The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It regularly makes the ‘Top Ten Britflicks’ lists; it’s inspired a spoof musical; it was homage-d in Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave and his Olympic opening ceremony; and it’s provoked an appropriately fanatical level of devotion among some of its admirers. But as its 40th anniversary prompts another spruced-up restoration doing the rounds prior to a bells-and-whistles DVD release, does the ultimate British cult horror movie stand the test of time? For someone who’s been a fan since a late-night ITV screening many years ago, but hadn’t revisited it for a while, the answer is a resounding ‘aye’.

This version restores a good five minutes or so, painstakingly tracked down and edited back in – the version you’re probably familiar with was the original UK release, trimmed down to fit in a classic Seventies double-bill with Don’t Look Now, which no doubt began many a teenager’s passion for cinema one rainy afternoon at the local Odeon. Hardy has gone on record as saying it “fulfils his vision”, though watching it again after a long gap, it seemed to me to make at least one key scene overlong and introduce at least one major character a little too early. But judge for yourself – the new scenes are easy enough to spot, as it looks as though the film’s been stored in a vat of oxtail soup.

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And all this is of largely academic interest – it doesn’t severely blunt, and in some other cases enhances, the impact of a film that yields more with every viewing. As the opening credits unfold and Woodward’s Sgt Howie takes communion, surrounded by devout fellow churchgoers and his prim fiancée, like an Arthurian knight preparing for a quest in the wilderness, all the reasons why I love this film came flooding back.

The contrast, as his seaplane tracks through the huge, forbidding Western Isles landscape like a gull, and Celtic folk music by turns seductive and sinister plays on the soundtrack, is striking and potent. This isn’t the cosy Highland idyll of Ealing and Hollywood and when he lands to a reception of evasive hostility and sly cunning, the viewer feels as on edge and disorientated as he does.

He’s there to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, reported through an anonymous letter. The locals – even her own family – plead ignorance or give nonsensical answers. The village pub falls silent when he enters before the regulars bellow a bawdy song at him while the landlord’s daughter (Ekland) cavorts among them. Escaping for a breath of air, he finds the churchyard filled with couples having sex, barely looking up to acknowledge the presence of a uniformed policeman.

For the upright, devoutly Christian Howie, things go from bad to worse. The village sweetshop resembles a voodoo store, children dance round a maypole to the accompaniment of another song from the “parental advisory” section of the folk catalogue and the local schoolmistress (Cilento) lectures the kids on phallic symbolism and the transmutation of souls.

Even if you’re a Wicker Man virgin you’ll have realised by now that the whole island’s gone back to the old gods, pursuing a lifestyle of pagan idolatry, satisfaction of the animal appetites and more or less constant sex (insert own Scottish independence joke here). As Howie’s reaction moves from annoyed bafflement to appalled horror and old-style Kirk-approved righteous anger you share his sense of being alone in an alien world, its semblance of normality (the twee post office; the simple schoolroom; the authentically grim Seventies pub food) only adding to its creepiness.

When he finally encounters the island’s laird and master, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who gives a calm and cogent explanation for the community’s reversion (his Victorian freethinker ancestor’s attempt to use the unique climate of Scotland’s west coast to create a new paradise of abundance) Howie is even more convinced that Rowan’s disappearance is deeply sinister, connected to the failure of the last harvest – and the pagan world’s propensity for using human sacrifice to appease the gods of nature...

Watching it again, as Howie becomes ever more tightly drawn in, and the May Day ritual climax approaches, I was stuck by a definite strain of black comedy I’d never really noticed before. Hardy and Shaffer undoubtedly have fun in throwing Woodward’s straight-arrow, priggish copper into a permissive society that makes the heart of Soho look like a WI meeting in Tunbridge Wells, piling surreal and disconcerting images on one another in a hectic, sometimes unfocused whirl.

The film often threatens to tip over into unbelievable absurdity, but the fact that it doesn’t is due in no small part to the late and much-missed Woodward. As Hardy once remarked in a Channel 4 documentary, his performance – a masterclass of honest, basic decency standing firm in the face of hostility and nihilism - “gave it all some bottom”. The fact that in the end you do sympathise with Howie, tricked and outmanoeuvred at every turn like a noir private eye, and subjected to some severe temptation in the form of Ekland’s notorious naked dance, gives the film an emotional heft that adds to the suspense and horror. And he’s beautifully complemented by Lee, who could of course sound menacing reciting nursery rhymes while dressed in a pink onesie, but here makes the most of Shaffer’s relishable screenplay, his calm rationality and silky evasion always hinting at the deadly Count just below the surface. And Ekland, Cilento and Hammer stalwart Ingrid Pitt (as the local archivist, naturally) offer a beguilingly seductive trio, making the audience complicit in Howie’s darkest, unspoken thought (again subtly hinted at by Woodward) – that it would be so tempting to give up and join in with it all...

When that climax comes round again, it’s as bleak and chilling as ever. Whether this one really is the last word in Wicker Man restorations or not, go and see it again (or even better, for the first time) to see a film that is indeed from another era – one where talented filmmakers made the films they wanted to, and horror was so much more than endless gore and artificially-ratcheted suspense.

There’s not much violence here, and nothing overtly supernatural - just a row of animal masks peering out of cottage windows, or a beetle tied to a nail inside a schooldesk, slowly garrotting itself. Not just a great cult film, or a great British film, but one of the all-time great horror movies.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2013
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The Wicker Man: The Final Cut packshot
A policeman gets more than he bargained for on a remote Scottish isle - now in a new, restored version with additional footage.

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