Horror Double Feature – The Wicker Man & The Vanishing
For my horror double feature recommendation this week, I decided to go on a more mysterious route. These two films can be categorized under the phrase “Curiosity Killed The Cat,” in which our protagonists, overcome by an obsessive compulsion to learn the truth, delve deep into their respective mysteries even when all signs tell them otherwise. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (Spoorloos, 1988) both begin with the same premise: a man in search of a woman who has disappeared without a trace. While the films tackle their subject matter in different manners—one dealing with religious fanaticism and the other observing the twisted nature of a single human being—both end with startling and horrific revelations, tapping into the darkest possibilities of the human condition.
The Wicker Man begins with police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) visiting an isolated Scottish island after receiving notice that a young girl by the name of Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper) has gone missing. As soon as Sergeant Howie arrives on land, things immediately appear to be askew. He receives questioning stares from many of the village people, and when he asks about Rowan no one seems to know who she is, but evidence clearly shows that she was a member of their community. As the investigation continues, Sergeant Howie notices strange behaviors that point toward the unusual, including classrooms that teach young students the power of sexuality, and dance circles that involve nude people dancing together hand in hand and singing songs. It doesn’t take much for Sergeant Howie to realize that this is a pagan community, one that preaches its own kind of religion that goes against everything that he himself believes. The apparent leader of this group (or cult) is Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who is just as strange and mysterious as everyone else, and provides few answers to Sergeant Howie’s mounting questions.
The beauty of this film is in the way it presents such a bizarre way of living, and slowly but surely peels off the layers to reveal something incredibly wicked and deranged. At first, it’s easy to say that these people want to be left alone, that they enjoy the kind of life that they have and that they shouldn’t be persecuted for their beliefs. But as the film moves on, as the strange become stranger, we find ourselves alarmed at how frightening the strength of their convictions are, and how far they’ll go to achieve their goals. From the random musical interludes sung by a nude person, to the almost gleeful way the villagers practice their rituals, and finally to the costumed procession, the film moves very deliberately as it leads Sergeant Howie (and the viewer) to the final scene where all questions are answered. It’s like a screw very slowly being twisted further and further, before it can no longer take anymore and eventually snaps. The way in which the pagan community and their actions mirror those of religious extremists in real life is disturbing and upsetting, and makes this film an eerie moviegoing experience.
The Vanishing does not go to the point of large-scale messages about certain groups of people. Instead, its effectiveness lies in its intimacy. We can see how the pieces are supposed to fit, but we can’t quite see the strings that bind them together. This is what haunts the hero of the film, Rex (Gene Bervoets). On a vacation trip with his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), the two decide to take a quick rest stop at a busy gas station. Saskia decides to go in to the store to buy them some drinks, and never returns. For nearly three years, Rex is consumed with what happened to her. He relives the moments time and again, trying to find any kind of clue or hint that can point him to her whereabouts. A photograph that he took shows a very small sight of Saskia’s blonde hair, and this only adds to his torment. Rex becomes so obsessed with what happened to her that his life three years later is strained; even when having found a new girlfriend, he cannot make himself enjoy life with the questions he still has.
We have an idea about what happened to Saskia, and why she never came back with those drinks. But the interesting thing with this movie is that, while we have those assumptions, we don’t want to make ourselves believe that they are accurate. Even when we are introduced to Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a strange man who may or may not have been the one who kidnapped her, we want to think that things must have ended up a different way. Raymond is given much attention in the film, as we watch him, very machine-like, practice and perfect his method of kidnapping. Raymond is a clearly a psychotic, using his modus operandi to feed his sick urges without any remorse, human kindness or decency. It’s obvious that Rex and Raymond are on a collision course toward each other, and as the film relentlessly progressed toward their eventual meeting, I could feel the tension building to a boiling point. We know that Raymond was somehow involved, but to what extent? The entire time building up to Rex and Raymond’s meeting, I wanted Rex to turn back, to let go of the past, because what he’s searching for will only lead to tragedy. But Rex’s obsession is overwhelming; he needs to know the truth so badly that he would be willing to voluntarily step into potential danger just to finally find out what happened to his lost love. In all forms of movie suspense, I never thought that I would be as riveted as I was to see whether or not a cup of coffee would be sipped.
Both The Wicker Man and The Vanishing have shocking and well-known endings, and for those few who have not seen them, I’ll refrain from describing them here. What I will say is that both are extremely unnerving in how unrelenting they are. I knew what was coming, and yet even after experiencing the final scenes, I still found myself highly affected. Both films were able to stick with me long after watching them; even when thinking about it now I’m surprised with how the films stayed true to their own certainties. Perhaps the real twist here is how they each spiral toward their inevitability, taking whatever hopes a viewer may have and dashing them out the window. They both work perfectly in putting the audience directly into the questioning shoes of their leads: oh, you could say that you wouldn’t have done what they did, but if put in the same position, wouldn’t you want to take just one more step to learn the truth?