THE WICKER MAN (1973)

Continuing with our 3rd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon, “The Unenthusiastic Critic”—my wise-assed, horror-hating girlfriend “N.”—joins me for a viewing of the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man. As always, spoilers follow, so if (like my girlfriend) you haven't already seen The Wicker Man, and if (unlike her) you would like to, you should really do that first. 

THE WICKER MAN (Poster)What We Watched: The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy, written by Anthony Shaffer. Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Eckland, Diane Cilento, Irene Sunters, Lindsay Kemp, and Ingrid Pitt.

Why We Watched It: Currently celebrating its 40th anniversary—and with a restored "Final Cut" enjoying a limited theatrical run as we speak—The Wicker Man has been called the "Citizen Kane of horror movies," and is widely considered one of the greatest British movies of all time. Personally, I thinkcalling it either is overstating the case considerably, but The Wicker Man is a fascinating, exquisitely crafted, deeply weird gem of a movie. It's the kind of film you have a hard time describing to people, as even the designation "horror" doesn't really fit: it's a conspiracy movie, a psychological thriller, a strange morality play, a counter-culture musical, even—at times—a comedy. But its very unclassifiable oddness is what makes it so memorable, and part of what makes it so deeply unsettling.

What My Girlfriend Knew About It Before We Watched It: As I always do before we begin a movie for this series, I quiz N. on what she may already know about The Wicker Man. In this case, it doesn't take long.

She: I don't really know anything about The Wicker Man. I know there was a remake recently with Nicolas Cage…

Me: Did you see the remake? This isn't another situation like with The Haunting, where you've seen the shitty remake, but not the original?

She: No, I despise Nicolas Cage, so I was unlikely to see it.

(At this point we degenerate into an argument about Nicolas Cage, in which she agrees that Raising Arizona is a great movie, and in which I make a case for the merits of Con Air that is neither completely sincere nor remotely convincing. However, since Nicolas Cage is not really relevant to our discussion here, I'll spare you the blow-by-blow transcript of this erudite debate.)

She: So the only other thing I know about The Wicker Man is the imagery of fire, and the burning of some sort of effigy. I think I saw that in some commercial or something. But that's it.

Me: Okay, well, I think the less you know about this one going in, the better. But I think you're going to enjoy it. I think it's right up your alley.

She: It's assuredly not right up my alley. The very fact that you say that tells me that it's about as far from my alley as you can possibly go.

Me: You're so pessimistic. And kind of distrustful.

She: Yeah.I wonder why.

How It Went: If I had no other expectations for this viewing, I felt certain that The Wicker Man would make my girlfriend say "What the fuck?" several times. In that regard, it did not disappoint.

THE WICKER MAN Title Card

The Wicker Man opens with a lengthy shot of our hero, Detective Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) piloting a small plane over the west coast of Scotland, accompanied on the soundtrack by composer Paul Giovanni's Celtic folk-song arrangement of some Robert Burns ballads. It is difficult for me to summarize here what kind of a beginning this gets us off to: it is best if you go listen to a little of this and then try to imagine the incredulous look my girlfriend was giving me during the credits sequence.

Me: Scared yet?

She: No. Pretty horrified by this music, though.

Me: It's the music of my people.

She: Is it Jim Croce?

Me: No. [Note: My girlfriend assumes that any white, male singer from before she was born must be Jim Croce.]

She: Irish Jim Croce?

Me: I actually think it's Spinal Tap: this might be their follow up to "Stonehenge."

She: "I think the problem is that we had a Stonehenge monument that was in danger of being trampled by a dwarf."

Howie lands his plane in the harbor of a small island we will come to know as Summerisle. The first thing N. notices about the place is that it has its own flag.

The Summerisle Flag

She: Oh, THAT'S not creepy.

Me: It's just a flag.

She: It's a creepy flag. A creepy sun. A pagan ritual sun. It's the Sun of Satan.

The second thing we learn about Summerisle is that it's not exactly a tourist trap: in fact, there are a bunch of old guys standing on the dock, and none of them wants Howie to come ashore. They tell him it is private property, and that he can't land without the permission of someone called "Lord Summerisle." (Howie has to play the police card to even get them to send the dingy out for him.) On the dock, he tells them he is investigating an anonymous complaint about a missing child of the island, a 12-year-old girl named Rowan Morrison. At first the men claim total ignorance, but eventually—and reluctantly—they acknowledge that there is a woman called May Morrison on Summerisle, but that the picture he shows them is not her daughter.

She: So…just arrest all of them, obviously.

Me: What do you mean?

She: Those are some sketchy-ass Irishmen.

Me: They're sketchy-ass Scottishmen, if you please.

She: Whatever. You all look the same to me.

Howie walks through the quaint little village, and all around him windows and doors open as the residents peer out to get a look at the newcomer.

She: You know what's a red flag? When everybody in town is looking at you creepily.

He makes his way to the post office/bakery, to speak with May Morrison, and pauses to look at the various cakes and pastries in the window.

Devil's food cakes

She: That's the devil! This is all the devil! This is obviously a voodoo island!

Me: I have to say, you're picking up on the vibe of this place really quickly.

She: Hell, yeah! That sun was evil! Just get back in your plane: that is not a thing of man. And if you can make cake look evil, that's pretty extreme. That's not a good sign.

And indeed, this is how The Wicker Man operates. Everyone on Summerisle is pleasant and friendly, and they all seem perfectly cheerful, but the whole place just feels wrong. The film is one of the great "fish-out-of-water" movies of all time, and these particular waters are truly unique and bizarre. Hardy, and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), put plenty of overt weirdness on-screen, but behind it and around it they put just the right quantities of subtle weirdness to make Summerisle a rich, believably different community. Everything is just slightly skewed, as though Howie has stepped into an alternate reality in which history and culture and customs all developed just a little bit differently than they did in the world we think of as "normal."

And none of it would work without the performance of Edward Woodward. Pious, prim, and ramrod straight, Woodward's Sgt. Howie is the personification of repressed, Calvinistic British propriety. Most of the great horror movies in the late 60s and early 70s were, in one way or another, about the breakdown of the social order: here Howie is that order made flesh, the thin blue line between the old establishment and the menacing chaos of the era's societal changes.

Howie (Edward Woodward) and May Morrison (Irene Sunters)

May Morrison (Irene Sunters) is another perfectly friendly, pleasant person: she just doesn't recognize the picture of "Rowan Morrison." She says she has a daughter, but she's called Myrtle (Jennifer Martin), and she's is in the back. When Howie interrogates Myrtle about someone called "Rowan," Myrtle informs him that Rowan is a hare.

She: THEY TURN THE KIDS INTO BUNNIES.

Me: That seems logical.

She: I figured it out.

Me: Yep, case closed. Good job. No need to even watch the end of the movie.

Howie goes to pursue his investigation, and seek lodgings, at the local inn, The Green Man.

The Green Man

She: Look at this shit! This is some devil shit!

Me: It's quaint. It's folksy.

She: That's not folksy. That's evil. That's a picture of the devil, painted by the hand of the devil.

Me: You just don't understand folk art.

Inside the inn, Howie meets the oily landlord MacGreagor (Lindsay Kemp) and his pretty daughter Willow (Britt Eckland).

Willow (Britt Eckland) and MacGreagor (Lindsay Kemp)

Me: Hello, Willow!

She: Yeah, they don't share any genes.

(Eckland, a Swedish singer and actress, was best known at the time for a whirlwind romance—and turbulent marriage—with actor Peter Sellers. She became a sex symbol through this movie, and as a Bond girl in 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun. What she was not, however, was Scottish: here, all of her dialogue is dubbed by actress Annie Ross, and the mismatch lends just another level of uncanniness to The Wicker Man.)

As Howie stands politely observing, the men of the The Green Man start singing a raucous—and increasingly bawdy—ditty about Willow called "The Landlord's Daughter." And, when her name is mentioned/ the parts of every gentleman/ do stand up at attention…

She: Are they singing about gang-raping the landlord's daughter?

Me: Don't be ridiculous: that would be inappropriate. They're singing about fucking the landlord's daughter.

And indeed, Willow seems delighted with their attention, dancing suggestively with all the men of the village as they sing about her assets.

She: So the Inn is a brothel where she's the only working girl. Awesome.

Everywhere he looks, Howie encounters weirdness…and clues. For one thing, there's a series of Harvest Festival photographs, featuring young women posing with produce, and the most recent one is missing. For another thing, on an island renowned for its fruits and vegetables, Howie is served only canned food and beans that are oddly blue. "Broad beans in their natural state are not usually turquoise," he points out to Willow.

The general impression of sexual openness turns out to be accurate: as Howie leaves the inn that night, he encounters dozens of villagers happily copulating around town.

She: Wait, are they all having sex in the field? Is this a giant field orgy?

Me: It's a close-knit community. And actually, I think that's the town square.

And he encounters other strange sights:

Grief affects people in strange ways.

She: Naked crying on a tombstone. Yeah, that's normal.

Me: I don't understand your distrust of these people. All small towns have their quaint little customs. You're just xenophobic.

She: No, they're obviously sacrificing children, and possibly women, to something bad.

Now in fear for his immortal soul—or at least his chastity—Howie retreats to his room at The Green Man and says his prayers. We get a brief montage of his Christian life: we see him taking communion, and we see him preaching in a church as a member of the lay clergy. Now we understand that this is not simply a conflict between order and chaos, but between Christian morality and…something else.

And now Howie faces his greatest temptation: in a bizarre (but justifiably famous) scene, Willow begins singing in the room next to Howie's, dancing around naked while beating on the walls and imploring him to come to her:

Heigh ho! I am here
Am I not young and fair?
Please come say, How do?
The things I'll show to you.
Would you have a wond'rous sight
The midday sun at midnight?
Fair maid, white and red,
Comb you smooth and stroke your head
How a maid can milk a bull!
And every stroke a bucketful
.

Willow (Britt Eckland)

(Eckland appears topless, but she had refused to do full nudity. Unbeknownst to her, Hardy just brought in a body double to shoot full-length shots he could edit into Willow's dance, so Ekland suffered the indignity of having both her voice and her butt dubbed in post-production.)

As Willow sings and writhes, I look over to see N. staring at me accusatorily. (It's a look I'm all too familiar with by now.)

Me: What?

She: I don't know why you make me watch this shit.

Me: It's a classic. Though I admit, I'm a little surprised you haven't commented more on the extent to which it's actually a stealth-musical.

She:That's why I'm getting progressively more and more annoyed.

In the final stages of her attempted seduction, Willow begins banging frenzily on the walls of Howie's room.

She: Good way to find a stud, I guess.

Me: Which way do you mean?

She: Both.

Willow's siren song severely tempts the pious Sgt. Howie, but he manages—just barely—to resist it, and stay in his room. I'm not impressed with his judgement; my girlfriend is not impressed with the accommodations at The Green Man.

She: I would give them a very bad review on Yelp.

Me: What, a two-star Travelocity review? I think she could knock it up to at least 3-stars for me. Because this is excellent customer service.

She: Really? Because she's probably riddled with herpes and chlamydia if she's sleeping with all those creepy dudes downstairs.

The next morning we find out the reason for Howie's heroic self-restraint: he informs Willow that he is engaged to be married, and doesn't believe in sex before marriage.

"Suit yourself," she says, and advises him to leave the island today. "You wouldn't want to be around here on May Day: not the way you feel."

Howie pulls himself together and heads to the school, where he comes across a teacher leading all the boys in a maypole dance and singing a song about procreation.

Maypole Dance

Seriously, I can't even describe this scene: it's best if you just watch it yourself.

If there is a moment in The Wicker Man when we come close to losing N. altogether, it is this musical number.

She: Oh for fuck's

Me: What's the problem?

She: Are you kidding me? WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS MOVIE???

While outside the boys are singing about the glories of the pole, inside the girls are learning roughly the same lesson. Their teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) is instructing them that the Maypole represents the phallic symbol. "It is the image of the penis, which is venerated in religions such as ours, as symbolizing the generative force in nature."

Me: Was your grade school like this?

She: No, we were not taught that the penis is the generative organ, or that it is the basis of our religion. Nor did the boys dance around a giant penis and wrap it in ribbons.

Me: As far as you know. That's what we boys were doing when you girls were off learning about your periods.

Howie is similarly alarmed by the lesson plan, but he is determined to continue his investigation. He interrogates the children, but they and the teacher all deny knowing Rowan Morrison. He spots an empty desk, however, in which a child has tied a black beetle to a string around a nail.

She: WHAT SUBJECT IS THIS?

Howie demands that Miss Rose show him the school register, but she refuses.

She: She's not respecting the penis.

He takes the register from her, and finds Rowan's name within it. Outside the classroom, Miss Rose admits that they did have a Rowan Morrison, but she no longer exists. Does she mean Rowan is dead, Howie asks? "You would say so," Miss Rose says. "Here, we do not use the word. We believe that when the human life is over, the soul returns to trees, to air, to fire, to water, to animals. So that Rowan Morrison has simply returned to the life forces in another form."

She: Oh, they're Buddhists.

Me: Yes, that's it. What a keen understanding of comparative religions you have.

She: I didn't know Buddhism was so fixated on the penis, though.

Howie pursues this new lead to the graveyard where Rose has told him Rowan lies. In the graveyard, Howie finds a few more odd things, including a gravestone that reads "Here lies Beech Buchanan, protected by the ejaculation of serpents."

Oh, and this lady:

Which came first, the baby or the egg?

She: Uh huh, sure. She's in a graveyard, breastfeeding and holding an egg. Why not.

Me: Oh, like you've never breastfed in a graveyard holding an egg.

She: This whole movie is like a fucking hallucination out of The Shining.

And indeed, my girlfriend's comfort level with the quaint customs of Summerisle is diminishing by the second. On Rowan's grave, Howie finds a rowan tree, and hanging from the tree is a red dangly thing that looks like jerkied bacon. When he inquires what this is, a caretaker tells him it's "the poor wee lass's navel string, of course. Where else should it be but hung on a tree?"

She: They're hanging umbilical cords on trees. This is where you get back on your plane and let these people do whatever the fuck they want to do.

Back at May Morrison's place, he finds her dispensing medical help to a young girl: the treatment consists of placing a live toad in the girl's mouth for a few moments. "It's all over now," she tells the child. "Now he's got your horrid old sore throat, doesn't he, poor creature?"

What's the matter, got a frog in your throat?

She: If that's their doctor, I'd hate to see what their gynecologist is like.

Me: "There, lassie, it's all over. Now the nasty old badger has your gonorrhea!"

The weirdness just keeps coming: for one thing, Howie realizes that no one under the age of 80 has a name from the Bible. For another thing, the local druggist has jars on display that are filled with snake-oil, brains, hearts, and foreskins.

They make lovely coin purses.

She: Seriously? We're collecting foreskins?

Me: Hey, it was mainstream religion and medicine that started collecting foreskins. I know: they collected mine.

Finally, Howie decides he needs to confront the mysterious Lord Summerisle himself. He makes his way by horse-drawn carriage out to the man's manor, and on the grounds he sees naked women dancing through fire…and singing.

Fire crotches

She: They look like a Matisse painting. But why does the evil have to be in song?

Me: Well, you think all singing in movies is evil. And it's really narrow-minded of you to call it evil just because their beliefs are different from yours.

She: They're splaying their vaginas over fire.

"Naturally!" says Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), when Howie makes much the same point. "It's much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on!" Lord Summerisle's house looks like a model of good old fashioned British aristocracy, but he turns out to be the Patron Saint of Weirdness.

Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and Howie (Edward Woodward)

Summerisle explains that the girls are conducting a fertility rite, praying that the God of the Fire will make them fruitful. Here, he says, "the old gods aren't dead." But what of the true god? Howie protests in horror. "Oh, he's dead," Summerisle says calmly. "He can't complain. He had his chance, and, in the modern parlance, he blew it." Summerisle explains that this island was barren and poverty-stricken before his grandfather settled here and brought the people two things: "the music and drama and rituals of the old gods," and new strains of fruits that could grow in the temperate conditions of the gulf stream.

She: So it's Monsanto crossed with paganism.

Me: Two great tastes that taste great together.

She: Except they don't, because the beans were blue, and that's something that's not supposed to occur on earth. You're not supposed to have that.

"You are the subject of a Christian country," Howie insists, and demands that Summerisle allows him to exhume Rowan Morrison's body. Summerisle agrees happily, and Howie returns to the graveyard to do so. However, in Rowan's coffin, he makes an unexpected discovery.

Hare apparent

She: See! I told you they turned her into a bunny.

Howie has had enough. He confronts Summerisle again—he finds him, of course, doing a musical number with the schoolteacher, Miss Rose—and announces his plans to return to the mainland and report his suspicion that the entire island has conspired to cover up Rowan Morrison's murder. They seem completely nonplussed by his accusations, and wish him well in his endeavors. "Perhaps it's just as well that you won't be here tomorrow to be offended by the site of our May Day celebrations," Summerisle tells him.

She: I feel like he might want to call for a little backup at this point.

Me: So you're firmly on the side of the prudish police detective?

She: So this is what I've been sitting here thinking! How fucking narrow-minded of me to judge these peoples' activities, and be all "western religion is the only way to be a civilized community." At the same time, however, I don't condone murdering children and turning them into bunnies.

Me: We don't know that that's what's happened.

She: That's what's happened.

Me: We don't know that that's what's happened. All we know is that they dance naked, and collect foreskins, and shit like that. Which frankly isn't any weirder than what you people do.

She: What the hell do you mean you people?

Me: You know. Christians.

She: All we do is drink blood and eat the body of Christ. What's weird about that?

Images from the Summerisle Tourist Board's BrochureWhile N. is a firm proponent of the Leporine Transmogrification Theory, Howie has come up with an alternate hypothesis about what has befallen little Rowan Morrison: he discovers that the crops of Summerisle had failed the previous harvest, and reads about how pagan May Day traditions involve "frenzied rites ending in a sacrifice, by which the dancers hoped desperately to win over the goddess of the field… In bad years when the harvest had been poor, the sacrifice was a human being."

Rowan, Howie concludes, is not dead at all, but being held so that she may be sacrificed in the May Day rituals. The next morning is May Day, and the festivities have already begun, as villagers in ceremonial masks watch him try to start his plane. (Of course, it won't start.) Howie decides he has no choice but to find Rowan Morrison himself, and begins conducting a house-by-house search as the town's May Day festival is getting underway.

With everyone beginning to cavort around outside in costumes, Howie finds plenty of strange sights inside the houses, including fornicating puppets, creepy clown dolls, dead bodies, naked women, and children who begin hiding in closets and fucking with him just for fun.

 She: I'm seriously going to have nightmares. These are not good images.

Back at the Inn, Willow and her father try to induce Howie to sleep with some kind of smoke-producing severed hand—because sure, why not?—but Howie extinguishes it and manages to knock MacGreagor out, stealing his costume for the May Day celebration: the Fool.

In his disguise, Howie joins the celebration—and it is a celebration. It doesn't seem remotely sinister: everyone is joyous, and loving, and filled with communal and convivial spirit. Part of the genius of The Wicker Man is that this strange society seems like it functions perfectly well, and in perfect happiness. The people do not seem brainwashed, they are not mindless cultists lacking individuality, and they do not, in fact, seem remotely evil. Once we get past the disorientation, this flourishing, nurturing, warm community actually seems like it would be a wonderful place to live.

If there is a dark shadow over it, that shadow is Howie: Howie the prude, Howie the killjoy, Howie the bringer of mistrust.

May Day

Lord Summerisle, in ceremonial drag, leads the entire village—and Fool Howie—in a procession to the coast, conducting rituals that seem like games and making sacrifices of ale to the God of the Sea. And then, near a cave by the sea, he makes an announcement: "And now, for our more dreadful sacrifice, to those who command the fruits of the earth."

Rowan Morrison is brought out of the cave. Howie, having finally discovered the innocent child he came to save—the object of his holy quest—makes his move: he rushes forward and grabs Rowan, promising to save her. She tells him they may escape through the cave, and—with the villagers presumably in pursuit—she leads him through a series of tunnels and out a crevice in the cave's ceiling. It opens onto a hill overlooking the ocean—

—and Howie finds all the villagers waiting calmly for them. "Did I do right?" little Rowan asks Lord Summerisle, and he assures her she did beautifully.

It was all a set-up, and the little bitch was in on it.

"Welcome fool," Summerisle says. "You have come of your own free will to the appointed place. The game is over."

The Fool

Howie, looking completely dejected and suitably foolish in his absurd motley, is finally told the truth: this has all been an elaborate ruse just to bring him here. Yes, the last season's crops failed disastrously, and yes, it was decided that a sacrifice was needed to appease the gods. Animals are fine, Summerisle explains, and children are also powerful, but the best sacrifice is an adult, provided it is the right kind of adult. "You, sergeant, are the right kind of adult, as our painstaking researches have revealed…" He is a man who would come of his own free will; he is a man who comes representing the law, with the power of a king; he is a man who has come as a virgin. He is perfect for sacrificing. "You will undergo death and rebirth. Resurrection, if you like. The rebirth, sadly, will not be yours, but that of our crops."

Howie is a fool, but—to his thin credit—he is not a heretic, and he will not barter his faith for his life. "I am a Christian, and as a Christian I hope for resurrection," he tells them. "And even if you kill me now, it is I who will live again. Not your damned apples." He argues with them, telling them that next season, when the crops fail again, they will have to do this again—and perhaps this time, no sacrifice but Lord Summerisle himself will suffice.

No, Summerisle says, this will work. "The sacrifice of the willing king-like virgin fool will be accepted!"

She: That's a lot of boxes to check.

The women strip him, and bathe him, and anoint him, while everyone sings and the musicians play on. The joyous party atmosphere has not dispersed one bit.

She: There's even a song for human sacrifice?

Me: There's even a lute player. Do you suppose he had to audition for that? "Mom, guess what? I get to be First Lute Player when we sacrifice the unbeliever!"

Howie maintains his dignity. "I BELIEVE IN THE LIFE ETERNAL, AS PROMISED TO US BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST!" he shouts. Summerisle is kind, and there is little mockery in his voice when he tells Howie, "That is good, for believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days: a martyr's death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect. Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man."

And they lead him over the crest of a hill, and we get our first look at the Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man

It is full of live animals—secondary sacrifices, no doubt—but the central place of honor is reserved for Howie himself, and they lock him in the belly of this monstrous fire-hazard. The people link arms and begin singing their pagan prayers, gleeful in their tribute.

She: This is a really inappropriate musical interlude.

With no choice now but to accept his martyr's death—Howie counters their joyous song with his own futile prayers and preachings, and as they light the bonfire he offers up a more personal prayer of his own:

"Oh God, I humbly entreat you for the soul of this, thy servant, Neil Howie, who will today depart from this world. Do not deliver me into the enemy's hands, or put me out of mind forever. Let me not undergo the real pains of hell, dear God, because I die unshriven. And establish me in that bliss which knows no ending, through Christ, our Lord."

Burning Man

And then the flames reach him, and he screams.The flames consume him, and consume the Wicker Man: its head falls off, revealing a setting sun behind it, as the movie comes to an end.

The Verdict

Me: Okay, so…that's The Wicker Man.

She: [Resentful stare]

Me: I don't know exactly how to interpret that look you're giving me right now.

She: That was horrible. I did not need to watch that. I mean, it wasn't bad: I just didn't need to watch that. It didn't make me feel good about human beings. I really didn't need that in my life.

Me: C'mon, you're sort of glad we watched that. Didn't you need to see that?

She: Why would you say that? What would make you think that? No, I did not need, nor want to watch that.

Me: Is there any other movie quite like that?

She: That doesn't mean it's good, or necessary. It just means it's this really weird thing that exists.

Me: Right, and now you're aware that it exists.

She: But I didn't need to know that.

Me: Well, it might come up.

She: It has never come up. In 31 years of my life so far, The Wicker Man has never come up. And it feels unlikely that it ever will. I didn't need to know anything about it.

Me: Well, now you'll get it when other people make references to it.

She: No one goes around referencing The Wicker Man. Unless they're saying, "You know what movie I never need to see again? The Wicker Man."

Me: So…you didn't like it?

She: It's just weird. That movie is weird as shit. It's tonally really weird, with all that light music and cheerfulness. And then you have all this evil—but I shouldn't call it evil

Me: You're trying not to be…

She: I don't even know what the word is.

Me: Anti-paganist?

She: Anti-paganistic. But c'mon, you just burned a dude alive. That ain't right…

Me: I suppose that's kind of questionable.

She: But I mean, ancient cultures also practiced human sacrifice.

Me: Well, and there have been plenty of humans sacrificed to the Christian church, for that matter.

She: Absolutely. Entire cultures have been sacrificed to the Christian church. That is true.

Me: So really, is this society so bad? I mean, they're very happy and loving. And they have a less repressive attitude towards sex, which is nice.

She: Well, it seems really dominated by the penis. It doesn't seem like the women have much of a place…

Me: The women seem to enjoy themselves.

She: I think they're just vessels for the Great Penis. And then they die, and are apparently ejaculated upon by serpents, which doesn't sound so great.

Me: I think in the remake the island is a matriarchy.

She: Oh, that's interesting.

Me: So you kind of want to watch the remake now?

She: No, it's Nicolas Cage. I do not want to watch that.

Me: This movie is creepy, though, isn't it?

She: It is very creepy.

Me: In a way that's kind of hard to put your finger on. I mean, it's not scary, and there's no real violence, and it all takes place in daylight…

She: But it's eerie.

Me: It just feels like you're in a wrong place.

She: Exactly. It's a vibe thing. I just get a bad vibe from this place. There's evil suns, and evil pastries, and the kids are torturing beetles and shit. It's just not good.

Me: It's kind of like a folksy Rosemary's Baby. There's the whole "God is Dead" thing, and the cultists who all appear very pleasant and friendly but do really fucked up things. And I feel like all the horror movies from this era have that same thing going on, with the breakdown of society, the old repressed Christian ways breaking down, and chaos and sex taking over. I mean, in 1973, I'm sure part of the horror here was that this seemed like The Triumph of the Flower Children.

She: But I could almost argue that—and this would be a stretch, 'cuz it's still murder—but that it's an interesting take on the idea of colonization. The Christian outsider comes into this place that's considered to be a heathen, regressive community, and he tries to impose his thinking and mores on them. And where that usually tamps out cultures—people are forced to assimilate, and you get eradication of religions and languages and cultures—in this version, the heathens stamp out the oppressor. Which is one way to take it.

Me: Yes. I mean, to  be honest, I was almost completely on their side, temperamentally. And I suspect you are too, deep down. I mean, other people might disagree with this, but I think you and I agree that when the cannibals eat the missionaries, we're sort of on the side of the cannibals.

She: Well…yes. But I still need to be clear: it's still murder.

Me: But he would have destroyed their whole way of life.

She: Yes, I guess. And who are we to say their way of life is wrong. But yeah, it's dicey.

Me: And may I point out, he had an out! All he had to do…

She: Was fuck that chick!

Me: Was fuck Britt Eckland! How hard is that?

She: Then he wouldn't have been a virgin anymore.

Me: So they gave him every opportunity. I mean, dude, she's naked and banging on your wall, asking you to come fuck her, in song. What more do you need?So he kind of deserved everything he got. He was not a sympathetic character.

She: So the moral of the story is: keep your fucking religion to yourself…

Me: …and always bang the hot chick.

 Next in
The Unenthusiastic Critic's Halloween Movie Marathon:
We journey from the west coast of Scotland to the American Southwest
for Tobe Hooper's gruesome 1974 flick
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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