Memorably once describe by Film journal Cinefantastique as ‘the ‘Citizen Kane of Horror films’, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s “The Wicker Man” stands apart from much of the rest of the British horror tradition while representing the epitome of a short-lived subgenre, which has recently started to come back into vogue, known as ‘folk horror’ -- an idiosyncratic form briefly prevalent during the 1970s which includes works as diverse as John Bowen’s revered but little-seen BBC play “Robin Redbreast”, Michael Reeves’ pastoral Civil War ‘Western’ “Witchfinder General”, Brian Clemens’ TV thriller “A Place to Die”, Nigel Kneal’s twisted TV play “Baby” and Piers Haggard’s disturbing period folk fairy tale of rural supernatural devilry “Blood on Satan’s Claw” -- as well as earlier blander affairs such as Hammer’s Cornwall-set occult conspiracy thriller “The Witches” and the glossy, bigger budgeted “Eye of the Devil” (which prefigures some of the plot elements of “The Wicker Man”, albeit in a more traditional ‘Gothic melodrama’ setting). Even “Doctor Who” got in on the act in 1971 with the early Jon Pertwee era adventure “The Daemons”, bringing witchcraft and the occult within the purview of Saturday teatime family entertainment for the first time thanks to the tweedy presence of white witch Olive Hawthorne -- a development quickly followed by a slew of similarly concerned children’s TV serials headed by the classic “Children of the Stones” in 1977. Nearly all of these dramas mixed, in varying degrees, an interest in the folkloric history of Britain’s semi-mythical pagan past with commentary (both positive and negative) on the countercultural changes then apparently in the process of transforming attitudes in society. “The Wicker Man”, though, is a breed apart even from these related offerings: for one thing it contains a very simple narrative core yet lends itself to widely differing readings according to how one reacts to the metaphysical beliefs underpinning the different, vividly drawn characters peopling Shaffer’s odd tale -- an unusual quality that helps lend the events in the film a particularly troubling ambiguity few other folk horror offerings in the above list come close to emulating.
Forty years later, and the film is back with a re-release in cinemas across the UK to commemorate its 40th anniversary, a event occasioned by StudioCanal’s recent search for film materials in the unlikely hope of finally unearthing an original print of Robin Hardy’s legendary ‘lost’ cut, so as to put together the most definitive HD restoration possible for the occasion. The search didn’t turn up that version, but it did dig up a release print of a slightly shorter cut put together for US distribution in 1979 by Hardy himself, which was found in the Harvard Film Archives. Although it doesn’t contain all of the material we know from the faded print we have of the director’s cut (the scenes between Sgt Howie and his police colleagues on the mainland, which can still be seen in the director’s cut assemblage, were cut to reduce the 99 minute running time), it still preserves the story order Hardy had always intended, with the pre-credit church scenes now forming a symmetry with the final sequence of the movie as they were always meant to, and the original order of events on the island, butchered in the 84 minute British theatrical version, also playing out largely as intended. This new and ‘final’ cut has been restored and scanned for HD with a 4K resolution to make the most complete and best-looking print possible for the film’s re-release on the big screen. This is to be followed by a 3-disc commemorative Blu-ray release and a four disc DVD package in mid-October, in which all three versions of the film will be included, led by the HD restoration of what most believe will come to be seen as the most complete cut of the movie that’s ever likely to be found in a good enough condition for it to be possible to restore it to the same level of quality we see here. The previously released theatrical cut, sliced to 84 minutes so that the film could play as the B feature alongside “Don’t Look Now”, and the rather battered and faded director’s cut are both here again on the second disc as well, of course, while the other disc in the collection is a CD of Paul Giovanni’s amazing folk soundtrack, remixed in stereo from the original session tapes by the film’s associate musical director Gary Carpenter.
The film initially came about as the result of producer Peter Snell and writer Anthony Shaffer’s determination to find a project for their friend Christopher Lee that would enable the actor to escape the Hammer films typecasting which had plagued him ever since his association with the famous British production company back in 1958. ‘He was fed up with chasing Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Winsor up and down Papier Mâché corridors,’ was Shaffer’s rather facetious description of Lee’s major role in this important British horror institution and subsequent attitude towards it, when interviewed for the Mark Kermode documentary “Burnt Offerings: The Cult of the Wicker Man” (included with the 40th Anniversary set). Shaffer, a former barrister who wrote novels with his twin brother Peter (who later scripted “Equus” and Amadeus”) in the 1950s, under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, had later also formed a production partnership with director Robin Hardy in the 1960s in which he wrote the scripts for commercials while Hardy directed them. The two thrashed out a story idea for a different kind of horror film during the course of a brandy-fuelled weekend at Hardy’s home in Maidenhead, taking actor and author David Pinner’s 1967 novel “Ritual” -- which was about a puritanical English policeman’s investigation into the ritualistic murder of a child in a remote Cornish village -- as the chief inspiration for the general procedural structure of the screenplay Shaffer eventually produced.
The plot convention of an outsider encountering strange beliefs and ancient practises in a remote corner of the British Isles goes back to a real-life unsolved British murder case from 1945 -- The Lower Quinton witchcraft murder -- which David Pierie identifies in his book on English Gothic horror cinema “A New Heritage of Horror”, as: ‘having a role in English horror not dissimilar to the place occupied by the Ed Gein killings which inspired “Psycho”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and many other films in America.’ All the elements which often reoccur in plays and films dealing with this theme were present and correct in the case of farmworker Charles Walton: found murdered in a small Warwickshire village with injuries that appeared to denote a ritualistic component to the slaying. Strange stories continued to accumulate around the case down the years, and the investigating officer, Robert Fabien, speculated in later accounts that there might have been ‘a community-wide cover-up’ over the affair. In any case, Shaffer was able to take the version of the scenario inherited from Pinner’s novel and incorporate all the old Gothic Hammer horror clichés, while subverting them in a similar manner to the way in which “Sleuth” had previously toyed with the conventions of the mystery genre, turning the entire narrative into a clue-filled puzzle that is eventually revealed to be a labyrinthine trap gradually closing around the main character, whose every move is being manipulated by his foe throughout the film.
Both films play with the opposition between two men who have fundamentally opposing ideologies (in this case each of which is patriarchal in character), contained in a plot that is constructed like an elaborate game – an abiding theme in the writing of Shaffer, whose work abounds in puzzle-like narratives full of tricks, deceptions and intellectually conceived ruses. The most important element in the elaboration of the premise behind “The Wicker Man” was Shaffer’s awareness that the binary opposition between light and dark, or good and evil, in Christian theology, and which could be traced throughout most works in the horror genre -- particularly in the Hammer ‘adult fairy tale’ variety -- was founded on a Christian reconceptualization of much older pagan beliefs and their attendant gods, as being ‘Satanic’ and therefore bad, which in turn justified what was still a new religion at that time suppressing their practise and re-branding former practitioners and the old deities of these religions as witches and devils, operating under the umbrella of the occult -- which soon came to be associated with evil. In casting Christopher Lee as the courtly Laird of Summer Isle and placing him in a vast baronial castle from which his influence can be felt all across the remote Scottish island he reigns over, Shaffer and Hardy were clearly riffing on their star’s former image as a satanic vampire prince of darkness, while demolishing the simple good versus evil polarity in the theology that informs most film dealings with this horror subject matter, substituting in its stead a much more intricate theological debate on the nature of sacrifice, death and rebirth that later becomes a dialogue and, to an eerie extent, a synthesis, involving the resurrection lore of Christianity being pitched in direct conflict to the belief in the transmigration and transmutation of souls favoured by Summer Isle’s nature-worshipping community, whose reliance on the elements for sustenance leads the latter into a perverse union with the concept of martyrdom which plays such an elevated role in Christian mythology.
The film’s folksy, down to earth depiction of contemporary rural island life (it is not set in some long lost Hammer-seque, Mittel-European past, but in the year of the film’s release, 1973) and the amount of effort and research Shaffer and Hardy put in to representing the old pagan beliefs with their half-recalled sacrificial rituals, superstitions, symbols and fertility dances, in as accurate a form as then-current scholarship on the subject permitted, imbues the film with qualities that seem both quaint and strangely menacing, tapping into the notion of an ancestral past rooted in the British landscape, and the notion of belonging to an inheritance of buried history that is able to persist in the bones even whilst being apparently subsumed entirely by centuries of religious usurpation. The decision to film the story as a quasi-musical was a particular masterstroke on the part of Hardy, which results in Edward Woodward’s austere, puritanical visiting ‘Christian copper’ Sergeant Howie, coming to look more and more like a fish out of water as the film progresses, increasingly surrounded by eerily cheerful, conspiratorial islanders with a penchant for erupting into spasms of joyful acoustic flavoured folk song, bawdy group ballads, winsome country maypole dancing or naked fire jumping wherever he goes.
The intellectual component of the narrative, in which an elaborate trick is being played on the central character, and by implication upon the viewer also, is a formal conceit that allows for the plot to follow a familiar pattern, while an unsettling atmosphere is maintained with lots of weird details of island life that seem out of kilter with normality, all of which function at the same time as clues to what is really going on. It’s a simple reversal in which the hunter – Sgt Howie, arriving on Summer Isle to look for a missing twelve-year-old girl called Rowen Morrison – turns out really to be the hunted all along. On one very obvious level Shaffer and Hardy are of course simply enjoying the idea of turning the usual structure of the horror movie on its head: instead of pious Christians burning witches to maintain their patriarchal authority, we’re given a community of believing pagans whose ancient worship of the sun and the elements are the norm here, and who need to sacrifice the outsider, the virgin fool-king -- in order to maintain the integrity of their own idea of what constitutes the natural order. The subtle cleverness in this scenario, which lends the film its longevity, is the ambiguity that is created around how we the viewers should be interpreting the film’s events. Woodward’s superb portrayal of Sgt Howie both distances us from him and makes us identify with his plight at different points in the movie, and ultimately we feel both alienated yet sympathetic towards him at the same time.
A fanatically devout man of the Church who frowns upon sex before marriage (and probably wouldn’t have been all that keen on gay marriage either, lets’ face it), surrounded by disused and ruined places of Christian worship that have had their grounds apparently desecrated and left to rot while ancient druid stone circles remain alive with song and the joyous echo of voices in worship (not to mention schoolgirls and their naked fire dancing divinity lessons!) creates a scenario we can to some extent enjoy as modern-minded viewers, for there is undoubtedly a certain satirical element to it, in which the usual persecutor of ‘difference’ and ‘the other’ is being given a taste of his own medicine for once. But at the same time, Howie is still, after all, trying to root out the murderer and abuser of an innocent child, and one is inclined to feel a certain degree of sympathy and identification with his frustrations as he encounters deliberate obstruction – always with a smiling, sympathetic face on it – at every level of his investigation. Also, although Howie’s buttoned-up, ludicrously puritanical attitude towards sexuality is being mocked even by his mainland colleagues, who take the piss out of it in early scenes of the director’s cut of the movie (although those scenes are not in the theatrical cut or the recently discovered US print forming the basis of the final cut -- the latter choosing to emphasis the sincerity of Howie’s faith instead with a pre-credit church communion scene), are we really any more comfortable as 21st century viewers than Howie is with the idea of those lewd, pot-bellied leering old codgers of The Green Man, lusting in song after Britt Ekland’s youthful Willow, grinning with their rotten teeth while her pub landlord dad apparently happily looks and laughs along with their appetite for filthy double entendre concerning his daughter’s ample charms; or for that matter with Christopher Lee’s community elder Lord Summerisle using young Willow as the Island’s representative of the goddess Aphrodite for sexually ‘initiating’ the virgin male youths of the community? (There is the possibility that all of this stuff is merely part of the ‘set-up’ by which Howie is being manipulated by Summerisle and the islanders, of course. We never actually know for sure, but given the fact that they’re quite happy as a community to have a nice sing-along while they watch the policeman being burned alive, there’s no reason to think sexual licentiousness would have been beyond them either!)
Nevertheless, sex is probably the main battleground on which most viewers would feel the two theologies come to be most unevenly matched: Howie’s tortured state of denial, the fraught nature of his repression and the agonising unrequited physical longing it gives rise to, are convincingly rendered by Woodward in two key scenes: most famously in the seduction scene where Willow calls out to Howie (who is by this point in the film absolutely beside himself with unfulfilled desire) by using her naked body to slap against the walls and furnishings of their adjoining rooms as she sweetly sings to him while he’s pressed up against the plaster wall on the other side; and an earlier sequence from the director’s longer version of the film in which Howie’s unhappy state of frustration -- desperately trying to sublimate into fanatical prayer his sexual excitement borne on the sound of Willow and the virgin boy ‘enjoying themselves’ next door -- is first indicated and then directly contrasted with Summerisle’s apparently free and easy, poetic exaltation of nature’s fundamental lack of guilt, remorse or bonds of mental servitude, as he quotes Walt Whitman to a pair of copulating snails on a leaf below Willow’s window while one of Paul Giovanni’s most gorgeously erotic ballads, ‘Gently Johnny’, strums in sultry sympathy in the background.
The implication is clear: Howie is the representative and agent of a stultifying, authoritarian force that maintains its power and control by surrounding sex with guilt and shame and by promoting a rigid form of sexual propriety; while Summerisle’s cultists remain happy, liberated and free to enjoy the earthly delights nature has endowed them with through their reverence for the old gods, without the need to constantly police every aspect of their natural desire. This presumably would have played especially well in the early seventies when the rhetoric of the hippy dream and free love, although recently tainted by the Manson family and the shadow of Altmont, still had some degree of cultural and political potency; but there is an inherent ambiguity even so contained in the film’s representation of, as Chris Chibnall puts it in his essay ‘A Heritage of Evil’, written for “British Horror Cinema” (first published in 2002): ‘the use of an atavistic, superstitious past to represent a libertine future’. On the one hand, the Summerisle community appear to have rediscovered that evocative, ancient pre-Christianised form of mythology and belief that traditionally ties the British to the cycles of their natural landscape -- ‘a state of free nature, predating the repressive regimes of institutional Christianity and industrial capitalism’ (Chibnall) – but on the other, Lord Summerisle is every bit the exploitative patriarchal overlord, and, benign or not (he’s not so benign if you happen to be an outsider virgin and the crops have failed that year, of course) his is a transparently self-serving and cushy feudal set-up in which Summerisle gets to live in permanent baronial splendour in a big castle with the tasty schoolmistress Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) on tap whenever he fancies some; the general populace meanwhile scrape a living from the export of the island’s apples to the mainland from orchards first cultivated by Summerisle’s Great Grandfather, after he founded the community and re-introduced the pagan forms of worship as an expedient way of getting the population to work cheaply harvesting the scientifically cultivated strains of fruit he was able assiduously to develop by exploiting the unusually warm climate induced by the island’s proximity to the gulf stream, which endows it with unusually rich and fertile soil.
The fact that Lord Summerisle is completely aware of his ancestor’s role in the construction of the society he now heads, and that he’s perfectly willing to admit to the fact that all this pagan stuff was to all intents and purposes made up by some stuffy, aristocratic Victorian scientist ancestor of his, might seem to suggest that Summerisle is somewhat of a fraud himself. But the perfectly cast Christopher Lee’s cheerfully paternalistic portrayal of the Laird of Summer Isle almost enables the character’s self-serving sophistry to seem genuine and poignant as he relates how, despite his knowledge of the background behind the establishment of the community, he has been brought up with these beliefs all his life and has come to genuinely revere the drama of the rituals of ‘the old gods’. This level of irrationalism simply can’t be argued with; it’s equally as uncompromising as Howie’s iron-cast faith, yet delivered oh so reasonably, and always with perfect manners and a smile. We get to see just how much this is so at the end of the film when, clad in wig and floral dress, Summerisle enthusiastically leads a rag-tag procession of garishly costumed villagers wearing bizarre animal masks in their chilling pre-sacrificial rites, consisting of a lolloping dance through the town and down to the beach, where a barrel of beer is first sacrificed to the god of the sea before Howie, disguised as Punch, having believed himself successfully to have infiltrated the group, at last finds himself made the main attraction in a climactic tribute to the sun god and the goddess of the orchard in scenes that, to this day, constitute some of the most hideously powerful to have concluded any film ever realised for the screen.
The stark effectiveness of this final sequence can be largely attributed to the cumulative effects of a number of factors which come together to produce a work which remains one of the great defining masterpieces of British horror: a raft of noteworthy character actor performances by the likes of Ingrid Pitt and Lindsay Kemp occupying a series of parts both big and small, is one major contributor to the unique atmosphere of course, but chiefly it is the performance of Edward Woodward -- who is never anything less than perfect in every scene – which is the stand-out contributor, the actor bringing an especially intense vividness to his portrayal of Howie’s committed search for the truth and to our sense of the life-dominating religious belief which guides it, laying himself chillingly bare in a figurative sense for that dreadful fateful instant during which the bamboozled Sergeant finally confronts his place in Lord Summerisle’s elaborate schemes. The importance of the mixture of traditional folk standards, Christian hymns and Paul Giovanni’s series of soft focus, close-miked pastoral lullabies -- by turns both quietly sensual and joyfully ebullient -- cannot be overestimated in fixing the ambient sonic component to the movie’s interplay of emotional and intellectual struggles. Then there’s the literate writing of Anthony Shaffer, who comes up with some dialogue of genuine poignancy for Howie’s final moments of martyrdom, some of it adapted from the supposed last words of Sir Walter Raleigh before his execution in 1618. The majestic, awful sight of that cliff-top brow at the Burrow Head peninsula in south-west Scotland (one of the twenty-five or so scenic locations that were used in the film to create the macabre world of Summer Isle, and which were, in reality, dotted across a 90 mile stretch of land in the province of Dumfries and Galloway) atop which art director Seamus Flannery’s design for the life-sized prop for the wicker man sacrificial funeral pyre was constructed, is instrumental in providing the setting for a combination of evocative visual and conceptual elements which bring the questionable account of ancient sacrificial practises, culled from a single passage in Julius Caesar’s account of his wars in France, together with a performance of one of the oldest recorded songs in the history of the British isles, "Sumer Is Icumen In" (a mid-13th century song about the changing of the seasons) -- to result in a scene whose inestimable power to move and to unnerve still lies in its eerie synthesis of opposing belief systems engaged in a struggle for spiritual supremacy. Somehow they’re both oddly satisfyingly brought together in a suggestive conflagration that promises to fulfil the longing for renewal and for eternal life of the chief opponents in this bizarre theological union. But the primal feelings unleashed by the closing moments of the film are as poignant and unquantifiable as ever.
As befits a movie in which nothing about either the production or its content was ever perfectly straightforward, the extras material on this set has an awful lot of ground to cover in its examination of the circumstances surrounding the making of the film. Thankfully, the particular combination of previously-seen and brand new documentaries and interviews, etc., assembled and brought together for this release, are more than up to the job of documenting the story. Mark Kermode’s 50 minute 2001 documentary “Burnt Offering: The Cult of the Wicker Man” was able to procure interviews with most of the major participants (some of whom have since passed away) from in front of and behind the cameras, for what must be one of the most definitive ‘making of’ films ever put together; and Kermode’s moderated commentary track for the Director’s Cut, with Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy, complements it and in some cases demonstrates how we might never know the whole truth about some of the events which took place during the making of this movie, since so many of the contributors’ recollections seem to differ much more widely than is usually the case in such documentary accounts. In this documentary, Britt Ekland is adamant, for instance, that she was outraged to find, when she watched the film again, that a body double had been employed to stand in for her during some full-length shots from the back in the Willow’s Song seduction sequence. But in the commentary and a recent interview shot with Hardy, the director claims that this was done at her own request. There is also confusion over whether or not Ekland’s voice was dubbed by Scottish jazz singer Annie Ross: the actress claims that her own voice has been completely re-dubbed throughout the movie while Hardy is insistent that this was only done for the Willow’s Song sequence and that it is Ekland’s own voice we are hearing throughout the rest of the picture. Similarly, Edward Woodward’s claim that apple blossom trees had to be moved about by stage hands behind him for one scene, to disguise the fact that it was wintertime and that the production hadn’t been able to import enough trees to cover the whole of a particular tracking shot, is a disputed ‘memory’ and dismissed as a complete fiction by others involved with the film. Of course, for specific reasons to do with finances and with the circumstances of the production company British Lion, which had just been taken over at the time, the film was shot in the middle of a freezing October rather than the spring/early-summer it was actually meant to be taking place in -- a fact which led Ekland to publically dub Dumfries and Galloway ‘the most dismal place in all of creation,’ resulting in the production having to issue an apology to the residents. There were other traumas behind the scenes, not least those which took place between first time director Robin Hardy and veteran cinematographer Harry Waxman. Yet it is Waxman’s skill in lighting the picture that enables some extremely dark and grey corners of south-west Scotland in winter to pass for balmy summer island climes. The tale of the film’s inception, its production and the even more tortured and complicated post production episodes which came later in the story, and which resulted in the controversial British theatrical cut becoming the only version of the film it was possible to see at all for many years, is told in full across the commentary and Kermode’s exemplary documentary, which also includes interviews with pretty much all the key personnel involved – although don’t expect a consistent account to emerge.
Also included is a brief 15 minute filmed except from the commentary recording session; a restoration comparison featurette; some trailers; and a wonderful (if blurry) piece of vintage VHS footage from a local US cable TV film programme from the New Orleans area, in which Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy talk about the film in-depth to a local film critic (and Christopher Lee finishes off with a baritone rendering of the “Tinker’s Song” from the movie over the closing credits).
Even better, three brand new documentaries have been made by StudioCanal to set the seal on this being the best home market release of the film ever put together: “Worshipping the Wicker Man” is a 23 minute featurette in which some of the modern horror genre’s hippest practitioners join film critics to wax lyrical about their love for the film and offer their opinions on what makes it so unique while explaining the influence it has had on them. Included are the likes of Ben Wheatley, James Watkins and Eli Roth. The “Music of the Wicker Man” covers not only the recording of the score by Paul Giovanni, as remembered by the film’s associate musical director Gary Carpenter, but also the subsequent history of the release of the soundtrack on CD, leading right up to the current re-release which is included as part of this 3- and 4-disc package. Finally Robin Hardy gives a newly recorded interview in which some lesser known anecdotes are recounted, including Hardy’s memories of his screenwriting partner Anthony Shaffer’s love of games and elaborate practical jokes, and how this translated into their own relationship. Both the latter two films run for a little over 15 minutes each.
As numerous contributors throughout the extra features on these discs reiterate, there is no other film like “The Wicker Man” -- and this package looks like providing fans with the definitive Blu-ray release, containing the most complete version we’re likely to get in this clear a state, although there are still inevitably sequences spread throughout it that are not in as crisp a condition as the main body of the film. For the most part though, the new restoration transfer is a revelation, with colours far more vibrant than they’ve ever been in any other version and the faux summer climate of Summer Isle looking more translucent than ever before. This is a must-buy upgrade of a true unrepeatable classic of British cinema.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!