Last year, I started a personal Halloween tradition of posting reviews of 20 horror movies on my Facebook. The idea was to write them short, fast, and colloquial, no proof-reading allowed, and only for an audience of friends—which, at the time, was more fun and only slightly less lucrative than being a freelance film writer in Brooklyn. This year, I port the tradition over to my blog, and to kick off the Halloween bash in the name of weird costumes, cult rituals, pop paganism, and director Robin Hardy, who passed away last year, we turn our morbid gaze to his original 1973 The Wicker Man.
Among American millennials, The Wicker Man may be best known for a quite awful Nicolas Cage remake that got distilled into a quite hilarious, context-free viral YouTube highlights reel. But the original has an imposing reputation for genre fans. First released alongside Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the double bill of every British paranoiac’s dreams, The Wicker Man has been poured over, acclaimed, restored, and recreated as a Radiohead music video. But the mystery still maintains a spooky intrigue of its own, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its rep.
On a remote Scottish island sinister enough that Christopher Lee is in charge, and kinky enough that Britt Ekland is always up for whatever, a devout Christian police inspector arrives to investigate the report of a missing young girl. It soon becomes apparent that a conspiracy is afoot, and that the old druidic ways of superstition and godless sex have taken over this isolated community. Our Hero comports himself with a certain lack of awareness, slow to catch on to just how much danger he’s really in. Is it sloppy writing, or is it just that Our Hero stubbornly believes enough in Jesus Christ and Her Majesty the Queen to assume no one would dare touch him? Either way, as it death-marches to its finale, The Wicker Man is less an airtight mystery thriller than a kind of religious parable for happy nihilists.
It’s also a masterclass in threatening coziness, in the ways that the ruddy, friendly faces of a rural town can creep you the hell out. (A lesson that Edgar Wright, one of the film’s on-the-record cultists, surely picked up on for Hot Fuzz). In many ways, remaking it in the 21st century seems like a sketchy idea to begin with, not just for all the obvious reasons, but because The Wicker Man is so much rooted in its time and place: the post-counterculture hangover of the early 70s. The central conflict is essentially a battle between a conservative establishment and a libertine commune that makes up rules of its own, and the film’s sneakiest coup is that both ways of living your life come across as utterly unappealing. So take the ride, because it has a prime horror movie ending. And if that prime horror movie ending bums you out, you can always pick yourself up again by heading to YouTube and watching Nicolas Cage scream about the bees.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.