FANGO Flashback: “THE WICKER MAN” (1973)
“The [WICKER MAN] negative has disappeared and has never been found,” Christopher Lee told me over tea in November 1992. “I wanted to recut the picture, to put in a lot of things that we shot and take out some of the scenes that were in the film. That negative, those outtakes, have never been seen again. Never. I happen to believe they were hidden. [WICKER MAN producer] Peter Snell says he was shown a hole in a road with a lot of cans of film in it, and they said amongst those cans of films was THE WICKER MAN negative…If I could lay my hands on that film now, and we could recut it, it would be a masterpiece.”
Thanks to Rialto Pictures release of a new DCP restoration of THE WICKER MAN, supervised by Robin Hardy, the celebrated film’s octogenarian director, THE WICKER MAN may finally be closer to the masterpiece Lee pined for. After an extensive search, rights holder StudioCanal located an old U.S. print (longer than the butchered original British cut, but shorter than Hardy’s first 102 minute version that Lee alluded to) and began a major digital cleanup in time for the film’s 40th anniversary. THE WICKER MAN—FINAL CUT opens this Friday, September 27 at New York City’s IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue at 3rd Street; 212-924-7771), with more cities set to play host to this essential film in the weeks ahead.
Scripted by SLEUTH author Anthony Shaffer, THE WICKER MAN follows a police sergeant named Howie (future TV EQUALIZER Edward Woodward, above), who flies to a remote Scottish island in search of a young girl gone missing. There the devout Christian experiences a major culture shock, as the residents of Summerisle are practicing pagans, worshiping the earth, sea and sun and offering up human sacrifices to insure a good seasonal crop. Is that what happened to young Rowan Morrison? The stick-in-the-mud copper is further enraged by the sexual openness of the island women (including the fetching Britt Ekland, Hammer great Ingrid Pitt and former Mrs. Sean Connery, Diane Celento). Lord Summerisle (Lee) ruffles Howie’s feathers the most when he attacks his religious beliefs and paves the way for the film’s still shocking conclusion.
THE WICKER MAN first caught my fancy in 1977 when genre journal CINEFANTASTIQUE dedicated an entire issue to a movie they called “the CITIZEN KANE of horror films.” The picture didn’t make it to New York City until April 1980, when it played at a single theater near Central Park. I actually walked miles from Queens to Manhattan to see it because it opened during a transit strike! Some of the film’s mature themes went over my 17-year-old head back then, and though I didn’t buy CFQ’s hyperbole (I’d bestow that title on ROSEMARY’S BABY or THE EXORCIST), I did get caught up in WICKER MAN’s fascinating morality clash, a debate just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Thanks to Shaffer’s brilliant writing and first timer Hardy’s assured direction, THE WICKER MAN continues to stand tall as one of the genre’s greatest exercises. It’s cinematic influence continues to be felt to this day: director Edgar Wright paid homage to WICKER MAN in 2007’s HOT FUZZ (and even cast Woodward in a small role); Julian Richards little seen DARKLANDS gave the story an urban setting in 1996; and Ben Wheatley also lifted some of the film’s shocks with his somewhat overrated KILL LIST (2011). Even this summer’s subversive slasher flick YOU’RE NEXT had its villains don WICKER MAN-style animal masks. Fortunately, the unintentionally funny 2006 remake did nothing to tarnish the original’s reputation, though the same can’t be said for star Nicolas Cage. 2011’s THE WICKER TREE, Hardy’s own unnecessary semi-sequel, failed to capture the past magic as well.
When we chatted years ago, a pre-Saruman Lee called THE WICKER MAN his best film and Summerisle the best role he’d ever played, noting that Shaffer wrote the character specifically for him. It’s hard to argue with Lee here; his Summerisle is a dynamic character, spouting rich, provocative dialogue, ritualistically dancing in drag and ultimately turning chillingly malevolent, torch in hand. Fans carrying a torch for THE WICKER MAN can now experience this wonderful film on the big screen, looking snazzier than ever.