The 1973 masterpiece The Wicker Man has endured a lot of indignities on its path to being a cult classic. A studio sliced 13 minutes of footage from the film’s final cut, and rolled the release out as the B picture, packaged with another horror film. There was a rushed production in November, causing much of the movie to take place in an artificial spring, with buds glued on trees. A set of skeptical executives reportedly pressured director Robin Hardy to nullify the film’s bleak ending, and quell its titular burning wicker man with a sudden rain.
But somehow, the movie came out anyway, and for the last 55 years horror connoisseurs have reveled in its raffish, low-budget freakiness. Generations of horror fans have watched the uptight, hyper-Christian policeman Neil Howie get drawn deeper and deeper into the pagan-inflected horrors of isolated Summerisle. Bereft of the carnage and strewn viscera that tend to juice up scares, the film relies on music, eerie symbology, and minutely excellent performances to build the steady mounting of dread at its core. But above all, it is the women of Wicker Man who provide its central terrors, and provide a timeless theme, one that resonates strongly this year of all years: the fear men have that women are colluding against them.
The Wicker Man is full of milk-pale, vampy blondes with tight bouffant hairdos, a presentation straight out of an early-’70s edition of Penthouse. Each serves as a way station to expose Sergeant Howie to more and more of the carnal, thoroughly un-Christian mores of Summerisle — and inspire both his loathing and his desire. The mingling of sex and dread in horror movies is nothing new — it’s always the dewiest blonde who survives — but in The Wicker Man, there’s a graveyard orgy, a raucous ode to fucking an innkeeper’s daughter, and a bevy of young maidens who leap naked over a bonfire, within a ring of standing stones. It’s the high-femme schoolteacher, all bust and bun, that teaches a new generation of girls to revere the phallic symbolism of the maypole; and the pout-mouthed Willow (Britt Ekland) who, in the film’s extended cut, despoils a young male virgin, bringing him into adulthood. For Howie, and the viewer, the sex-drenched menace of Summerisle unfolds as led, taught, and embodied by women — that’s what makes it so scary.
In the era of #MeToo and the Shitty Media Men list and Brett Kavanaugh, there’s a note of indignant horror that creeps into op-eds and think pieces insisting that a movement for justice has overstepped its bounds. The notion of collusion — the idea that women are gathering together for the express purpose of ruining men — led to a backlash aimed at women protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, including allegations by the president that they were paid off by a Jewish man. There’s something frightening and coven-ish about women working together; a Telegraph columnist called #MeToo “the rule of the mob,” a senseless melding of serious and less egregious violations into “one long, furious wrecking ball.” It’s as if any group of women acting in concert, especially when pushing back against sexual violence, is moments from becoming a collective of ravening maenads, ripping the flesh from any innocent man who strays into their path.
It’s frustrating to encounter this narrative, over and over again, let alone try to eke out any counter to it. Logic seems like a poor weapon to wield against such a deep terror, and those who wish passionately for real change are understandably loath to temper their rhetoric, to become more demure in their demands not to be groped in the office. It is difficult to say as a collective that you are not, in fact, a mob. It is impossible to soothe these fears without retreating; it is impossible to retreat.
One thing horror movies can offer is a certain salve to the id, a fierce joy in watching what you fear unfold. And in 2018, it’s rather exhilarating to find, when watching The Wicker Man, that the fear of women working in concert proves perfectly reasonable.
The schoolteacher and the record-keeper and the innkeeper’s daughter; the innocent young virgin Howie set out to the island to find; the matron and the sexpot and the priestess — all of them really are working toward his fiery doom. All of them really are using his sexual fascination against him. Even his sexual temptation was a test of his virginity.
When you’re called a scheming harpy no matter what you do, sometimes it can give a rush of dark schadenfreude to watch the real harpies sharpen their claws. Howie may be an innocent, if a bit of a prig, but to watch him be anointed by the women for sacrifice; to be washed clean by their blonde, blonde hair; and to suffer, in the movie’s dark, relentless climax, is a moment as cleansing as the fire itself.