The motive force behind the pervasive silliness of The Wicker Man (1973) is the uncomfortable plausibility of its plot. Therein lays its (pagan) power and cult status.
It’s the tale of Police Sergeant Neil Howie’s (Edward Woodward) visit to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle. He’s looking for a missing girl. Howie, a dedicated officer and devout Christian, is outraged to discover that the isle’s inhabitants are actively engaged in Celtic paganism.
(Other films, notably The Magus, offer an isolated island as an alien landscape, untethered from modern society and religion. Our thoughts on love, life and justice have no place in a land ruled by older, if not ancient precepts, born in darker times).
The town people (including newbie Britt Ekland as a dangerous nymphet), in effect, belong to a Manson-like cult, headed by Lord Summerisle, played with devilish merriment by Christopher Lee. This is Rod Serling territory, who never tired – and rightly so – of suggesting how easily a group of people, be they in a corporation, village, city, or country, may eagerly embrace the beliefs of a deadly, charismatic leader.
The Wicker Man has often been referred to as the Citizen Kane of horror films, perhaps suggesting that both films have a kind of internal logic and vision that is well served by their respective directors – in the case of Wicker, Robin Hardy.
In fact, Hardy presents the evil so casually, that at first it is the poor police sergeant who seems odd.
For that is how great cult films work: viewers are manipulated in unaccustomed ways that gradually throw the whole thing off balance, forcing new perspectives, disrupting expectations and conclusions – and reaching an end that isn’t necessarily satisfactory – but somehow inevitable. Just like life.