The Wicker Man is the perfect cult film, one that comes with its own ready-made mythology and bizarre history. Its subject matter alone – a pious Christian policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island that’s home to a pagan community – would have been enough to have raised eyebrows on its release in 1973. Add to this the mystery surrounding the film’s lost footage and the 40 year search for it, and you’ve got a bona fide cult classic with an appeal that’s endured across four decades.
After an appeal to find the missing scenes earlier this year from director Robin Hardy and Studio Canal, a ‘Final Cut’ has now been assembled for The Wicker Man’s 40th anniversary and Hardy says he’s very happy with this version of the film; his original cut was never released and edited down without his knowledge or permission.
The differences between this version and the slightly shorter original cut that most of us are familiar with might seem minimal but they make sense; scenes with Edward Woodward’s righteous policeman Sergeant Howie reading the Eucharist in church at the beginning of the film forms a nice bookend with the film’s chilling finale.
And our first sighting of the creepy Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) offering up a teenage lad for his rites of passage liaison with Britt Ekland’s promiscuous landlord’s daughter Willow gives us an insight into the alternative lifestyle of the island community.
What’s striking about watching The Wicker Man now, is the enduring power and downright strangeness of the film remains undiminished 40 years after its release, whether you know its troubled history or not.
As Woodward’s straight-laced policeman is given the run-around by the weird, close-knit community he’s investigating, the tension mounts. You know something terrible has either happened or will happen. And even when you’ve seen it before, the film’s finale is still shocking, yet strangely poetic and fitting too. It’s a funny film too. The funny moments in the film make the hippy, cultish community seem a bit daft but harmless. The ending shows they’re anything but that.
The Wicker Man is certainly a work of its time and has a very 1970s feel, but the performances hold up well after 40 years, especially those of Woodward and Lee. Their characters are the central players in the game of cat-and-mouse that The Wicker Man is all about. The Wicker Man is often referred to as a horror film and it does have elements of horror, especially towards the end. But it strikes me more as a psychological thriller where moments of revulsion and comedy sit uneasily but compelling side by side.
The Final Cut of The Wicker Man isn’t just a must for completists or horror aficionados. It’s a chance to enjoy and appreciate a classic film again, a strange, compelling and very British cult classic.