The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE WICKER MAN | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE WICKER MAN

The Wicker Man review
50th anniversary release of the cult folk-horror.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Robin Hardy

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt

The Wicker Man poster

Jean-Luc Godard called his King Lear "A picture shot in the back," referring to the difficulties of working with Cannon Films. 1973's The Wicker Man might be described as a film buried twice, but ultimately resurrected. On its initial release it was buried as the b-picture in a double bill with Don't Look Now and was quite literally buried when its negative was used as landfill for the then under construction M3 (either accidentally or as star Christopher Lee believed, quite on purpose).

Along with such poor treatment, the film was originally put out in a butchered cut that disrupted its narrative timeline. A couple of decades later, Roger Corman revealed that he was in possession of a print of director Robin Hardy's original cut, leading to the subsequent release of a director's cut. In 2013, some more footage was discovered and a "Final Cut" was released to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. No more footage has been uncovered for this 50th anniversary release, but the movie has been restored in 4K and now looks better than ever.

The Wicker Man review

The early 1970s was something of a hangover from the swinging '60s, and this was heavily reflected in Britain's genre cinema of the era. At the time there was both a mistrust of the hippy counterculture brought on largely by the Manson murders, and of institutions and the elite, ushered in by various scandals. There was also a growing divide between urban and rural folk, who increasingly viewed each other with a mutual suspicion.

All of these factors come to a glorious head in The Wicker Man. Some viewers will take the side of its Christian protagonist, others will sympathise with its pagan antagonists, but the film is neither critical nor supportive of either faction. If it's critical of anything it's of those who wield power, whether that be Edward Woodward's fascistic cop Sgt Howie or Lee's Lord Summerisle, who rules the small Scottish island as a dictator. Both can be viewed as colonial interlopers. Howie has arrived from the mainland and displays contempt for the ways of its people. Summerisle's grandfather was essentially an English gentrifier who rocked up to the island and replaced its Christian traditions with "the old ways."

Howie travels to Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter concerning the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a 13-year-old girl whose existence is initially denied by the islanders, including the woman Howie believes is the girl's mother. As Howie investigates further it becomes clear the wool is being pulled over his eyes. He learns that Rowan died several months earlier, but finds that her coffin contains only the corpse of a hare.

The Wicker Man review

All the while, Howie grows increasingly contemptuous of the sexual freedom practiced by the islanders, who sing bawdy songs and copulate openly in public orgies. As Jack Nicholson's character says in Easy Rider of men like Howie, "They hate you because you represent freedom." Howie is essentially a fascist enforcer for both the police force and his Christian God, unquestioning of either. The people of Summerisle are really no better though. They've fallen for Summerisle's pagan blarney, which allows him to rule from the big house.

I doubt there's anyone who is unfamiliar with the film's climax, but spoiler warning from here if so. We learn that Howie has indeed been lured to Summerisle under false pretences. The previous year the apple crop failed and Summerisle believes only a human sacrifice to appease the Gods can ensure this year's crop is a success. Howie is chosen because he's a virgin, having resisted the charms of Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord's daughter at the island's raucous pub. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Willow sings and dances naked in her room while Howie sweats profusely next door. Like Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Howie is subjected to a purity test, though his "reward" is less enticing.

The title of course refers to the giant structure in which Howie is set to meet his maker. Woodward's lines were painted in giant letters on bedsheets on a nearby cliff, and the actor's distant gaze as he reads from them gives the effect that he's looking for his God in his time of desperation.

The Wicker Man review

The Wicker Man is a movie that benefitted greatly from both chance and improvisation. The latter can be seen when Howie enters the graveyard and fashions two pieces of wood into a cross, a bit of business that wasn't in the script but was pounced upon by the instinctive Woodward. Despite being set around Mayday, the film was actually shot in October. When Howie arrives on the shores of Summerisle it's clearly a blustery autumn day, as is the case with the closing scenes on the island's coastal cliffs. The scenes on the island's interior however could easily have been shot in May, and the combination of beaming sunlight and the colourful flora give the impression that the island is like a fruit itself, its ripe insides masked by a hard peel. Perhaps the greatest piece of luck befell the film when the head of the giant wicker man collapsed at just the right time to reveal the rising sun in the distance. For 21st century viewers, this shot now has an eerie resonance with the collapse of the World Trade Center.

All three cuts are included on Studiocanal's re-release, but the Final Cut is probably the best option. The theatrical cut compresses the events to two days rather the three of the other cuts. There's a sense that Howie is being both tested and taunted by the islanders that's somewhat lost in this two-day version. Perhaps the biggest difference concerns the use of Willow. In the theatrical cut she performs her seductive dance on the first night. It's far more effective in the other cuts, which move it to the second night, when Howie has had time to expose himself to the island's libertine ways. The director's and final cuts also feel more democratic in giving us a bit more time to soak up the ways of the islanders and make our own minds up as to who is crazier here: the islanders who believe committing murder will save their way of life, or the devout Christian who commits himself to a God whose existence he sees no proof of?

The Wicker Man
 4K restoration is on bluray, 4K UHD and VOD from September 25th.