Before ‘Midsommar,’ There Was ‘The Wicker Man,’ The Definitive Folk Horror Film

The time has come yet again for a new release to be completely steamrolled at the box office by an installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and shamefully so, if you ask me. The unfortunate and doomed film comes this time in the form of A24’s Midsommar, a folk mystery/thriller from Hereditary director Ari Aster, which just so happens to be one of the best movies of the year. 

At 140 minutes, Midsommar might seem like a daunting task to watch, but Aster has an impressive way of utilizing constant daylight to sustain a feeling of inevitable doom. It certainly feels long, but at no point does it feel like a burden or a chore to watch. It’s a layered cinematic experience coming to us in the wake of an especially perilous June when it comes to new movies. It certainly won’t be for everyone, especially for those averse to metaphorical or visceral intensity, but those craving something unique and resonant will likely find themselves pleased by what they see.

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The film fits nicely into a notable milieu of the horror genre commonly referred to as “folk horror,” a loosely defined sub-genre characterized by remote locations, outcasted city folk, frightful religious cults, and no shortage of human sacrifice. One of the prototypical examples of this — as well as the obvious choice for our Movie of the Week — is none other than Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, a favorite among horror/thriller fans worldwide.

The film follows Sergeant Neil Howie of the Scottish Police (Edward Woodward), who investigates the remote island of Summerisle following the mysterious disappearance of Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), a young girl who lives on the island. The islanders appear to have never heard of or seen Rowan before, and Howie resolves to get to the bottom of these perplexing circumstances, to which there is undoubtedly more than meets the eye.

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During this process, Howie (a devout and fervent Christian) is deeply unsettled to learn that the islanders have toppled their church and followed numerous Pagan traditions for decades, and he begins to actively despise them as the search continues. Revelations are made, answers bring on further questions, and it all culminates beautifully in an iconic, ambiguous, and gloriously unusual conclusion.

The Wicker Man plays very strangely to modern eyes, even more-so than in 1973, perhaps. Like Midsommar, it doesn’t necessarily follow the “rules” of other horror films. Most of the film takes place during the day, the frightening imagery is kept largely to a minimum, and it’s only when the third act begins that something truly horrifying is indicated. As such, it might feel like a clumsy mish-mash of tonal proclivities and genre leanings, but the consistent underlying narrative more than makes up for any structural oversights.

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It took two viewings of the film for me to realize the fascinating ambiguity of the story: even though we’re rooting for Howie to succeed in finding Rowan, it’s hard to ignore how his methods aren’t entirely in the right. It doesn’t take long for his personal beliefs to interfere with the search, in a way that is both unethical and antagonistic.

Although perhaps provoked by the stubbornness of certain islanders, Howie has no reservations about insulting their way of life directly to their faces, even going so far as to challenge Lord Summerisle himself, played by the immortal Christopher Lee. Whether or not their way of life is legitimately worthy of concern is almost an afterthought, if not completely inconsequential. In its heart of hearts, The Wicker Man is a story about vengeance.

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It’s a particular kind of vengeance that I find inherently cinematic. Rather than being enacted by one person or group of people unto another, it takes place in a conceptual plane of justice, concluding in an ultimate, metaphorically beautiful, and narratively atypical equilibrium. Not everything has been resolved, but the forces of nature have been more or less restored, and the fact that we can only resist these forces so much is merely something we as a species are forced to contend with.

Without this conclusion, the film would likely serve as nothing more than a relatively serviceable murder mystery, and although it might sacrifice narrative satisfaction along the way, the strangeness of it all makes for an essential and indelible addition to the horror/thriller genre at large. The Wicker Man epitomizes an aesthetic few other movies have managed to effectively capture. Everything from its enticing thematic identity to its unconventional acting styles to its overt sexual imagery and word choice contribute to a milestone that is unequivocally worthy of visiting (or revisiting).

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The Wicker Man is now streaming on The Criterion Channel and is available for rental on Itunes and Google Play. Midsommar is currently playing in theaters (please go see it).


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