While The Wicker Man (1973) came from a sexist time in horror cinema and the darkest depths of 70s Britain, its thoughts were far more high-minded than that.
The film places women at its centre and mocks archaic ideas of females and femininity in society at a time when social change was gradually eroding Protestant traditionalism and fermenting revolution.
The story starts as a standard rescue thriller, with a policeman trying to find a missing child on a strange Scottish island.
However, Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie, a religious, virgin, man so determined to free the yokels from their supposed heathen nature, is toyed with mercilessly by shadowy forces and taken down, time and again, by the incredulous women who play him for a fool.
Even the more notorious nudity in the film, not gratuitous due to its need for the plot, exploits Howie and the audience’s expectations. Britt Ekland’s naked dance, part of an attempt to test Howie and his religious resolve, plays with expectations of the male gaze. The Sgt sees Ekland’s Willow only as a sexual being, a temptress and she plays on that power and weakness. She beats the walls, taunting him and plays innocent later. Her naked dance also breaks the fourth wall, facing the audience, reminding them of their role as voyeuristic spectators, while Howie denies himself.
For Howie women are there as objects. He rages at Diane Cilento’s Miss Rose for teaching about the meaning of the May Pole to children and becomes even more frustrated when she and the children in the class mock him for his ignorance and arrogance. The female children laugh in his face as he makes suggestions of how they should act.
He also sees the child he wants to save, Gerry Cowper’s Rowan Morrison, as a princess in the tower, ready for himself, a man of the law with God on his side, to arrive. It never occurs to him that she would not want to be saved or he would be a fool, as an outsider, to try.
The island puts women as its beating heart and admires society working together, and with nature.
You could argue that Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle’s May Day outfit, of a dress, is a nod to his own position in all this – a man trying to take control of a situation that is beyond him and, possibly, one he does not believe in at all.
Director Robin Hardy’s film is a multi-layered piece and one that benefits from multiple viewings. It’s music, thoughtfulness and shock ending make it something as powerful on the second or third viewing as its first.