There can be few cult films that are cultier than Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Part of the fascination seems to lie with the multitude of different versions of the film. Now, 40 years after its initial release a pristine 4K HD version of ‘middle version’ is released, with lots of extra goodies.
Before we actually get onto the contents film itself, we should probably have a quick overview of the various edits of the film. The Wicker Man was filmed between the autumn of 1971 and spring of 1972. The outcome of this was a 114 minute version that director Hardy showed to his production company, British Lion Films.
However, British Lion thought this was too long and sent Hardy away to tighten it up. He came back with a 99 minute version, which is the longest version that has ever been seen by the public. This was then shortened to 87 minutes at the suggestion of both the great Roger Corman in the USA, and by the film’s UK producer Michael Deeley, so it could be released as a double bill with Don’t Look Now (1973) – the ‘short version’.
In 1976 Robin Hardy decided he wanted people to see his original vision of the film, and asked for Roger Corman’s ‘long version’. From this he created an edit of 94 minutes, sometimes called the ‘middle version’, which is the version released today as ‘The Final Edit’. Hardy has said that this is the version he is most happy with, which is a bit confusing as there is also a version called The Director’s Cut (which is the long version).
This ‘Final Cut’ release is particularly exciting because it is transferred from a copy of the film recently found in the Harvard Film Archive. This means it is in particularly good nick – ideal for an HD restoration. Crucially, both the middle version/final edit and the long version/directors cut share the same narrative – stretching the story over three days rather than a day and a half. To learn more of the various versions of the film, start with Steve Phillips’ excellent site dedicated to the film. All three versions are included in this 40th Anniversary release.
So, what is The Wicker Man all about then? Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a policeman and strict Presbyterian who has received an anonymous tip-off that a girl has gone missing on the Hebridean island of Summerisle. He flies to the island by small sea plane and almost as soon as he is ashore finds things are not to his liking.
The islanders seem to be involved in pre-Christian paganism. There are children dancing around the maypole, nude women fire leaping in a stone circle and corn dollies hanging in virtually every dwelling he visits. The local laird, Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee on terrific form (indeed, it is the performance he is most pleased with), explains that they all follow the ‘old religion’. When everyone claims ignorance about the disappearance of the young girl, he starts to think there’s something really fishy going on. Indeed there is, but by the time poor Sergeant Howie finds out exactly what, it’s too late.
So far, so slightly odd. But this brief précis doesn’t do justice to the multiple moods of this strange film. A small town full of people who all seem to share the same beliefs is unsettling. When those beliefs are a sexually liberated pre-Christian paganism, the result is an exhilarating mix that is funny, bawdy, erotic, eerie, dreamy and utterly compelling. Especially so when the sound track that accompanies all this creates an eccentric musical world of its own.
Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) recites from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, vs. 32.
American playwright, actor and musician Paul Giovanni wrote the music for the film, taking influences including Robbie Burns poems, nursery rhymes, and Irish, English and Scottish folk songs (there is even a bit of Bulgarian folk in there too). He was helped by recent graduate of the Royal College of Music, Gary Carpenter, who drafted in his band Hocket to play (you can read his account on his site here). The effect is mesmerising and has influenced everyone from Pulp (who wrote a song called Wicker Man which samples Willow’s Song) to The Decembrists.
We see Giovanni wistfully singing Gently Johnny in the Green Man pub and the rest of Hocket, who were renamed Magnet for the film, also appear in the film. Indeed, it is the fact that the musicians who made the soundtrack also appear in the film that, Carpenter explained on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone radio programme, justifies the film qualifying as a musical as well as a horror. Carpenter also reckons it is this genre-transcending quality that contributes to its cult quality.
Cult films also probably create credible fictional world’s better than the average movie. The strange beliefs of the inhabitants of Summerisle are built up with an enormous amount of detail. The hares, corn dollies, and even the characters’ names are filled with meaning – both relating to paganism and what the islanders have planned for Sergeant Howie. Robin Hardy and the screenwriter Peter Shaffer used Sir James Frazer’s classic study of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough, to research these folk elements. You can search for the meaning of various symbols in the book on Bartleby for a bit of fun (try ‘hare’, ‘willow’ and ‘wicker man’ for starters).
Robin Hardy has reminded us that we must not forget the film takes the form of a game. The Wicker Man was written by Anthony Shaffer (not to be confused with his brother, and fellow playwright, Peter) who also wrote the play that was turned into Sleuth (1970) and the penultimate Hitchcock movie, Frenzy (1972). Fiendish puzzlers were very much part of Shaffer’s oeuvre. This gives the film a very contemporary feel – now that mind games and twist-in-the-tale endings are so popular.
The new Final Cut issued this week is the one that Hardy has said he is most pleased with, although that could just be good marketing. Whatever the case it differs from previous versions by having a slightly different prologue. A scene in a police station on the mainland has been cut and instead we see Sgt Howie taking communion in church with his fiancée – a nice parallel with the ‘more dreadful sacrifice’ at the end of the film.
There are probably many reasons why The Wicker Man is a cult film. Britt Ekland prancing around in the nude, the animal costumes, and Christopher Lee’s uninhibited hair are quirks that come to mind. In some respects the film is a little old fashioned, the influence of British sex films particularly date it, but it is still thoroughly enjoyable – and the ending is undeniably chilling. Wicker Maniacs can do no better than investing in this new collection.
The 40th Anniversary Edition is released on four disc DVD and three disc Blu Ray. As well as all three versions (theatrical release or short version, Final Cut or middle version, and Director’s Cut or long version), the collection also comes with a series of extra goodies, including Mark Kermode’s documentary about the film Burnt Offering: The Cult of The Wicker Man, a famous fans featurette Worshipping The Wicker Man, a featurette on The Music of The Wicker Man which includes interviews with Gary Carpenter, an interview with Robin Hardy, and another with Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee together, a comparison of restoration versions, trailers and a disc devoted to the soundtrack.