The Wicker Man: The Final Cut review

And on that bed there was a girl, and on that girl there was a man, and from that man there was seed, and from that seed… You know how the song goes, you know how it ends, but that doesn’t stop you humming along…

A plane arrives at Summerisle, a remote community in the Western Isles of Scotland. The pilot is a policeman from the mainland, a Sgt Howie (Woodward). There has been a complaint, you see, a report of a missing girl has been made. Met with at first grinning incomprehension from the locals, then polite condescension from the island’s leader Lord Summerisle (Lee), the by-the-book copper becomes increasingly convinced of foul play. A man of deep traditional Presbyterian beliefs, Howie is horrified to find that the inhabitants of the island are practising pagans and sexually free-spirited to boot. Filled both with righteous indignation, a stern belief in the rule of law, and driven by self disgust at the temptations of the flesh (in the form of Ekland), he will not let the any lead go unexplored in his search for the missing girl.

And you probably know where the story is going (if you don’t, where have you been? Living in a cave dining with Sawney Bean?)

An unlikely success story, The Wicker Man was originally released by a studio that had no faith in it, in a version drastically cut down from the director’s preferred cut. With little promotion it crept out in the UK as the bottom half of a double bill with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (a contender for all-time great horror double bill). Over time the film rose first to cult status, but continued until it became a recognised classic of British cinema.

In truth, it shouldn’t work. Director Hardy has been dining out on The Wicker Man for years, but has little other work of note in his CV. His direction is often of TV movie standard (if you think he’s the genius behind The Wicker Man, watch his truly awful semi-sequel The Wicker Tree). The film features some frankly bizarre casting, especially Swedish starlet Ekland who delivers a deer-in-the-headlights performance. In fact, Ekland’s voice was completely overdubbed by Scottish singer Annie Ross (later to appear in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3). There is an equally strange performance from dancer and mime artist Kemp as Ekland’s father. And while it may be sacrilege to many, but I’ve always felt Lee gives one of his most self satisfied and hammy performances here as Lord Summerisle.

And yet, this is a gold-plated five-star classic. How? A number of factors, the two most important of which are the writer and lead actor.

The twin brother of playwright Peter Schaffer (famous for the plays Equus and Amadeus, both memorably filmed) screenwriter Anthony had his own theatrical success with the sly comic murder mystery Sleuth, and had just completed the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s pitch black Frenzy (1972). Schaffer creates in Summerisle a pagan community that feels completely convincing, and a story that is a masterful conjuring trick full of misdirection leading to a spectacular final flourish with arguably one of the best endings in the horror canon. One so powerful it is undiminished even if spoiled. If the preceeding two acts of the film had been complete rubbish (which they aren’t), The Wicker Man would still be remembered for the way its plot snaps shut like a bear trap. It is quite right that the film is still credited in the opening titles as "Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Ma"’.

A well known television star at a time when that was rather sniffed at by the film establishment, Woodward won the role of Howie only after several actors passed (including Michael York and David Hemmings, neither of whom I can imagine being remotely as good). Woodward is surrounded by some frankly ripe performances, but he plays his part straighter than straight, which is perfect for the material. Howie is a man secure in his certainties, his religion, his morality, his faith, and his law. The winking mischievous islanders are clearly hiding something, so the vast difference between Woodward’s serious committed performance and the thickly-sliced ham around him actually works in the context of Schaffer’s ingenious and ultimately cruel story. The actor never quite gets enough credit, but not only is the success of the whole enterprise dependent upon his ability to make a priggish, moralistic, Dudley McDo-Right sympathetic and likable, the Surrey-born actor also does one of the best Scottish accents I’ve ever heard.

Another factor intrinsic to the success and unique atmosphere of the film is its music by American songwriter Paul Giovanni and the band Magnet. The film’s soundtrack of folk music becomes is an integral part of the story which features numerous songs sung by characters in the film which both drive and inform the plot. Willow’s Song which is sung by Elkland’s character (with the aforementioned voice of Annie Ross) as she attempts to seduce Sgt Howie from an adjacent bedroom in one of the most powerfully erotic evocations of blueballs in cinema history. Music is as important to the success of this film as it is in Psycho or Susperia.

The Wicker Man is a very British film, perhaps the very best example of the folk horror tradition and a film whose influence is immense and can be clearly seen in subsequent work as diverse as television’s The League of Gentlemen, Edgar Wright’s action spoof Hot Fuzz, and Ben Wheatley’s chilling Kill List.

StudioCanal embarked on a project to find the original film elements and compile the most complete version of the film released to date to mark its 40th Anniversary. Ultimately the version released as "The Final Cut" is actually shorter than the "Director’s Cut" released on DVD. Thankfully, it omits some frankly damaging early scenes of exposition, but otherwise I couldn’t see any significant differences. I still think the earlier introduction of Lord Summerisle tips the hat too soon, but the snails are a nice addition and it’s worth it for more music.

More important than the new footage is the 2K restoration undertaken by StudioCanal. While some of the new material is noticeably from poorer-condition elements, the majority of the film looks clean and colourful, a big improvement from the previous DVD version.

It’s a great, great film – somebody should remake it.

The Wicker Man at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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