Poster for The Wicker Man (1973)
Jesse Pasternack looks at the musical aspects of the unsettling horror masterwork The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man (1973) is an enduring cult classic for several reasons. It has a fantastic sense of worldbuilding, an excellent cast of iconic actors (Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, etc.), and a finale that has to be seen to be believed. But what gives it a unique character all its own is that, unlike many other horror films, it is a musical. In addition, it’s not just any musical, but a diegetic folk musical.
The movie begins with its prudish protagonist Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flying into Summerisle, a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Sergeant Howie has been assigned to find a missing girl named Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), but the island’s inhabitants claim to not know her. As Sergeant Howie explores the community, he discovers that its inhabitants have been practicing a type of Celtic paganism since the 19th century and frequently burst into folk songs, most of which are related to their culture. Sergeant Howie comes to believe that the quirky locals are plotting something sinister, but doesn’t learn their true plan until it is too late.
Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie
It might be useful to take a moment to note that you don’t find a lot of horror musicals in cinema. Most of the ones that do exist are adaptations of stage musicals, like Little Shop of Horrors (1986) or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Those films often show their theatrical roots by having characters break into song with music that plays “non-diegetically,” which means that the music is not being played onscreen. “Diegetic” musicals are ones in which the characters perform their own music, which more often than not means that most of them are about professional musicians, like Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) or Nashville (1975). So a horror musical that is diegetic, and one with characters who are amateur musicians, is especially rare indeed.
You might expect that the diegetic folk performances (of songs that were all composed by Paul Giovanni for the film) are just there to be entertaining. They are, but they also serve other purposes. These performances accentuate the anachronistic nature of Summerisle by making all of the residents feel like they’re living in a much earlier time given the archaic quality of their music. They also make the villagers seem more quirky than dangerous, which makes the third act more shocking.
These performances are even more useful from a thematic standpoint, as established by the first one, which occurs when Sergeant Howie visits the local inn. Suddenly, one of the bar patrons starts playing a mini-accordion as another patron begins singing a bawdy song called “The Landlord’s Daughter” in praise of the beautiful Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland), daughter of the inn’s owner, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp). Slowly, some of the other villagers start accompanying the singer on instruments which range from a violin to a mini-recorder. Instead of being embarrassed by the song, as a woman who shares Sergeant Howie’s puritanical values might be, Willow is delighted and participates in a dance with some of them. This lively performance only ends when Sergeant Howie interrupts it to make an announcement about Martin’s disappearance. This scene condenses the basic conflict of the movie — between the earthy locals and the strait-laced protagonist — into the span of a few minutes, and foreshadows all of the variations on that conflict to come.
Britt Ekland dancing to “The Landlord’s Daughter”
Most of those variations come in the form of how Sergeant Howie reacts to the villagers performances of their folk songs. He bristles at Willow’s attempt to seduce him as she sings in another room, gawks at the locals’ rituals (most of which involve them singing), and expresses as much disgust as he can. It’s fitting that he doesn’t sing until the end because it makes his disapproval of Summerisle’s culture even stronger if he doesn’t connect to music itself. In the end, he does try to fight back against the villagers’ plan by singing Psalm 24 to demonstrate his strong faith in Christianity. But, like all good musicals, The Wicker Man has a great closing number and the islanders’ performance of it drowns out Sergeant Howie’s voice. That song they perform, “Summer is Icumen In,” perfectly encapsulates what makes The Wicker Man’s diegetic musical performances and the film itself so great: beautiful music, a creepy aura, and a strangely singular power all its own.