I've been watching some horror films that play with the imagery of paganism/satan worship/cults recently and they're, well, as uneven as any horror genre. I love the goofy renfaire manifestation of the "divine feminine" cult in The Love Witch, and The Lair of the White Worm is just delightfully horny and chaotic with young Hugh Grant AND Peter Capaldi. I found The Devil Rides Out to just be extremely boring, and The Wicker Man was fun, but idk, I don't really get the common interpretation that the depiction of the rural cult (and the depictions of these pagan cults in folk horror in general) are meant to come across as like, somewhat interesting or sympathetic.
I've talked about it before, but a big reason why these depictions of cults are like, straightforwardly unsympathetic to me is that minus the public nudity they generally have the same racial and gender mores, conformity-oriented ideology, and hell, even many of the aesthetic fundamentals of like, an evangelical lutheran church camp (the overwhelming presence of sex is still there but purely as a shadowy set of implications that can only harshly punish or "reward"). It's not some "ah but, maybe would be nice up until the human sacrifice part" thing to me, it's like, a thing you can go do now, and I just got tired of it. It's kind of like how people said the satanists in Sabrina were just goth flavor Catholics, of course any effective cult would hit the same emotional and moral registers re: harmony and "the good life" as Christianity, which has generally been a widespread and reliable cultural scaffolding for manipulation and abuse.
Also any place where you can expect to encounter a live mournful acoustic ballad at any hour of the day is indeed my own personal hell.
I think the actually interesting thing The Wicker Man does is highlight how short-term these apparent "ancient traditions" are, and how artificially they were imposed on the population of the island, literally by the guy who owns it, as a way to keep them in line growing idk some form of mega-honeycrisp apple cultivar for him. This is what I think is the thing the movie really bashes you over the head with: this guy who literally, generationally owns the means of production, and creates an environment of unsustainable extraction and reduced contingency eventually has to come up with a plan to deal with some sort of disruption, depleted resources, slipping standard of living, etc. What he decides to do is obvious: convince the people he exploits on the island as a part of this system that they have to throw someone who questions or challenges his authority into a ritual bonfire for their island to "work" again.
"Market cosplay - a situation where the ceremonial performance of a phantasmagoric ideal market becomes more and more important as it bears less and less relation to real economic activity. I'm excited for the next step of just imprisoning people in a giant wicker model of the New York Stock Exchange and then setting it on fire."
I was recently re-reading one of Stephen's pieces, and while I always had a cultural background noise type awareness of what the Wicker Man metaphor he uses here was implying, I was surprised by how on the nose it played out in the actual film. Whether it's a question of God vs. gods or Science vs. Religion or whatever other dichotomies that occur so blatantly in the text is kind of irrelevant to me, because fables are never literal!
What's really interesting to me is that, when the main character begins to sense the increasing inevitability of being the human sacrifice for that year, he tries to save his own ass by proposing, both to the cult leader and his followers, that destroying him won't truly solve the problem; the people will turn on the leader at the next crisis. And this is what "revenge capitalism" consistently bets against. The masses will be satiated and conformity reinforced by spectacularized sacrifice of "bad actors" (via borders, the prison system, the disciplining and mockery of the gender non-conforming, encouraging self-blame over things like unwellness, lack of success, etc) rather than turning against their charismatic leader together.
Will they, when the next time comes, probably in around 6 months? Probably not. And this is probably why the ending is so bleak. The utterly deluded and conscripted life on island is "good," even as ie the availability of food slips it presents an overwhelming image of the pastoral, back-to-nature fantasy. But the fantasy of "going back-to-nature" is always darkly accompanied by how patently unnatural it is to act like you can, and how much it relies on the enforcement of a specific and historically contingent social reproduction of race, gender and class hierarchy as "natural," at the penalty of death. Plus the music really, really sucks. I've done my time with acoustic guitars and I'm not going back.