pulled out from under our feet.