BFI Gothic – The Wicker Man (1973) Final Cut
All hail John Barleycorn. One of the disgraceful oversights of last Halloween was a visit to the flicks, a particularly egregious oversight given that one of the all-time classic UK horror movies was playing at numerous venues around the capital – The Wicker Man. But like Lord Summersdale I had a cunning plan to harvest my offering to the celluloid gods, as I knew the BFI would get their hands on the new digital restored print doing the rounds of the various specialist film boutiques, so I finally snared these smouldering Satanists with a visit to the BFI as part of their Gothic season of screenings. It’s a film I’ve seen a handful of times over the years, you can’t really be a horror fan and reside in this country and not be instructed of its enormous cult cadre and idolatry among the infidels, most recently manifested as atmospheric invocations in Ben Wheatley’s disturbing Kill List. I like the film, I’m not crazy about it, but no-one can deny the impact of that infernal finale, a lovely scream inducing twist and an appropriately bleak ending with no redundant promises of potential sequels, although one did surface last year – The Wicker Tree – which I haven’t seen yet so can’t possibly comment upon (psstt, I’ve heard it’s absolutely terrible). Now, given that this film is like my good self of a four decade vintage we shall be delving into mild spoilers, I don’t think this should be a problem as any passing glance at the film’s posters, DVD covers or pretty any marketing involved with the conspiracy gives away the identity of the titular erection, a mammoth revelation which can only be equalled by the original Planet Of The Apes marketing which also kind of reveals what planet Chuck Heston’s actually been leaping around. Speaking of which, I loved it when Don Draper and his son saw that movie in the last season of Mad Men, that give it a nice touch although they neglected to do the same for 2001: A Space Odyssey which opened the same year, you’re not telling me that some of the denizens of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce wouldn’t have been grooving to that mind-blowing movie Daddy-O. Anyway, I think I’m getting a little distracted here, but I have to say that December also seems an ideal season to see this film in the run up to the celebration of ritual and spiritual
In terms of a brief synopsis then I think we can keep this brisk, repressed Christian Policeman Constable Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is despatched to the remote Scottish Isle of Summerisle to investigate the reported disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Upon arrival at the isolated community he finds his puritan values challenged by the dainty pagan practices of the beaming sect like denizens, including in a rather notorious scene the temptation of a rather fetching young barmaid Willow (Britt Ekland) keening to him in the throes of sexual lust – you can find the scene yourselves you soft-porn sickos. The Monarch of the Glen is the imperiously warm Laird Summersdale (Christopher Lee) in another of his iconic roles, a venom eyed presence whom may have his own ulterior motives orbiting the case, as the community appear to be hiding the cause and function of Rowan’s disappearance. It amuses me no end that the film was partially abandoned by its initial backers British Lion once they had viewed the original cut which they cited as ‘virtually unmarketable’, before summarily dumping the film into the ‘B’ Movie ghetto by pairing it on schedules with a more artistic horror statement – Don’t Look Now. One can only imagine the twin shock of staggering out of the cinema back in those days, your mind drenched and deranged with a twin pummeling of distressing shocks, from incendiary offerings to psychotic crimson garbed midget’s. Both films are widely considered as the greatest horror / chillers produced on these emerald eyes, alongside some of the original Hammer horror fare and the likes of Dead Of Night, Repulsion, The Innocents, Night Of The Demon and The Shining with which the film has some curious connections.
This was quite a transgressive period in UK film, an era of Witchfinder General, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and The Devils, the permissive 1960’s absorbed into society and diluting the orthodox conservatism of the 1950’s, with the likes of charming souls such as Mary Whitehouse cultish demanding her Christian doctrine be enforced as censorship across all broadcast channels – hope wonderfully inclusive and peacemaking of her. In fact as I read this I guess you could read the film as a meta-commentary on the charming social codes of the times, with Howie’s strict moral censure of sex before marriage, of respecting the one true god and doing one’s duty to defend the innocence is throughly massacred by the rapacious instincts of the free-love hippy scum, their permissive ideology leading to a symbolic incestual inferno. I mentioned ‘atmosphere’ in my last Gothic themed post and this is an extraordinary film from that perspective, as with The Shining this is a film whose ripens in full excoriating sunlight, in a full blazing dainty summer which is such an inversion of the usual horror tropes, you’d think that the ominous community would be framed as suspicious bumpkins huddled in mist shrouded pubs, fearing and loathing outsiders poking their unwanted beaks into their rituals and practices as some Dagon influenced Lovecraftian inbred community secretly worshipping some eldritch horror which lurks between the shadows of their moorlands. No, the liberated inhabitants of Summerilse are positively delighted to see the Constable among them as they skip and sing through the sun dappled highlands, for reasons which of course become burningly clear with that final, fuming revelation.
As with any cult film worth its reputation there are numerous versions of the film prancing around which is almost catnip to consumers, as you can compare and contrast to see if the director’s version was upheld in the face of philistine producers, if pacing and flow issues are addressed , or if the addition of material is simply a cash-grab launched by unscrupulous producers. After the original trimmed version seen in cinemas in 1973 director Robin Hardy retrieved a original print from Roger Corman (who else?) and completed the first restored version, which aired on UK TV as the inaugural film of a certain film season legend – Moviedrome was born. In the early 2000’s further scenes were inserted by the new copyright holders Canal+ which added a little colour to proceedings, before this years Final Cut which incorporates all the various additions of the extra material into one flame lit effigy. But why I think it has cultivated such a devoted following is simple – there is almost nothing else like it, it’s an almost unique picture when considering its light tone with menacing undercurrents, and although the likes of Blood On Satan’s Claw are in the same congregation as so-called ‘folk-horror’ movies or perhaps Rosemary’s Baby as that veneer of civility masking truly horrific intentions nothing quite matches The Wicker Man for such a strange, pastrol landscape teeming with celtic pre-christian primitivism.
There is something genuinely unsettling about people mooching about in animal masks, it’s not just obscuring their faces and identity of course which I think is an disquieting experience for our social species on a purely instinctive level (hence the general antipathy to the burqa and associated garments I reckon, anyone regardless of their religion or beliefs could garb themselves in that fashion and cause hackles to rise) as there is just something so elemental, so predatory to our collective unconsciousness and dare I say it unholy about that melding of man and beast, it reminds us of our primitive origins and savage smothered natures, stripped of civilisation anything could happen. So to close yes we must discuss the hysterically hilarious and incompetent American remake – quite what a director of the calibre of Neil LaBute thought he was doing with such shocking lapses in tone and judgement is still something of a matriarchal mystery – there are plenty of making of documentaries and retrospective thoughts, and here is a fine little collection of folky frolics to give you the soundtrack to prance and offer your fruits to the eternal virility and fertility sun gods. Naturally I’m inclined to finish this with the blistering conclusion to the movie but it’s curiously absent from the usual channels, so here instead is a glimpse of the original trailer which might invite you to clutch your crucifix closer to your chest as we take one last twirl around the May-Pole;