I can’t be the first person to notice the parallels between 1973’s The Wicker Man and 2019’s Midsommar, but I am not going to research it for fear of finding I having nothing original or interesting to say. The premise of each movie is the same: a stranger from the modern world encounters an isolated European Neo-pagan fertility cult and its solstice celebrations, with horrific consequences.
The difference between the two movies is in the representatives of the modern world, or rather, in how the modern world and its residents have changed in the last fifty years. In The Wicker Man the modern protagonist is a dutiful, rationalistic, and pious policeman. He is the sort of man who can sincerely claim to believe in God, King and Country. His philosophy of life was, of course, already collapsing in the Britain of the 1970s. An unironic monarchist and Anglican, he would already have been a distinct minority in his own nation, an object of fun to anyone under 30. In that way The Wicker Man can be seen as illustration of the end of Christian, rationalist Western Civilization, and a return the chaotic and ecstatic elements of the old mythologies.
In Midsommar the representatives of the modern world, American grad students, believe in nothing. One of them has some academic ambitions, the rest are grad students because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. They call each other friends but there is no apparent affection between them. Two of the students are a couple with little love and no sexual chemistry, the young woman stuck to the man because she is too fragile to be alone and has nowhere else to go, the young man stuck to her out of guilt.
When they encounter the Neo-pagan cult, they have no grounds on which to resist. They witness a gory euthanasia ritual and can formulate no moral objection; yes, they are shaken, but tell themselves they need to be open-minded to foreign cultures. The young people enjoy recreational drugs and casual sex (even if the main boy-girl relationship is basically sexless) and hope to get some from the cultists, but they can’t understand that for the cultists nothing is recreational: psychedelics and sex are rituals with a purely communal and religious significance. The cultists have no private, individual lives; the American grad students have no culture or community.
The Wicker Man ends on a sort of Pascal’s wager: one cannot tell from the end of the film who was wrong and who was right, whether the pagan or Christian-rationalist world view is correct, or at least more adequate for human life. The horrific ending can be interpreted as positive from each perspective and the long-term consequences of the act are not revealed. There is no such ambiguity in Midsommar: contemporary culture is utterly useless and the victory of paganism is complete. While Wicker Man is a conflict between two powerful worldviews, Midsommar is a conflict between a powerful worldview and… nothing.
Of the two, Midsommar is the better film, layered with themes of mental health, community, and male – female dynamics. It is a classic of the horror genera.