Today’s review is by journalist and scholar Benito Cereno. His favorite horror movie is The Wicker Man.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s, British horror filmmakers began to take full advantage of the atmosphere of desolation offered by much of their countryside–foggy moors, rocky cliffs, remote villages, and so on—most notably, perhaps, in a series of films that have subsequently been categorized as “folk horror.” The elements of folk horror include these rural locations and feature isolated people as their cast of characters, but this cycle of films is most easily defined by its recurring themes, most prominent among which is that of ancient pagan rites overcoming modern rational (and usually Christian) thought.
Hints of this subgenre can be seen in Hammer productions of the ’50s and ’60s such as Quatermass 2, The Reptile, and The Plague of the Zombies, all of which offer a clash between rural and modern (i.e., urban) values, but the folk horror trend really kicks off with 1966’s The Witches, which features a story of a seemingly perfect village that conceals a dark secret from its pagan past. Other films of note in this cycle include The Witchfinder General (known in the US as The Conqueror Worm), Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Devil Rides Out, and the Beast Must Die. But perhaps most notable of all is The Wicker Man, from 1973.
The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, is a film that almost defies description. While it can safely be described as horror—and has, in fact, on multiple occasions been called “the Citizen Kane of horror films”–it is probably more accurate to describe it as a horror-thriller-mystery-satire-musical, while somehow not quite fitting any of these genres in the conventional sense.
The premise is this: a devoutly Christian police officer has been summoned to the remote island of Summerisle on word that a young girl has gone missing. As he investigates the village looking for sign of the girl, he finds himself again and again stymied by the locals there. Furthermore, the more he looks into the society of Summerisle, the more he finds himself disgusted by their devotion to ancient pagan fertility rituals. Soon he worries that the girl has been made a ritual sacrifice, and he must balance his commitment to his job with his feelings of repulsion at the pagan society around him.
While the story has its twists and turns, the real star of the show with this film is its atmosphere, as every element of Summerisle has a hint of darkness lurking beneath its seemingly idyllic surface, helped along by great performances by such actors as Christopher Lee, best known before this for his roles as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and others in various Hammer productions (though perhaps best known as Saruman). This balance between light and dark is beautifully represented by the film’s gorgeous soundtrack, which features songs to highlight various key scenes throughout. While not a musical in the way that, say, Singin’ in the Rain is a musical, songs and music—many of which are authentic songs from centuries ago–serve as key set pieces that help establish the mood and setting.
While the film has gained cult status among horror aficianados, The Wicker Man has largely been forgotten by the public at large, or worse, overshadowed by the dreadful remake starring Nicholas Cage. Which is not to say, however, that it and the other folk horror films of the ’60s and ’70s have been without its influence. There have been a few more modern British horror films to take advantage of the tension between urban and rural communities—notably 2001’s Dog Soldiers and 2008’s Eden Lake—but the obvious choice for heir to the folk horror throne is director Ben Wheatley, whose films Sightseers (a black comedy about a cross-country murder spree) and A Field in England (a psychedelic nightmare set during the English Civil War) take full advantage of the natural horror offered by Britain’s desolate landscapes, but whose film Kill List (a film which itself defies description) feels as if it is the natural-born descendant of The Wicker Man.