Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
478With dark endurance, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s cult classic The Wicker Man refuses to lie down and die. Its production a riot of mishap, misdirection and misunderstanding, the distinctly unusual and devoutly eccentric tale of a pious detective led to his sacrificial doom for the fruitful sake of a pagan people on a remote Scottish island, has justly become one of the most renowned cult classic films of all time. With personality clashes on location, chance and risk governing the shoot, gargantuan ineptitude on the part of bemused distributors and such ill-fortune awaiting its release that one could only assume that it was the subject of a curse, the film has weathered many a storm and gone on to attain the kudos and criticial acclaim of what is very possibly the best and cleverest, and most disturbing British horror film ever made.
Although a sequel was made – Hardy’s own penned and directed The Wicker Tree, which even had the audacity to recruit Christopher Lee, who really should have known better – there was originally intended to be a follow-up that actually featured Sgt. Howie, who is miraculously rescued at the last minute (but the first of the new film), by a squad of policemen who arrive in another seaplane. After months of rehabilitation, he and another copper go back to Summerisle with the intention of arresting the Lord and his most ardent of followers. What follows is so vastly different in tone to the original film, and so utterly preposterous – it has Howie and Summerisle dueling their antagonised faiths and combating with dragons, eagles, witches and all manner of genuine magic – that it was simply unfilmable. Both Lee and Woodward were approached with the script, but neither could make head nor tail of it and, thankfully, the sacrifice of Sgt. Howie remains as we see it.
With typical Hollywood lunacy a remake was also undertaken, with Nicholas Cage taking on the duped detective role. You don’t need me to tell you that it was a complete travesty.
It’s been a great pleasure meeting a Christian copper.
But remakes and sequels be damned, there is nothing in Cinema like The Wicker Man. Nothing. And the genre is all the richer because of its existence. Whatever version you see, original theatrical, director’s or final cut, the film weaves a spell that is all its own and challenges you on some very personal, moral and esoteric levels, whilst still enmeshing you within the confines of a deeply distressing, yet endlessly debate-worthy and exhilarating and erotic experience. Its legacy is profound. The tendrils of smoke from that roasting wicker cage have found their way into The Slaughtered Lamb pub from An American Werewolf in London and the insular attitudes of the denizens of East Proctor. John Boorman’s Excalibur and TV’s Games of Thrones owe some of their texture and arcane oddities to it.
Personally, I prefer the longest iteration of the film, the Director’s Cut. I like the material on the mainland at the start as it plays off against the conclusion, with Howie turning full-circle in ritual and anointment, becoming the very sacrifice he celebrates in church at the beginning. I think we need to see where Howie comes from and to that is better to understand that he does, indeed, have a life back there and, more importantly, a future. Now although this component is still intact, we lose the scenes back at the police station and the mention of the graffiti on the wall. Hardly vital material, I know, but it continues to establish Howie’s staunch outlook, and it reinforces the device by which he, personally, is summoned by the anonymous letter to come search for Rowan. Plus, in this version we get to meet John Hallam’s Const. McTaggart. I like John Hallam. He has a fabulous face and voice. He was one of Voltan’s Hawkmen in Mike Nicholl’s glorious Flash Gordon, the human villain in Dragonslayer and a terrified asylum attendant in Lifeforce. His McTaggart would be the one ally that the scorched Howie would have had in the planned but unflimed original sequel.
The Final Cut excises the Hallam/McTaggart material completely, yet retains Howie’s reading at the church. This version thankfully also maintains that the sergeant is on the island for two days and not just one as in the UK Theatrical, which throws narrative to the wind, to some degree.
Sheer magnificence, The Wicker Man withstands adulteration and scorn and bewilderment and never, ever loses its power to enthrall, ensnare, captivate and shock. It is lightning in a bottle. Unique. Unsettling. Haunting. And sensationally inspired.