For those of us who were lucky enough to catch Midsommar already, we noticed that Ari Aster’s sophomore psychedelic, folk horror film derives an incredible amount of influence from Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece, THE WICKER MAN. Everything from its (seemingly) warm, welcoming commune members, to its commentary on intrusive outsiders barging in on dissimilar cultures, to its fiery third act (which I won’t discuss here) Midsommar is indebted to this folk horror classic, and we thought we would swing around the maypole again and remind you why this film is so integral to the horror genre.
When police sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl named Rowan (Gerry Cowper), the Islanders give him the run-around. As outwardly kind as the locals mostly are to him, Howie grows frustrated, as he bulldozes them for answers, and they claim to either not know whom Rowan is, or that she is already dead. Howie, who considers himself a devout Christian, judges the Summer-islanders for their Pagan rituals, including public nudity and copulation, teaching children about the phallic symbolism of the maypole, and other abnormal (to him) behavior, that offends his Christianity. By the film’s finale, Howie discovers the truth about Rowan’s whereabouts, as well as what purpose he serves to this cult’s May Day celebrations.
Decades before the term “elevated” horror flooded our contemporary think pieces, films like THE WICKER MAN created the rules first— rooting themselves in intelligent, slow-burn dispositions that relied on suspense, increasing tension, subtle commentary, and memorably shocking endings over cheap thrills. From the unnerving animal masks that the villagers don, to the idyllic scenery of the village that is muted by washes of drab, earth tone colors within the cinematography, to the oft-foreboding folk soundtrack, THE WICKER MAN is soaked in dread. And to obtain this effect, both Director Hardy and this group of villagers are tricksters, constantly manipulating protagonist Howie and the audience. For example, the scene in which Willow (Britt Ekland) removes her clothes and attempts to seduce Howie from the next room while breaking the fourth wall and singing directly at us, maybe titillating to some— but for others, myself included, this is completely jolting because it shatters our expectations. We, as the audience, feel seen— as if Willow is toying with us like she is toying with Howie.
In a similar way, Aster touches on in Midsommar, the major takeaway from Hardy’s film is the dire consequences of zealotry and the obtrusion upon other cultures, religions, and practices that subvert your own— which is as relevant today as it was during the film’s 1973 release. Howie, stuck within his own authoritative ego, is appalled that the villagers do not take him seriously. He demands answers and respect, failing to recognize that policing is a foreign concept to the people of Summerisle. When he passes by a group of male children being taught a song about the sexual implications of the maypole, as well as entering a female pupil-filled classroom in which they are learning the significance of the phallus to their religion, Howie self-righteously expresses his disgust with their “corruption of the young.” As a devout Christian, the virginal Howie cannot accept the “Pagan” (but actually Heathen, Lord Summerisle explains) beliefs of the village, repulsed by their open sexuality and graphicness, which Christianity denounces. When Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) explains that his villagers carry faith in their hearts, Howie rejects this: “Religious? With ruined churches, no minsters, no priests…and children dancing naked!” In the same way that Howie prays to Jesus Christ, the people of Summerisle worship their own Pagan gods, but Howie doesn’t view it this way: he only grows more suspicious of them, but for the wrong reasons.
(Spoilers) In one of the most shocking finales in the genre’s history, the culmination of events leads to the people of Summerisle’s blood sacrifice of Sergeant Howie— not young Rowan, who is alive and well, and a willing participant in this conspiracy. In a clever use of foreshadowing, as Howie prepares for the villagers’ procession, he steals a Punch the Fool costume, and blends in with the rest of the crowd. He sees Rowan and thinks he is saving her, only to be led into the wicker man structure against his will, praying to be saved by his version of God, and burned alive, as the villagers excitedly sing, in hopes that their blood sacrifice will bring them good harvest. The villagers have no visible remorse for ending this man’s life. And should they? In the same vein as Rosemary’s Baby, Gaslight, and The Stepford Wives, the gaslighting of the protagonist is the most disturbing element of the film, as Hardy has lured us into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from underneath us by the film’s scarring final moments. However, what makes THE WICKER MAN stand out from the others is that the gaslighting occurs to a foolish man, instead of an unknowing woman protagonist. Once again subverting our expectations, we are tricked into believing that the young, virginal girl Rowan will be the blood sacrifice, not the male protector/”hero” Howie— which is an ironic mockery of the cult’s fixation on phallic, male masculinity. The film’s final image consists of the wicker man structure’s burning, fallen head in front of the sunset, leaving behind another day and another life.
Like you will witness in Midsommar, THE WICKER MAN and its other folk horror peers primarily elicit a lingering uneasiness that many other horror subgenres do not always grasp as effectively. The folk horror/cult subgenre focuses on groupthink and communal human behavior: the desires and sacrifices of man and how far some are willing to go when they are codependent of each other and of their beliefs. And nothing is scarier than that.
THE WICKER MAN is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Midsommar is in theaters everywhere July 3 and you can read our review here.