Sgt. Howie travels to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He discovers that the locals are weird and unhelpful, and becomes determined to get to the bottom of the disappearance.
When it comes to horror, as with much else, the British are a pretty repressed lot. The old Universal Frankenstein and Dracula of the 30s caused such a stir that a new H certificate was inaugurated. Later, the rash of drive-in movies of the 50s which were intended for adolescent audiences (I Was A Teenage Werewolf etc.) were slapped with X certificates and by the mid 80s Margaret Thatcher and The Daily Mail between them had conjured up the "video nasties" scandal that was the latest episode in the continuing war on horror movies. As a result, British horror has generally bordered on the anaemic with Hammer dominating the home-grown industry, churning out movies that some critics will argue were innovative, but which for many didn't do what horror should — disturb and challenge.
There were however a few films that distanced themselves from the Hammer camp (and, indeed, from Hammer camp). Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968) all delivered more intelligent, troubling horror. But standing head and shoulders above them all, dominating the landscape like its eponymous basketwork bloke, is the towering figure of The Wicker Man.
From the title sequence, in which we see a small plane flying over the desolate islands of the Hebrides accompanied by keening folk music, it's clear this is a horror movie that will take place not in the conventional shadows and nightime, but in bright sunlight. Like Kubrick's The Shining (which it predates by seven years) it's an opening sequence in which we see, from an aerial shot, a man - travelling to his doom. The man in this case is Sgt. Neil Howie (Woodward) a policeman and devout Catholic sent to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a child. From the moment he arrives he is assailed by images of paganism. Children dance round maypoles while the schoolteacher lectures on its phallic significance; sore throats are cured by holding toads in the mouth; naked girls jump over fires in fertility rituals and the landlord's daughter, played by 70s sex siren Britt Ekland, cavorts around her bedroom stark naked (or at least her top half does, Ekland requested an arse double, a fact that did not appease her boyfriend Rod Stewart who threatened to buy the negative and destroy it).
Stunt arse or not, she gives the unfortunate virgin copper something approaching a dose of the vapours. When he finally meets Lord Summerisle (Lee who, apart form a truly appalling mustard coloured roll-neck sweater, delivers what may be the performance of his career), the de facto "ruler" of the island, the horrified policeman is informed that the islanders have rejected Christianity and returned to the worship of the "old gods". It eventually dawns on Howie that part of the islanders' ritual is human sacrifice and that the missing girl may still be alive, on ice as it were, for the Mayday celebrations. But worse is to come, for Howie anyway, as we come to realise that it is not the girl who is to be sacrificed, but him.
The Wicker Man combines a host of compellingly horrific elements. The pagan imagery, of hobby horses, maypoles, the "Green Man" pub and Mr. Punch, are all instantly recognisable as existing in our everyday lives, and particularly our childhoods (for some reason they have residual unnerving qualities, a bit like clowns), but screenwriter Peter Schaffer's depiction of these elements as part of a living religion based upon fertility and sensuality, as opposed to the repression of Christianity, is the engine of the movie (and it is doubly appropriate that a repressed nation should make repression one of the subjects of its best horror movie).
In one eloquent sequence Howie watches naked girls conduct a fertility ritual. Disgusted, he asks if they have never heard of Jesus Christ. "The son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost," replies a quizzical Lord Summerisle. As writer Allan Brown has pointed out in his excellent book Inside The Wicker Man, the true strength of the story is that its presentation of religious dogma is frighteningly accurate. Both sides believe that they are unquestionably right and neither is willing, or even capable, of seeing the world from any other perspective. The final sequence, in which the swaying islanders sing their pagan hymn to the gods of the sea and the earth while inside the burning man Howie hysterically appeals to his own, remains one of the most disturbing in cinema. And the final shot, of the wicker man's head tumbling off to reveal the setting sun offers no relief.
The Wicker Man is, more than anything else, a film about what people can do in the name of religion or, more generally, belief. Its power comes not from appeals to the supernatural but from a deep understanding of our own undeniable nature. Horror doesn't get much closer to home than that.