Sex and folk songs

Often, on a weekend I’d go to our local theater to see whatever was booked, no matter what it was. That was right out this weekend for two reasons. One, the movie playing was I Still Believe, “The true-life story of Christian music star Jeremy Camp and his journey of love and loss that looks to prove there is always hope.” Jesus. No. Just no. The theater does this every once in a while, booking some dreadful Christian dreck, usually at the request of local churches, to lure in the believers. They tend to come in droves. I wondered whether this was a cunning plan to bring in a mass of Christians to cross contaminate each other and terminate that ugly segment of the population, but no, the people who run the theater are nice and try to be accommodating to the community. Only I am wicked enough to imagine using cheesy evangelical Xian movies to seduce the faithful into embracing an epidemic.

Besides, the second reason I couldn’t go to the movies was that the theaters are all shut down. The plan was foiled.

But I still have Netflix! I started browsing, and perhaps it was my anti-Xian fuming that made it leap out at me, but The Wicker Man is available. No, not The Wicker Man, the 2006 abomination with Nicolas Cage, but the original 1973 movie with Edward Woodward. I remember seeing it when it first came out and enjoying it, but that was almost 50 years ago. It was memorable enough that I remember the plot. Spoilers ahead…but it is a 47 year old movie.

Here’s what I recall: an officious British police officer comes to a remote island to investigate a report of a missing girl. It quickly becomes obvious that all the inhabitants are lying, as their story keeps changing. The officer pursues every lead, getting closer and closer to the truth, until he discovers he has been led into a trap, and is put into a wicker man that is set afire as a sacrifice to the harvest.

What I had completely forgotten, surprisingly, was all the sex and folk songs. No, really — Officer Howie walks into the local pub, all the old codgers start sing a bawdy song about the landlord’s daughter. He goes for a walk, there are people snogging all around, and there’s swarms of couples fornicating in the fields. He’s so distressed that he goes back to his room and prays. Then the landlord’s daughter (Britt Ekland) starts singing a siren song outside his room. She’s starkers, of course. She slaps the wall in time to her song, gyrating her hips spectacularly, while Officer Howie trembles and sweats and refuses to open the door.

The whole movie is like that. The villagers are all cheerfully sex-mad, and they’ve got a song for everything. The school kids are dancing around a maypole, or in the classroom learning what a maypole represents, while a squad of naked teenagers sing and dance in a circle (“divinity lessons” — theology would be much more popular if that was typical). Officer Howie wanders about the island, constantly appalled at the degeneracy on display. Everyone is so happy and cheerful, except Officer Howie, who is generally indignant and stuffy. The villagers all reject Christianity, while the officer embraces a rather prudish version of it.

We meet Lord Summerisle, played by the amazing Christopher Lee, young, tall, and aristocratic, and his hair in a 70s shag haircut. He explains that he’s not a pagan, but “A heathen, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.” Howie is preachy and angry and insistent that this is a Christian country. The conflict between the old joyous gods and prissy Christianity is obvious throughout.

Christianity is doomed in this story. Howie is eventually led to the pagan barbarity of the Mayday celebration, which he is urged not to attend, lest he be offended. It turns out that the celebration is a parade of villagers dressed up as animals and jesters, led by Lord Summerisle in long hair and a dress. Of course Howie attends in disguise, and is surprised to learn that he is the guest of honor and gets tied up in the wicker man and dies horribly, screaming out Bible verses and prayers.

So it’s a horror movie, sort of. It’s rather like Midsommar; it also reminded me of Get Out, but with a distinct difference. In those movies, the antagonists were sinister and ominous, and the protagonist was sympathetic. In The Wicker Man, that’s reversed. The villagers are horny and happy, and constantly singing and dropping their clothes, while Officer Howie is an unpleasant, sexually repressed, fanatical prig. At the end of the movie, you end up feeling like he deserved a fiery, grisly death. Fun!

That’s why the 2006 remake was so bad. For this inversion to work, Officer Howie has to be a staid, somber, conservative plodder — Nic Cage came off as weirder than the villagers. Skip it. Watch the original. It’s highly entertaining in its idiosyncracies.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Not to mention that the 2006 version is just dripping with misogyny and anti-feminism. I keep checking IMDB to see if Roosh V. or Phyllis Schlafly had a writing credit.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    My favourite line is in a scene where Howie is expressing outrage to Summerisle about a girl jumping over a fire while naked.
    Summerisle explains that it’s far too dangerous to jump over a fire while wearing clothes.

  3. kenbakermn says

    Sounds awesome. Reminds me a bit of Sirens, with Hugh Grant and Elle MacPherson, about a bunch of happy people getting naked and making art, and one stuffy prude getting all butt-hurt.

  4. weylguy says

    I seem to remember that the twist in the 1973 movie was the fact that the villagers needed a virgin for the sacrifice, and that the police officer himself becomes the unwitting sacrifice.

  5. davidc1 says

    It is a crime the way it has been treated .Don’t know which virgin ,sorry, version the good Doctor is watching on netflix
    but the full virgin ,sorry version starts on the main land ,it is patched up with bits of footage that do not match the rest
    of the film .
    And isn’t that plane a great way to go to work?

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    The Nick Cage version was also SUPER misogynistic and anti-feminist. I’m surprised Roosh V. or Phyllis Schalfly didn’t have a writer’s credit.

  7. wsierichs says

    I remember that the horror aspect was not just what happened to the investigator at the end. I did not find him unsympathetic because his purpose was to find a missing girl, and the horror/mystery grows as he begins to suspect that the villagers themselves know what’s happened to her and thus must be hiding something terrible.

    The horror has a twist at the end as he yells out, when the villagers start the fire, that “what will happen if the harvest fails next year, again?’ The implication is that the villagers will find another offering – and this time it could be Christopher Lee himself!

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    Also, the Nick Cage version was disgustingly anti-feminist. I’m surprised Phyllis Schlafly or Roos V didn’t have writing of story consultant credits.

  9. lochaber says

    The Ritual is worth watching, although I got really mad in the beginning when they changed their course after their companion injures his leg. None of those people should be allowed outside without an adult.

    The book kinda explained that part better, but the author really doesn’t like women…

  10. mnb0 says

    “the amazing Christopher Lee, young, tall, and aristocratic”
    Amazing, tall and aristocratic, yes. But young? Lee was born in 1922, the movie was made in 1973.
    Perhaps your idea is that we tell you you are still young too?

  11. patricklinnen says

    As someone who would get carded in their 50’s when fully shaven, or even just down to mutton-chops, I wish I looked as good as Christopher Lee did at that point.

  12. ANB says

    Thanks for the heads up. I liked the movie just now, and as I’m tired of current Netflix offerings, I appreciated this. (I’m about the same age as you, but missed this the first go around).

  13. drsteve says

    Yes! I had been meaning to see this for years but finally stumbled on it on Netflix just a couple weeks ago myself. I had heard enough about it to be less surprised than delighted by all the pagan sex positivity, but I was just as delighted by the surprising discovery that it was at least halfway to being a musical (more musicals should end in human sacrifice).

    Another reason Howie invites no sympathy from scene one: his incompetence as an investigator driven by his bad cop attitude. He immediately projects suspicion and hostility on every villager he meets when as an outsider he can’t expect to get very far without trying to get on the good side of at least some locals who might be able to help. His ostensible concern for a missing child is shown to be trumped by his vanity and pleasure in his nominal authority.

  14. John Harshman says

    More recently, does anyone remember The Cabin in the Woods? It has a similar happy ending.

  15. rjlangley says

    Sounds like the version PZ saw was the shortened, theatrical cut which omits an entire day from the story, moving Willow’s dancing outside Howie’s door from his second to his first night on the island. Which means PZ missed Howie’s first night on the island, and the superb Gently Johnny scene:

  16. keinsignal says

    According to Lee’s autobiography, he never got paid for that film. Not sure how Woodward or Ekland made out…