Pleasure, horror, and The Wicker Man
Sergeant Howie (Woodward), a Scottish police officer who also happens to be a devout Christian, travels to a remote island off the Scottish coast to investigate the apparent disappearance of a young girl. He quickly discovers that the locals have some rather unusual habits. They engage in various ancient pagan rituals, and pagan art and symbols are on display everywhere. Sexuality is spoken of, and practiced, in startlingly frank and open ways (heterosexual only, but this film was made 42 years ago). The repressed and priggish Howie finds all this rather offensive and disturbing, but pursues his investigation. Eventually he meets the community leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who explains that his grandfather had revived ancient Celtic paganism among the people in connection with introducing new strains of fruit which made the island prosperous.
Howie suspects that the girl whose disappearance he is investigating is being held somewhere to be used as a human sacrifice. As a major pagan ritual event is under way, he infiltrates the site, only to be unmasked. The pagans had tricked him into coming there so that they could.....
.....and then comes one of the most jarring shock endings in film history, as the charming and hedonistic pagans turn murderous. They force Howie into a huge wicker structure in the form of a man (hence the title) and burn him alive. He, not the missing girl, is their human sacrifice.
Not only is this almost too horrific to watch, it achieves a remarkable flipping in the viewer's perception of the characters. The annoyingly prudish and judgmental Howie instantly becomes a figure of profound sympathy, while the carefree pagans, dancing and singing as their atrocity proceeds, look like insane monsters.
The film interests me for several reasons. Until you reach the ending, it evokes, to some extent, the dream of what the modern world might have become if Christianity had never existed (I doubt the ancient Celtic world was quite this sexually liberated -- casual sex gets a bit problematical without reliable contraception). But the ending too has an important lesson, which is connected with the reason why modern pagans and "neo-pagans" don't commit human sacrifices.
I don't know whether ancient Celtic pagans actually sacrificed people by burning them alive (the Carthaginians did, though under circumstances quite different than those depicted here). Ancient pagan northern Europeans certainly did commit human sacrifice, often by stabbing or strangulation, and plenty of corpses have been found in peat bogs which preserved them down to modern times. The Christian fanatics of the Dark Ages routinely burned people alive, not as sacrifices but as punishment for witchcraft, heresy, and the like. And in modern times ISIS used this method to murder captured Jordanian pilot Mu'âdh al-Kassâsbah, and has performed many other horrifying ritualistic killings.
What did all these people -- pagan, Christian, and Muslim -- have in common? They were true believers. They believed, fervently, in the literal truth of the religions they practiced.
In recent decades there's been an increased interest in paganism, with Druidic rituals being practiced at Stonehenge and a temple to the old Norse gods being built in Iceland, while syncretistic "neo-pagan" religions like Wicca and Thelema claim hundreds of thousands of adherents in many countries. But no one seems to think this is dangerous; nobody who visits to observe the rituals at Stonehenge worries that he's going to be strangled and thrown into a peat bog.
The reason is that these modern pagan systems are more a matter of ritual and feeling a connection with ancient tradition (and having fun) than of actual belief. Do modern enthusiasts of Norse paganism, for example, believe in the literal existence of Thor and Odin the same way ISIS believes in the literal existence of Allah? I find that awfully hard to imagine. And that's why they're not dangerous. You don't commit atrocities for the sake of a god that you know is really just a traditional symbol, a projection of human passions, and not a living entity.
The charm of The Wicker Man's islanders is that for most of the movie they look like the same kind of people. This is a place where something vaguely like Wicca or the Stonehenge revelry has become normative and evolved into a whole culture. It's only when you reach the ending that you realize that's not what it is at all -- these people really believe this stuff. And that's what makes the horror possible.
In this scene earlier in the film, the culture clash comes to the surface as Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, who explains how the island got the way it is. The pagan leader's urbane and civilized manner contrasts with Howie's bigoted fury, but towards the end he shows a hint of fervor that adumbrates something dangerous.
One more video (NSFW): In Howie's most-human moment except for the ending, he struggles to resist an almost-irresistible pagan temptation -- writhing in the torment of fighting against his own human nature which he has been taught is sin.