The Wicker Man is a disturbing and artistic horror film
that blends religious-themed horror
and the ‘weird thriller’ style of the Avengers
. Edward Woodward
plays Sergeant Howie, a West Highlands cop sent to an island off the west coast of Scotland
, where a young girl has apparently disappeared. When he arrives at the island, he finds that no one will admit to even knowing the girl. As he continues to investigate, he uncovers increasingly alarming signs that the islanders are practising pagan rituals
and may have conspired to sacrifice the girl to the ancient gods
Research for the Wicker Man was meticulous. The pagan rituals and beliefs are all real, although they are (intentionally) a mixture of several different cultures and time periods. This is not a simple Christian morality picture condemning pagan beliefs, or a cheap horror exploitation flick where the cult has no meaning. The neo-pagans actually come out of it making at least as much sense as the Christians.
Woodward is brilliantly convincing as the humourless and deeply religious Sergeant Howie, taking us by the hand for a frustrating investigation that quickly turns into a spiritual battle. Christopher Lee plays the charismatic Lord Summerisle, the leader of the cult and ruler of the island, who is wonderfully menacing despite the slightly melodramatic exposition and his strong resemblance to several James Bond villains. Britt Ekland’s main talent seems to be looking seductive and lip-syncing badly for the overdubbed Scottish accent. There are a few other strange accents on display - at least one other villager seems to be Swedish - but on the whole the smaller roles are very well played, making the oddness of the island quite believable.
Released in 1973, this film is an obvious product of its time. Howie and the islanders play out a kind of reversal of the typical confrontation between mainstream culture and the Earth-worshipping, free love and folk songs culture of the hippies. The villagers, even the old ones, all seem like weird hippies, led by the guru Lord Summerisle. Summerisle struts around his castle extolling the virtues of the naked human body and encouraging his subjects to teach their children openly and thoroughly about sex. He preaches an intimate relationship with the land and the ancient spiritual ways, and mocks Christ - “Himself born of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost?” Howie, representing the religious mainstream of the time, is aghast at Summerisle’s teachings and the salacious displays of nudity. To modern audiences, his earnest naivete may be a little jarring - if this movie gets remade, I’m sure his character will be changed considerably - but his faith is central to the plot of the movie, and pays off in one of the most memorable finales ever filmed.
The music in the Wicker Man is something that will either put viewers off immediately or make them rush out to buy the CD. It isn’t quite a musical, but features a number of twisted little folk songs sung by the villagers and written by Paul Giovanni. If you enjoy folk music and don’t mind occasional bizarre lyrics, this film and its soundtrack were made for you. If you don’t appreciate this kind of thing, there is enough of it to completely ruin the atmosphere.
VERSIONS OF “THE WICKER MAN”:
At the end of the Wicker Man's production, most of the principals felt that they had made one of the greatest horror films ever. Christopher Lee was particularly happy with the film, as it was the first time after many years of carbon-copy Hammer productions that he had been allowed to flex his talents a little. However, as post-production drew to a close the production company was sold to a group of businessmen who were less than impressed with "their" first major project. They immediately cut 15-17 minutes out of the film and sent it out for a catastrophically limited theatrical run.
This original release was an 88-minute, heavily edited version that none of the crew were happy with, but were forced to accept. Not only were several scenes cut, but other sequences were completely scrambled. This is the only version that I have seen, and in my opinion it really is a little rushed and jumbled, although still a great film. Howie’s character, in particular, is never very well established in the theatrical version. We know that he is a straightlaced and very religious virgin, but not much more than that. One of the first things to be cut from the theatrical release was a five-minute sequence depicting Howie’s life back on the mainland, and in my opinion this was not a good choice. There are also several continuity errors in this version, mostly due to the rearranging of the story elements.
With the bare minimum of promotion and horrifically limited distribution, the film’s initial reception was lukewarm on both sides of the pond, and it seemed to be failing completely until Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy took on the task of promoting it themselves. In interviews for the DVD release of the movie, Lee talks about presenting the film himself at college towns across America. Eventually the movie found a receptive audience and began to pull in glowing reviews, developing a major cult following which might have had something to do with the fact that the studio had literally tried to bury it.
As soon as the first positive reviews started coming in, Lee and the other principals started campaigning to have it reissued in the form they had originally planned, a 'Director’s Cut' that ran to almost two hours and included the abovementioned establishing scenes and a lot more thematic development and weird imagery. To their dismay, they soon found that an incredible series of errors (or were they?) had sent the original Wicker Man negatives to be archived in the wrong vaults and subseqently -- wait for it -- buried under the new M-3 road. For many years the movie was thought to be lost forever.
The ‘Extended Version’ (which can now be found in a recent Anchor Bay DVD release) was finally rescued from oblivion by none other than cut-rate horror king Roger Corman, who remembered at some point in the late Eighties that once upon a time Christopher Lee had sent him a rough cut of a longer Wicker Man in hopes of selling him the American distribution rights. Apparently Corman loved the film, but was unable to buy the rights at the time. Of course, technically, he should have then returned the print to the production company -- but Corman was always a compulsive collector of horror material, and he kept it in his own private library. It was, of course, the only copy that survived. This Extended Version is a few minutes short of the mythical ‘Director’s Cut’, but is much more faithful to the original arrangement of the scenes than the theatrical version.
The Wicker Man is now available in several DVD releases - I have seen at least three different packages floating around. The Theatrical Version and Extended Versions are both available, with standard DVD extra features like trailers and an interesting 45-minute documentary (although it's worth noting that there are no subtitles in the Theatrical Version). There is also a deluxe Anchor Bay edition which comes in a wooden box and contains both versions of the film, two documentaries and a commentary track with director Robin Hardy, writer Anthony Shaffer and Edward Woodward. If anybody has a spare of this one, I’ll be happy to take it off their hands.
Overall rating: 3 Hands of Glory and a live frog. See it before the Nicolas Cage remake spoils it for you.
A little trivia for ya:
- Christopher Lee worked for free, and still says that Lord Summerisle was his greatest role ever.
- The girl in the rear-view shots of Britt Eklund's famous nude dance isn't Britt Eklund. The producers didn't like the shape of her ass, so they hired a body double. One wonders what exactly they did like about her, as it certainly wasn't her acting ability.
- On that note, another perennial Wicker Man legend has it that Eklund's lover Barry Manilow was the man responsible for the disappearance of the original print, as he didn't know about the body double and didn't want the world to see his girlfriend naked. Um, okay.
- The whole film was shot on location in Scotland in the months of October and November, although it was supposed to take place in May. It was stormy and freezing. Most of the leads had to put ice in their mouths to keep their breath from steaming, and they would often interrupt interior shots to run outside and capture an exterior scene during the brief interludes of sunlight.
- In these days of pyrotechnic model work and rampant computer-designed imagery, the movie's final image may not seem like the remarkable accomplishment that it was. As you watch this scene, keep in mind that it was done with a real, life-size wicker man on a rather cloudy day. The odds against it all coming together for that triumphant revealing of the sun were rather high. That, to me, is filmmaking at its finest, and I wouldn't trade that final shot for a million CGI explosions.