In the four decades since its release, Robin Hardy’s 1973 film THE WICKER MAN has been accepted into the canon of classic horror movies. And with good reason: the last fifteen minutes are among the most harrowing in cinematic history. But while it’s certainly worthy of the acclaim, the label is a bit of an odd fit. While it ends as horrifically as any film of the ’70s, “horror movie” is simply the last of its many forms. Over the course of its running time (which itself is variable – more on that in a bit), THE WICKER MAN manages to be a police procedural, a meditation on comparative religions, a documentary of pagan practices, a travelog of the more remote British isles, an underrated British folk album with accompanying visuals, at least two separate incredible character studies, and even, in several scenes, a full-fledged musical. It is by turns thrilling, pastoral, funny, somber, and surprisingly raunchy before reaching its iconically chilling climax.
For the uninitiated, THE WICKER MAN tells the story of Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a puritanically religious police officer who is sent to the remote island of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter about a missing child. Upon his arrival, he finds that the grinning, musically inclined locals have never heard of her. Or maybe they have. Or maybe she was actually a rabbit. Whatever the case, it soon becomes clear that the natives have ideas about sex and religion that don’t sit well with the uptight bobby, what with their nightly orgies on the village green and cheerful proclamations that God is dead. Eventually, his pursuit of whatever the hell is going on leads him to Lord Summerisle himself (a fright-wigged Christopher Lee), who explains the history of his happy little cult.
Lee has frequently referred to Lord Summerisle as his favorite role and to THE WICKER MAN as his favorite film he’s worked on. And with good reason – the good Lord is a staggeringly complex character with as many layers as the film itself. Most obviously, his affable and charismatic demeanor when he first meets Howie masks the fanatical zeal he unleashes in the film’s final moments. There’s a level in between, however, that’s easier to overlook. In explaining the island’s traditions – which, it turns out, only go back three generations when his grandfather turned to the older gods in a last-ditch effort to save his crops – Lord Summerisle shows a self-awareness found in neither the villagers nor Sergeant Howie. Where every other character in the film is bound by faith they’ve held since birth, Lord Summerisle seems to have studied all of his options and sided with the one that yields the best results. When Howie asks him, “But what of the one TRUE god?” Summerisle simply shrugs: “He’s dead. Can’t complain. He had his chance – and, in modern parlance, blew it.”
If all of this sounds tough to wrap your head around, you’re not alone. The film’s distributor was understandably unsure how to market it in its homeland, let alone in the States. As a result, the film has only existed for the last several decades in a number of severely truncated cuts. The 2001 DVD release on Anchor Bay restored several previously lost scenes (including one of Sir Christopher serenading a pair of copulating snails – no, really), but had to settle for a worn out VHS dub for their source. However, a worldwide search on behalf of Hardy and StudioCanal has finally turned up a complete 92-minute print right in our own backyard at the Harvard Film Archive. That print has been given a new coat of wax and is being distributed as “The Final Cut”, which should end decades of movie buffs fretting over which is the “correct” version to convert the uninitiated.
Oh, and while it should go without saying: No, Nicolas Cage is not in this one. You’ll have to go elsewhere to enjoy his inquiries as to how things got burned.
THE WICKER MAN – FINAL CUT
Friday & Saturday, November 15-16, Midnight
Coolidge Corner Theatre (290 Harvard St., Brookline, MA02446)
General admission $10.25