When Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man was first released in the UK, it didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes. Described, apparently, by studio boss Michael Deeley as “one of the ten worst films” he had ever seen (a quote that he continues to refute strongly), it’s length was shortened from 102 minutes to just 88, allowing it to be shunted on as the second half of a double bill with the more marketable Don’t Look Now.
Given such negativity, you’d expect such a film to disappear into the cinematic cosmos, but over time word grew of this pagan tale. 40 years on and The Wicker Man is about to return to the big screen, remastered & restored with as much of the cut footage as is still available. Having undergone 3 previous edits, Hardy is calling this version his Final Cut.
Having reshuffled the narrative, The Wicker Man’s Final Cut is a far more cohesive picture. The basic story of Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie traveling to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl the islanders insist never existed remains the same, but Hardy is able to greater explore both his protagonist and the islanders.
The film’s shorter version, the only one to be released in British cinemas before now & the most accessible on DVD, is a hollow mess in comparison and is even considered by Hardy to be narratively redundant. With a reduced timeline (48 instead of 72 hours), the story felt rushed in the shorter version & makes the film harder to truly engage with. Moreover, the shortened running time meant that Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the enigmatic leader of the island, is not introduced until a third of the way through the film, which makes him a far less effective screen presence.
In this new version, the infamous scenes of the beautiful Britt Ekland trying to nakedly & musically entice Howie to her bed are moved to the end of the film’s second act & allows Hardy to introduce Summerisle earlier. Additionally, it allows the folk customs of the islanders to be underlined further; Britt Ekland’s duty of deflowering the young men of the island emphasizing the promiscuous side of their pagan practices.
The restoration of the film’s opening is another noticeable enhancement. Mercifully deciding to dispense with the sluggish scenes at the mainland police station (found in the Director’s Cut), the prologue shows Howie as he attends Holy Communion & reads from the bible. These scenes give wider breadth to the narrative; both as a foreshadowing of Howie’s horrific destiny & as a highlight of his strongly held beliefs.
Paul Giovanni’s rhythmic soundtrack has always won great applause & the Final Cut allows perhaps his most effective song to finally be heard. ‘Gently Johnny’, played during Howie’s aforementioned first night, superbly accentuates the ideals of the islanders. Juxtaposed with the images of Howie kneeling at his bed in prayer & the sounds of Willow welcoming another boy into manhood, it is an incredibly arresting sequence that adds greater mystery to Howie’s story.
Antony Shaffer’s screenplay, which was originally developed with Hardy, is a masterpiece of mystery & suspense, with a tone that is at times horrifying and at others darkly comic. Directly following the film from Howie’s point of view, it builds to its climax subtly, only revealing Howie’s true purpose when it’s already too late for him to stop it.
What an incredible ending that is to! The film’s final images of Lord Summerisle & his pagan congregation singing a joyous hymn as Howie, our protagonist of purity, is burned to death in the eponymous statue is such a defiant stand against horror convention, it allows The Wicker Man to not only define but also transcend its genre.
Christopher Lee has long since claimed that Lord Summerisle is his greatest film role & it would be hard to argue with it. While many will always remember him more for his frightening incarnation of Dracula, it’s Summerisle’s mysterious demeanor that makes him psychologically terrifying; his ability to so easily manipulate the other islanders making Howie’s fate all the more tragic. It’s a film full of assured performances, but it’s Lee who sticks in your memory.
If anything, The Wicker Man is just as important today as it was in ’73. As a horror it repetitively shocks its audience, with its singular point of view creating a great air of mystery. While it’s core lesson on the simplicity of human manipulation through religion is a theme that has demanded great debate throughout history. The power of The Wicker Man continues to burn brightly & this new, and final, cut of the film will ensure that it continues to do so.
The Wicker Man will be released in cinemas on Sep. 27th & released on DVD/Blu-Ray on Oct. 14th