Earlier this year Canalplus announced a campaign to find and restore the missing original cut of the 1973 British horror classic The Wicker Man, to commemorate its 40th anniversary. After an extensive search, Canalplus managed to get hold of a 92 minute 35mm print languishing in the Harvard Film Archive.
This print, which was the same version as the 1979 US release distributed by Abraxas, was longer than the 88 minute UK theatrical cut, which was butchered to fit alongside Don’t Look Now as a double bill. Scenes missing from the short UK cut were reinstated and added into a restored UK version to create what we now see as the Final Cut.
Over the years various rumours and tall tales have abounded as to the fate of the missing footage – some even assert that negatives lie buried somewhere under the M3. But in the event, the version now being presented in cinemas does not contain any of the mysterious missing footage, which may come as a disappointment to fans. However, newly restored, the film looks marvellous, and besides, the opportunity to view it on the big screen should never be passed up. In the previous Director’s Cut, the difference in quality in certain scenes was marked.
In this version, everything has been beautifully scrubbed up and the disparity in quality is noticeably diminished. For those who have only seen the short 88 minute cut, the Final Cut is far superior in terms of pacing and narrative – the events of the plot unfold over a period of three days rather than two, and the beautiful Paul Giovanni-sung and composed number “Gently Johnny” has been restored, along with Lord Summerisle’s first appearance and monologue.
The Wicker Man has already been reviewed on this site (right Here) so I will only give a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the plot. An uptight, puritanical policeman (Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous letter from a resident of an isolated the Scottish island of Summerisle. A young girl is allegedly missing from her home. Upon arrival in Summerisle, Sergeant Howie finds the locals completely uncooperative in helping him discover the whereabouts of the child. Perhaps even worse as far as he is concerned, the island delights in pagan worship and bawdy licentiousness.
Howie finds his staunch Christian faith entirely at odds with the Celtic-derived beliefs of the islanders, who are overseen by charming and debonair Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in his finest role). Howie suspects that the girl is to be sacrificed as a fertility offering on May Day and so begins a fraught game of cat and mouse as he races to find her and deliver her from her grisly fate. However, things take a wholly unexpected turn for Howie, and the surprise ending is one of the most shocking and powerful in cinema.
The 40th anniversary of The Wicker Man comes provides an opportunity to reappraise a much feted and long cherished British classic. At the heart of the film is a story about conflicting beliefs, and the dangers of holding unswervingly to religious dogma. Although it is Howie who is sacrificed, the islanders don’t really come out of it all that well – as Howie points out, if the sacrifice does not work then next year they will be forced to offer up none other than Lord Summerisle himself. In a time of growing ignorance and prejudice surrounding religious belief, The Wicker Man now seems almost prescient in its story.
The Wicker Man has proven extremely influential over the past four decades. Many British horror films have tried to ape its unique atmosphere, pitched somewhere between camp, pastoralism and disquiet; but none have succeeded in replicating it. It’s an oddity among horror films. There is no element of the supernatural, no guts or gore. The whole thing takes place in sunny springtime. Yet, without recourse to the usual tropes of horror movies it is still profoundly unnerving.
The cinematic release of the Final Cut will give newcomers to the film the chance to discover it as well as treating die-hard fans with a spruced-up new version. Not only is it released in cinemas but also on handsomely packaged DVD and Blu Ray, which are set to come with a welter of extras.
If, like me, you are completely in thrall to the cult of the Wicker Man, you may feel the slight disappointment I felt initially realising there was no previously unseen footage. But like me you will no doubt forget the disappointment altogether as the strange, febrile atmosphere of the film takes over.
And even though I have seen this film around forty times, the final denouement still sends chills down my spine and makes me catch my breath – and all the more so when viewed on the big screen.
Don’t miss it.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is released in cinemas September 27th and available on DVD / Blu Ray October 14th read all about the Extras right Here