The Wicker Man

The final cut

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Returning in a new restoration to mark its 40th anniversary, The Wicker Man is a cult classic of left-field British horror whose reputation has only deepened over the decades. The film’s most obvious cheerleaders in contemporary cinema are Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright—who paid indirect homage in their fanboy genre spoof Hot Fuzz—as well as the acclaimed comedy thriller director Ben Wheatley, who tapped a similar seam of pagan weirdness in Kill List and Sightseers. Teasingly dubbed The Final Cut, this latest digitally restored edit returns to theaters later just in time for Halloween.

Loosely inspired by David Pinner’s novel Ritual, which itself began as a rejected screenplay for Death Wish director Michael Winner, the script was written by Sleuth author Anthony Shaffer and directed by young first-timer Robin Hardy. TV tough guy Edward Woodward, later to find U.S. fame as The Equalizer, plays Howie, a straitlaced and devoutly Christian policeman investigating the apparent ritual murder of a young girl on a remote Scottish island, which is run as a kind of giant free-love hippie commune by the saturnine Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Thwarted at every turn by the cheerfully unhelpful islanders, whose pagan worship of nudity and sexuality arouses conflicted passions inside him, Howie learns too late that he has been lured into a terrifying trap.

Initially an obscure midnight movie, The Wicker Man has become more culturally resonant during its 40-year afterlife. The notion of a spiritually inclined death cult run by a charismatic guru has since acquired plenty of real-life parallels, from Jim Jones to David Koresh to Osama Bin Laden. The film’s spellbinding score of haunted folk ballads, composed and arranged by transplanted American songwriter Paul Giovanni, has also earned evergreen cool status among generations of bearded acoustic hipsters. In some scenes it feels like a psychedelic hippie musical, in others a creepy soft-porn thriller.

Watched today, however, some of the performances look comically hammy. Lee is the chief offender here, closely followed by Lindsay Kemp—former mentor and lover of David Bowie—as a camp pub landlord. While the picturesque Scottish locations are authentic, the locals speak a preposterous polyglot gumbo of accents. The colorful cast of unlikely Celts includes Swedish starlet Britt Ekland, Australian-born Diane Cilento, and Polish horror-movie veteran Ingrid Pitt.

A commercial flop on British cinema screens back in 1973, The Wicker Man began its slow journey to global cult status in the United States. Having acquired the film as part of the ailing studio British Lion, EMI unceremoniously hacked down Hardy’s original edit from 102 to 88 minutes for U.K. release as the B-picture in a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. But across the Atlantic, the film received positive interest from the legendary cult movie mogul Roger Corman. Warner Bros. marketed it unsuccessfully to drive-in audiences, then sold the rights to a smaller connoisseur outfit called Abraxas, who worked with Hardy to restore the film back to a near-complete 94-minute cut. Finally re-released to critical acclaim in 1979, it was dubbed “the Citizen Kane of horror movies” by Cinefantastique magazine.

Over the decades, The Wicker Man has accumulated its own potent mythology, including oft-repeated claims that the elusive full original negative had been buried in the concrete foundations of an English motorway. Hardy insists these nonsensical rumors originated with EMI as a fanciful excuse for losing the negative. The film’s reputation even survived Neil Labute’s disastrous 2006 U.S. remake, starring Nicolas Cage and set on a matriarchal island commune off the Pacific Northwest coast, which was fatally low on tension and bombed at the box office.

In assembling this latest restoration, the current rights-holders Studiocanal tracked down a print in the Harvard Film Archive that once belonged to Corman. This print became the source of several long-missing scenes that have now been reinstalled into the shorter U.K. theatrical cut, expanding it to 94 minutes. The most significant revived scene is Howie’s first sighting of Lord Summerisle, performing the erotic ballad “Gentle Johnny” under Ekland’s bedroom window, and reciting Walt Whitman lines over close-up scenes of copulating snails. Of the brief early sequences set on the Scottish mainland, Howie’s thematically significant church scene remains, while the superfluous police station section has been dropped with Hardy’s blessing.

As any serious fan will tell you, none of the restored footage is new material, all of it having appeared in previous edits. But Hardy is claiming this latest remix is as close to definitive as possible, and concedes his long-lost 102-minute “Director’s Cut” is most likely gone forever. The cleaned-up picture and sound mix is not perfect, with some grainy third-generation transfers, but scenes struck from the original negative look as crisp as if they were shot yesterday. Most importantly, The Wicker Man retains its occult power, and remains as bizarre and bewitching a fable as when it first appeared four decades ago. Once seen, never forgotten.

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