Since 1973, various horror films have tried to replicate the shock of the prototypical human sacrifice movie, The Wicker Man (not to be confused with its gonzo 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage, which is perhaps best remembered for the immortal, memeified line, “Not the bees!”) Even the late Robin Hardy, director of the original Wicker Man, went back to the well in 2011 with The Wicker Tree. Most movies, including that one, have failed to recapture the terror of the iconic moment when the protagonist turned sacrificial victim burns alive, surrounded by cult members. However, the 2010s have been bookended by a number of interesting horror films, each of which has managed to reframe the Wicker Man model in different ways.

One of those films, Midsommar, hits Blu-Ray on October 8. Writer-director Ari Aster has called Midsommar “an apocalyptic break-up movie.” Speaking with Empire, he talked about how he tried to avoid The Wicker Man‘s influence, saying, “I think what [Midsommar] tries to do is point to The Wicker Man and set up expectations native to that film, then take a left-turn from there and go somewhere surprising.”

That’s a quote that could apply to other films on this list, too. Of course, this man made of wicker is not escaped easily. In some ways, he’s like the Gingerbread Man: every horror movie that deals in similar tropes seems to be chasing him. Here, we’ll chase The Wicker Man back through his own movie, then back through Midsommar and five other horror films of the 2010s. How have recent fright flicks approached the timeless subject of secret cults and human sacrifice?

Note: to really do a full comparison between these movies and The Wicker Man, we’ll need to delve into spoilers, so if there’s a film you haven’t seen, go watch it first, then come back to that section on the list below.

The Lone “Fool-Victim” in The Wicker Man (1973)

In The Wicker Man, the protagonist, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), comes to the secluded Summerisle alone. That’s a key difference between him and the protagonists of most of the other movies we’ll be talking about here. Howie actually flies his own police seaplane in, with no partner or co-pilot. He then broadcasts his arrival with a megaphone.

At the Green Man Inn, where he goes for room and board, Howie wastes no time breaking up the party and telling the islanders that he’s there “on official business.” As he pursues his investigation into the disappearance of a girl named Rowan, he does so without allies. It leads only to his undoing, not anyone else’s.

Throughout the movie, Howie is continually aghast at the expressions of Celtic paganism he sees among the islanders. At night, he frowns upon their bawdy tavern songs, only to go for a walk and witness couples having sex in public. In the morning, he sees boys gathering around the maypole, singing about trees and birds and human reproduction, while in a nearby classroom, a teacher instructs the girls that the maypole is a phallic symbol.

Through flashbacks, we see the churchgoing Howie act as a Gospel reader and partake of communion wafers and wine. In his room at the inn, he kneels and says his prayers before bed. However, despite his officious manner — or perhaps because of it — he is tempted by the siren’s song. In this case, the siren’s voice belongs to the innkeeper’s buxom daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, overdubbed by Annie Ross), who dances naked in the next room while singing to him and knocking on the wall.

It’s a memorable sequence in this strange folk horror musical, second only to the shocking conclusion where the titular wicker man makes his appearance. The morning after her naked song-and-dance number, Willow laments to Howie, “I thought you were going to come and see me last night. I invited you.” He mentions that he’s engaged to be married, but it’s not even clear, in the context of the 88-minute theatrical cut, if this is just an excuse or if he really has a fiancee waiting for him back on the mainland. Either way, he says he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.

The funny thing is, this is what seals his doom. The Wicker Man predated John Carpenter’s Halloween by half a decade, but in retrospect, it offers up a fascinating inversion of the slasher-movie trope that Halloween helped propagate, whereby the promiscuous die and the virgin lives.

Scottish policemen don’t fit the final-girl archetype. It’s his insistence on standing apart from the islanders in hypocritical reproach, despite sharing their lustful nature, that ultimately condemns Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man. Numerous times, they warn him off of the May Day celebration. He’s meddling in affairs that his Christian-centric brain lacks the capacity to understand. In the end, the people he’s judged come together and judge him as “one of the great fool-victims of history.” When he meets his martyrdom, he’s isolated from the group, which sways happily as the wicker man goes up in flames with him and other sacrificial animals inside it.

Sacrifice as Breakup Revenge in Midsommar

Of all the films on this list, Midsommar is the one with perhaps the most consistent emotional through line. That’s presuming one is able to identify with the sweet but wounded main character, Dani, played by Florence Pugh. All it takes to identify with her is a bit of empathy, and really, that’s what this movie is about. The fiery sacrifice Midsommar builds up to is more about Dani letting go of a bad relationship, finding profound, crazed empathy in a new community after losing her family.

From the very beginning, Dani’s boyfriend, Christian, seems wholly uninvested in their relationship. To his grad school friends, she’s clingy and calls him on the phone too much. They encourage him to break up with her, but she’s going through a lot: first, dealing with a mentally ill sister, then, dealing with a horrific murder-suicide that leaves her parents and sister dead in a house filled with carbon monoxide.

Dani has an intuition that something is wrong but Christian isn’t emotionally present enough to take her concerns seriously. He’s only there for her out of half-assed obligation. He and his friends even plan a trip to an isolated rural commune in Sweden without telling her. There’s a moment when she sits down and starts talking to Pelle, the Swedish guy who invited them, and it feels like the first time that someone really sees her and is fully engaged by her presence. Later, Pelle will ask her if she’s ever “felt held,” his words ringing with insight, because she plainly doesn’t have the love and support she needs.

In the commune, which is home to — you guessed it — a human-sacrificing cult, Dani and the boys witness two elders leap to their deaths from a cliff. One of them survives the fall, which immediately sets off empathetic wails in the crowd of cultists. Naked women also stand around and moan empathetically as Christian works to impregnate a girl from the commune. When Dani catches him in the act, they kneel on the floor with her and share her cries of anguish, their faces displaying raw, powerful emotion in direct contrast to Christian’s characteristic, blank-eyed expression.

It’s a gut-wrenching scene. We’ve just seen Dani dancing around the maypole, being crowned the May Queen like Rowan in The Wicker Man, but now her boyfriend has casually betrayed her, just as he casually betrayed one of his friends when he decided to steal his thesis. By the end, we’re so caught up in the delirium of Midsommar and Dani’s plight that it feels like poetic justice when we see the appropriately named sacrifice victim, Christian, stuffed into a bearskin and set on fire.

On some deranged level, it’s his rightful comeuppance. Decked in flowers, Dani’s gone from vulnerable to vengeful, but she manages a smile. Were it not for the fact that several other people died — and the fact that Christian is supposed to be someone Dani loves — this almost might qualify as a happy ending.

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