By Daniel Kraus

When I was a kid in the early '80s, late-night cable TV was still an unpredictable no-man’s land, and you could never predict what obscure gems someone would decide to run on a given evening. I shall never forget the night I saw the end of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man. I was too young to really understand it, but quite old enough to identify stone-cold terror when I saw it.

For years, I grew up unsure of whether the frightening image of a man being led to a giant wicker man by a carnival of freaks and then burned alive was a real memory or just a bad dream. Then, in 1994, I saw the Scottish thriller Shallow Grave, and a TV in the background of one scene was playing my traumatic scene! I could hardly wait for the closing credits, which properly identified the film as The Wicker Man. My relief was immense; I was not crazy after all.

With this month’s release of the Limited Edition DVD, The Wicker Man is finally getting the attention it deserves as one of the most intelligent, creative and honestly terrifying films ever made. It is what co-star Christopher Lee calls, "the best film I’ve ever been in [and] the best part I’ve ever had." It also allegedly made Rod Stewart, the then-boyfriend of co-star Britt Eklund, try to buy the film outright so that it would never been seen. None of this is surprising—The Wicker Man is totally unlike any film that has ever been made, an unsettling experience that is very hard to shake.

It’s about a small island off the coast of Scotland called Summerisle—a community that, while ostensibly modern, maintains its very own culture and traditions, rooted in the ancient pagan gods. Investigating a missing Summerisle girl named Rowan Morrison, stuffy Christian police officer Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to Summerisle and begins poking around.

He is greeted with indifference. The townsfolk are kind, but say they’ve never seen the girl before. Howie soon finds that, quite to the contrary, she was a student at their school. The townsfolk suddenly "remember" and say, "Oh, yes, she died a few months ago." Howie exhumes the grave, only to find a rabbit buried there instead of a girl.

Enraged, he demands satisfaction from the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who simply suggests Howie leave town before tomorrow’s big May Day celebration. But Howie sticks around and blends in, as the entire community dons strange masks and parades to the coast, where different sacrifices of food and beer are given to the sea—in hopes that next year’s crops will be better.

Rowan Morrison is finally revealed and Howie rushes to her rescue, only to find that she is not the intended sacrifice—he is. Howie is carried to the Wicker Man and burned alive.

What is most immediately impressive about The Wicker Man is how real Summerisle is—there is so much lavish attention to detail that the movie almost feels more like a documentary than a horror film. Nothing feels staged; it is as if we have stumbled across an annual art fair at some isolated little town—and the townsfolk are not looking kindly upon our intrusion. As he wanders around the island, Howie comes across a myriad of May Day preparations—decorating crews, dancers and singers. Each song is beautiful and eerie and feels as if it’s 1000 years old, not the creation of modern filmmakers.

Everything about the pagan May Day ceremony is based on sex. The songs the little boys sing are about impregnating women, as they dance with ribbons around the May Pole—which, as the female schoolteacher explains to her little girl pupils, "represents the phallic symbol, the image of a penis." The phallus is everywhere on the island, from carved phallic hedges to birdhouses.

Meanwhile, young ladies practice a nude dance, jumping over the fire, in hopes that the fire will impregnate them. There are other, more surreal moments of sexual expression—in creepy slow motion, Howie passes a dozen couples having sex in the nighttime grass; in the graveyard, he passes a woman breastfeeding, holding an egg in one hand; in the local pub, the old men sing a lascivious song about "the landlord’s daughter." Not coincidentally, this is right before the landlord’s daughter (Eklund) performs a wild nude dance, stomping around and slapping her ass, trying to seduce the wholesome Howie, who barely resists.

All of this infuriates the morally indignant policeman, who resorts to dressing up as "The Fool" in order to save Rowan. But his quest has become less about justice and more about defending his Christianity, and it is this theme that is richest in The Wicker Man. As "a willing, king-virgin-fool," Howie becomes the perfect sacrifice.

As he is carried to the Wicker Man, Howie tries to debunk their gods, drawing attention to how fantastical and improbable the gods’ fables are. At the same time, though, this draws attention to how fantastical his own Christian stories are.

Howie is given a martyred death fitting of his own Christ, and as he is led the final few steps to the Wicker Man, his cries become overtly religious—"Oh, my God!" "Christ!" "Jesus!" As the Wicker Man burns and the Summerisle community joins hands and sings a cheery song together, Howie recites madly from the Bible—indeed, the perfect sacrifice.

With startling sexual imagery behind every door, the harmless, windswept, wide-open space of Summerisle becomes more and more suffocating, as we are put in the position of the morally asphyxiating Howie. It is a movie that finds its terror in disorientation. As it goes along, Summerisle feels less and less like a place we recognize and more and more like hostile ground. Things stop making sense—candles made out of human hands, life-sized men made out of bread, fornicating puppets—but it no longer matters because we have come to believe in every single bit of it.

Summerisle is real, and we’re NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THERE.