A policeman flies to a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing child, and every single person he meets acts so suspiciously that quite frankly if I had been in his shoes I would have hopped back in my airplane and flown the hell away from Crazy Town while I still had a chance.
Because we all know what the Wicker Man is going to be about, right? They burn people. That's what a wicker man is for. Sorry. Spoilers.
Anyway, the people are straight up bizarre. He asks them very simple questions, and they give him such a run around that it's actually infuriating to be a spectator to all of this. They lie to his face and while it's understandable that he's upset, he probably could have been a little less openly contemptuous of everything about them. These are the kind of things you come to regret when you're burning to death in a giant wicker structure.
As our friend the copper does his investigating, he comes to learn that all of the people on the island worship the old gods. And not the cool ones like the gods who live in trees on Game of Thrones, but the ones that make you have weird slow motion orgies to lame music (a phrase one can use worryingly often when describing 1970s films) and ritually sacrifice virgins. Give me the Many-Faced God any day.
You probably don't need proof that these people are seriously messed up. But just in case you're a skeptic, I present this one thoroughly uncomfortable chain of events.
1.) Policeman asks local landlord, who is coincidentally skeevy af, for a room.
2.) Landlord asks his unrealistically attractive daughter to take the cop to his room.
3.) The crowd that is gathered erupts without warning into a bawdy musical number about screwing the landlord's daughter.
4.) The landlord is supremely entertained by this, even though it's about his own daughter. The girl in question is also apparently a big fan of the little ditty.
This movie is already just so bizarre and they haven't even started burning anyone yet.
Anyway, the more Howie the Policeman skulks around, he finds evidence that the missing little girl does exist, despite literally everyone on the island's efforts to convince of the contrary. All the schoolchildren and teachers swear that they've never heard of her even though her name is on the teacher's list of students, stuff like that. Pretty sloppy, to be honest. Not an A+ cover-up as these things go.
Howie's detective work leads him to believe that the girl is slated to be sacrificed as part of the community's yearly harvest festival. He promptly informs the group's leader (a politely menacing Christopher Lee) of his intentions to report this to his colleagues back home and return with reinforcements.
Then he's super surprised when his airplane is mysteriously sabotaged and he has no way of escaping the island. If I was him, I probably would have been all like, "Cool, everything checks out to me, definitely no nefarious schemes around here." But then again, that's probably why I usually don't get burned alive inside giant wicker structures.
Stuck on the island, he has no choice but to infiltrate the harvest festival and try to find the girl. Meanwhile, everyone is running around in these horrifying pagan animal masks, and there's nothing ok about this at all.
He does succeed in finding little Rowan, but she's not so much an innocent victim about to be sacrificed so these weirdos can net a bountiful crop of apples from the Fruit Gods. In fact, she's actually bait. That's right.
Apparently, Howie the Policeman is the one they want for the barbecue, not Rowan. Christopher Lee sent the anonymous letter asking Howie to investigate Rowan's disappearance to lure him to the island. They've had their eye on him for a long time, and based on their weirdly specific rules, he's the perfect candidate for ritual sacrifice.
He came to them willingly, has "the power of a king" (as a police officer, he represents the royal crown), is a fool (to sneak into their party undetected, he wore the costume of Punch, the Fool), and is a virgin. That's a pretty tall order, but I guess their gods must be picky. Also, the idea of the victim having to be a virgin is probably a first for a horror film.
Which brings up a very good question: if they needed Howie to be a virgin, why was there this long extended sequence with a nude Britt Ekland trying to seduce him? It's almost like the ritualistic seduction scene was just a cheap ploy to get her to take her clothes off. No, that's can't be it.
And so Howie the Virgin Policeman is burnt. And to be totally fair, the image of him seeing the giant wicker man for the first time is really effective. You can see him fully realize what's about to happen to him, and it's probably the best moment of the film.
Then he goes into this whole big Christian thing where he prays and recites psalms and honestly I'm not that into it. Not because I hate Christianity or anything like that, it's just that after all the ridiculous and harmful things that the people in this film have done in the name of their gods, I'm not exactly in a mindset to be particularly receptive to grand religious overtures. I don't know how I was supposed to feel about him dramatically turning to Jesus, but at this point I was basically just done with religion in general.
So that's The Wicker Man. It's super dated, but also has some pretty effective moments in it that may help modern audiences move past some of its hokier elements. The best thing the movie has going for it is that it isn't so much scary as it is supremely off-putting.
The entire island is so cheerfully strange that even though it's obvious that very bad things are going on, the peaceful hippie veneer keeps you off balance throughout the entire film. Christopher Lee is very well-used here, as the wealthy grandson of the sect's founder who has the community's best interests at heart, even when it comes to ritual sacrifice. He never actually comes off as particularly evil or even intimidating, so it's an interesting use of Lee as the well-intentioned but ultimately malevolent villain of the piece.
In the end, Lee plus the iconic image of the giant wicker man are what make the movie work.