Monday, 15 October 2007

Day 15: The Wicker Man (1973)

Monday, 15 October 2007
Flesh to touch... flesh to burn...
don't keep the Wicker Man waiting...

Christopher Lee was a well-known face of British horror in the 60s, thanks to numerous appearances in Hammer Horror productions, most famously as the iconic Count Dracula. In the early-70s, Lee was looking for an acting challenge away from fangs and garlic, so collaborated with Peter Snell (head of the British Lion production company) and playwright Anthony Shaffer, to produce a film based on the book Ritual by David Pinner...

During their collusion, Shaffer became intrigued by notions in Ritual, but his ideas began to expand into different areas. Ritual had fired his imagination -- but the resulting film, about an idealistic modern Christian confronting an isolated, pagan community, was very different...

Director Robin Hardy joined the project and worked with Shaffer on the film's accuracy, with authentic rituals and music chosen to represent paganism fairly. The Wicker Man, as it was now known, began attracting its cast: obviously Christopher Lee would take the villainous role as Lord Summerisle; Edward Woodward took the lead as principled, religious policeman Sergeant Howie; Diane Cilento came out of retirement to play the creepy school mistress; Ingrid Pitt, another Hammer Horror stalwart, became the town's librarian and registrar; and Swedish pin-up/actress Britt Ekland joined the cast as the inkeeper's sexy daughter.

Filming began on The Wicker Man in October 1972, because millionaire John Bentley, who had bought the financially troubled British Lion film company, needed to fast-track something into production. However, as The Wicker Man was supposed to take place during the summer, artificial leaves and blossom were laboriously glued to trees in many scenes! Christopher Lee was also so committed to the project that he worked for free and The Wicker Man was kept on a strict low-budget.

By 1973, British Lion had been bought out by EMI and the new company demanded changes to Robin Hardy's completed film. To Christopher Lee's frustration, Hardy was forced to cut 20-minutes of footage and a 99-minute version of The Wicker Man was sent to Roger Corman in America -- with a request for advice on how to market this horror in the States.

Corman recommended a further 13-minutes be cut, but didn't acquire the distribution rights. The finished film was actually tested at American drive-ins by Warner Brothers! In its native land, the film was cut down to to 87-minutes and released as the "B-Picture" on a double-bill with classic chiller Don't Look Now.

Lee was particularly frustrated with all these edits and the UK's release strategy, but he urged critics to go and see The Wicker Man. The film became a minor success, but its only initial glory was winning first prize at 1974's Festival Of Fantastic Films in Paris. It then faded into obscurity very quickly.

In the mid-70s, Hardy, Lee and Shaffer attempted to find the original footage of The Wicker Man -- a search that led them to Roger Corman's office. In the US, the film rights now belonged to a company called Abraxas, who agreed to let Hardy re-edit his film and re-release it in the US. Hardy restored a lot of the film's narrative and erotic scenes, then released his improved 96-minute version to widespread critical acclaim in 1979.

Strangely, the American VHS release of The Wicker Man in the 1980s featured some scenes that weren't even in Hardy's 1979 re-release! In 2001, Canal+ (who now owned the worldwide distribution rights), wanted to re-release the full-length film. They combined various film elements from different sources and released a "definitive" re-edited version in cinemas. This cut subsequently became the DVD "Extended Edition" and is considered the closest thing to Hardy's 1979 theatrical re-release.

The Wicker Man is a great film. Its eerie, desolate atmosphere can still unsettle even today, and it contains some brilliant performances from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. The story is intelligent, well-researched and haunting in its simplicity. Of course, it's most remembered for its nihilistic finale, where (for once) the bad guys win. Justly celebrated by horror aficionados, you owe it to yourself to give this 70s gem a look, if you haven't done so already.

Sadly, an incompetent US remake by Neil LaBute defiled screens in 2006, with Nicolas Cage replacing Edward Woodward and Summerisle being supplanted to America. Despite a few interesting choices and twists to the storyline, it's a text-book example that you shouldn't mess with the classics of the genre...


1. These days, a Wickerman Festival is held every July in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, and ends with the burning of a real Wicker Man effigy.

2. Britt Ekland did appear topless in the famous dancing sequence, but refused to dance fully naked. Without her knowledge, a body double was used.

3. Studio executives suggested a more upbeat ending, with a sudden downpour of rain extinguishing the Wicker Man's flames!

4. In the final scene, the goat above Edward Woodward urinated on him!

5. The wooden stumps of the film's Wicker Man were left behind and became a mecca for Wicker Man fans for decades. Sadly, in 2006, the stumps were cut out and stolen.

6. Originally, director Robin Hardy wanted Michael York to play Sgt Howie.

7. Christopher Lee considers this film one of his greatest ever roles.

8. It is an urban myth that the original negative of The Wicker Man was used as landfill for the M3 motorway!

9. Britt Ekland's voice was dubbed by Annie Ross.

10. Britt Ekland maintains that some animals really did burn to death in the Wicker Man.


The Return Of The Pagan World
Symbolism of Wicker Man