HAWKS NITE OUT: The Wicker Men at Villain
Sunday, May 1; 5pm | TICKETS
There is no better filmic celebration of Mayday than the Christopher Lee-starring, Robin Hardy-directed, horror classic, The Wicker Man (1973). In honor of its brilliant unusualness, cultural importance, and Lee’s amazing hair, below is a text I wrote last year called How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. The essay was written in collaboration with UK artist Darren Banks’ solo exhibition, Backwater, and compares the film to Joseph Beuys’ performance piece that gives the text its title.
How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare
Robin Hardy’s bizarre film The Wicker Man (1973) situates horror at the boundaries of sanity and puts varying degrees of morality up for grabs. Emerging at the death rattle of the utopian ideal that was widely envisioned in the 1960s, it is situated amongst American shockers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Last House on the Left (1972) which grappled with the disillusionment of societal stability in the wake of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Junior and Robert F. Kennedy, the 1969 riots, and emerging fragile economies. The Wicker Man is a decisively British interpretation of this failure by hippie culture and reactively calls those in authority into question. At the same time, it challenges a reluctance to return to nature and the generation’s abandonment of community in favor of new individualism. It’s a unique film that both embraces and discards community, nature, sex, religion, capital, and the value of life.
As a post-modern horror film, The Wicker Man positions its horror within the everyday. The ‘normalcy’ of the Summerisle community (ritual sex, belief in reincarnation, blood sacrifice) is juxtaposed with the ‘logical’ reasoning and Christian beliefs of outsider Sergeant Neal Howie who has come from the mainland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. So relentless in his struggle to find Rowan, Howie becomes increasingly embedded into what only he considers to be an insane world; a community in which people willing lie to authority, women are sexually empowered, and young girls are potentially sacrificed to the gods. The Wicker Man paints an eerie portrait of a town where people initially appear to be just like us but who slowly reveal the altered reality in which they live.
Importantly The Wicker Man coincides with the development of performance art from the 1960s into the 1970s. Increasingly about the body and in non-capitalist forms contemporary performance art was, like horror cinema, moving into a reflexive direction. Eight years before The Wicker Man was released, Joseph Beuys staged his eponymous performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare in which he shut out gallery-goers from his exhibition while he explained the artwork to the dead hare he carried in his arms. After he was done people were allowed into the gallery space but he turned his back to them. Thus the audience became the outsiders, just like Sergeant Howie, while the hare and the artist, like Summerisle, became privileged.
This dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion is the core of The Wicker Man. Despite being from the same country, Sergeant Howie is a foreigner from a different time and culture; an urban representative in a rural town rooted in its own pagan tradition. He is not a stand in for the audience (who is relegated to voyeur status) but instead functions as an opposing representative force that continuously inflicts his personal beliefs on others and views their way of life as a personal attack on him and to his God. He thus enacts a clash of belief systems involving a battle between spirituality, opposing lifestyles, and life/death. Ulmiately the actions of Howie and the tribe of Summerisle crystallize an overarching and universal insanity – does anyone really have the answers, access to the one true god, conduct for the moral way to live and who has the right to impose these belief structure on to others?
The Wicker Man is a bizarre translation of the early 1970s shift in culture that still startles in a contemporary context. Full of symbolic representations and potent imagery it incorporates performance (the periodic bursts of song alone make it musical ready) as a ritualistic rite, however sexually perverse or deadly. In fact nearly every gesture is performative; sex in the graveyard, young women jumping over a fertility fire, boys dancing around the Maypole. All these acts lead up to Mayday when what was once depicted as a slightly kooky community is now full-fledged creepy. Donning animal masks, community members are seen spying on Sergeant Howie as he makes one last attempt to save Rowan. Merging in and out of the frame, they preface the dramatic processional towards the sacrificial grounds where Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) leads the parade dressed as a manly apparition of a woman. The entire narrative is one big performance enacted by patriarchal figure Lord Summerisle to coherence Sergeant Howie into being the human sacrifice for next year’s fruitful harvest. The virginal, righteous, and Christian Howie becomes the lead character in the performance of a lifetime.
But phallic inferences abound as a way to express that this story is one of regeneration, growth, and fertilization and not resurrection. Until we discover Rowman is still alive, the image of the hare acts as her stand-in thereby referencing the hare’s historical meaning: love (Greek), fertility (Roman and Germanic tribes), and the resurrection (Christianity). The most shocking representational image is simultaneously the one true moment of horror within the film: the appearance of the Wicker Man. Large and looming, this sculpture of death is profoundly terrifying. It’s where Howie’s fears are ultimately realized and its affect palpably reaches the audience via the film’s final performance where Howie frantically prays loudly to his God as the Summerisle community sings in harmony, smiling and satisfied. Unlike hippie culture, their tribe has prevailed over the outside world.
Though rife with problems in the production, editing, and distribution The Wicker Man has since been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of horror movies”. A bold name to be bestowed upon such a strange film but its enduring fascination and horror is undeniable. Perhaps it resonates with us now precisely because it represents something with which we are familiar – ourselves. As a haunting figure, The Wicker Man is a reminder of the inherent survivalistic qualities of human nature and the recognition that society, whether we acknowledge it or not, has the capacity to revert back to more animalistic tendencies when confronted with immediate extinction.