This witch is not suitable for children.
The 2006 remake of The Wicker Man is not a great film. In fact, it’s notoriously a pretty bad one. The flashback sequences are tacky, the jump scares are cheap, and Nicholas Cage’s performance as policeman Edward Malus is genuinely weird. Funnier writers than I have already catalogued the abundance of cinematic sins found within this movie.
But here’s the thing: this horror movie really is unsettling. The core premise, which sees a policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl in an isolated island community, is inherently strong, and the shoddiness of the film often makes things feel even stranger. Did the filmmakers do any of this deliberately? Probably not – but that’s how cult films are born!
So, Nicholas Cage arrives on a creepy island and begins looking for the missing girl, who he suspects may be his daughter. His ex-fiancée, Willow, seems incapable of giving him any direct answers about what might have happened, and the rest of the townsfolk actively refuse to cooperate with his investigation. It’s as if the townsfolk are operating under some sort of hive mind – an obvious metaphor, as the island is covered with beehives.
The witch here is Sister Summersisle, matriarch of the neo-pagan society. She claims to be the earthly representative of “the great mother goddess who rules [the] island,” serving as the spiritual leader (or queen bee) of the community. The movie never calls her a witch, but she tells Cage that her ancestors hailed from Salem, fleeing persecution before settling on their island home. As played by Ellen Burstyn, Sister Summersisle is calm, confident and calculating, utterly unflinching in the face of Cage’s increasing frustration. Does she really believe in magic? At the midway point of the film, it’s difficult to know for sure.
Well, if you know just one scene from The Wicker Man, it’ll be this one: Nicholas Cage screaming “not the bees!” while animal-masked cultists break his legs and pour bees onto his face. Yes, it was a trap all along – the girl wasn’t missing at all! Last year’s harvest was a failure, and only the sacrifice of an outsider will restore honey to the hives. Nicholas Cage is hoisted to the top of the wicker man (its wooden limbs acting as cages for other sacrificial animals – very cool) while Sister Summersisle makes her appeal to the gods and goddesses of nature. The wicker man is set alight, and Cage is burnt to death.
And for all its ridiculousness, the nonchalance of the townsfolk as they watch the policeman die is actually pretty chilling.
Of course, it’s all a remake of the superior 1973 film of the same name, directed by Robin Hardy. The original film still isn’t particularly scary – there’s far too much folk music in it for that – but the clash of faiths between Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) and the pagan Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee) makes for a far more compelling story, as the devout Christian policeman is forced to confront increasingly bizarre customs and ceremonies as his stay on the island continues. (One of these ceremonies actually generates some genuine tension, when Howie, disguised as part of a carnival procession, must place his head into a deadly ring of swords.) It all ends in the same way, with the townsfolk merrily singing another folk song as Howie slowly roasts.
I really like Lord Summersisle. He’s a weirdly unorthodox antagonist: a charismatic English lord who talks casually of appeasing old, wild gods. Can he also be called a witch? I’m not entirely sure – which is why Sister Summersisle’s connection to Salem made her the main focus of this post. I do think men can be witches though, as long as they’re identified as such, and as long as they display certain witchy tropes. Organising a blood sacrifice to heal your failing orchards? That’s witchy enough for me!
So, if you’re in the mood for a good story and some slow-burn scares, I recommend The Wicker Man from 1973. If you’re in the mood for some ridiculous jump scares and some unintentional hilarity, I recommend The Wicker Man from 2006. At this stage they’re both cult films, so you’ll get some decent talking points from either one.
Or you could just watch this helpful montage of Nicholas Cage’s truly outrageous performance. Enjoy!
— Horror films fascinate me, because they challenge the viewer to suffer, and also because there are so many subgenres for the daring viewer to conquer. I adore the old Universal horror films – especially Dracula (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – but by modern standards, those films are hardly scary at all. Modern classics like Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980), and The Exorcist (1973) are all good movies, but they too failed to scare me, which in turn failed to make me feel brave for watching them. Slasher films, however, are my weakness. I’ve already suffered through Friday the 13th (1980), and I’m building up to watching Halloween (1978), which is apparently the scariest slasher film of all. Wish me luck.
— The Wicker Man (2006) doesn’t fit in with any of those films, though. I’d say its subgenre is “cash-grab remake,” which puts it alongside movies like House of Wax (2005) and The Amityville Horror (2005). I watched those last two films as a teenager, and even then I thought they were pretty bad – but still fun to watch with friends!
— I’ve deliberately omitted a few films from the paragraphs above – the witchy ones, of course! We’ll be hearing about all those movies as the Year of the Witch rolls on. But be warned: one of them is my pick for the scariest horror film of all time.
— Last year, the band Radiohead released a single called “Burn the Witch,” with a stop-motion music video inspired by the original Wicker Man. I love the song (I love most Radiohead songs), and the video aptly captures the creepy inevitability of the film – even though it’s being acted out with cute wooden dolls. It’s The Wicker Man, but for kids!
— A pro tip: the infamous “not the bees!” scene is an alternative ending only available on the DVD release. I missed out on it when I first watched the film, and I’d hate for you to face that same disappointment.
— Do you remember when I said that Jessica Lange was one of only 23 people to have won the Triple Crown of Acting? Well, Ellen Burstyn has also earnt that achievement. She was also in The Exorcist, so her horror credentials are a lot stronger than her appearance here would indicate.
— And let’s not even start on what a horror icon Christopher Lee is. Suffice to say, the man was one of the greats.
— Sister Summersisle is an important witch for me because she makes explicit a certain element of witchcraft that I’ve been pursuing in my own writing. I don’t want to say what it is just yet – it might ruin a surprise later in my series – but for all the schlockiness of the remake, I do think it gets certain things right.
— Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube link to the last shot of the original film, which really is pretty spectacular. Haunting, even. Highly recommended – seek it out if you can.