Wednesday 9 October 2013

From the ashes: "The Wicker Man: The Final Cut"

The so-called "Final Cut" of The Wicker Man is an 84-minute placeholder that splices into the commonly circulated shorter version - first slashed down by its producers back in 1973 to fill the lower half of a double-bill with Don't Look Now - stray analogue remnants of director Robin Hardy's original standalone vision; a new 4K digital restoration punches up the blood reds and harvest greens, and hopes we won't notice the joins. The new additions come early, and are upfront about characterisation in ways that can seem clumsy. Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle, ominously late to the party in the standard version, is here introduced foppishly pimping a young boy to Britt Ekland outside the Green Man pub; a date-stamped prologue ("29th April 1973") serves to establish the beliefs of Edward Woodward's uptight and chaste Sergeant Howie as archaic from the off - we are, as we're now definitively informed, some time on from the Summer of Love.

Such detailing underlines this as as much a counterculture movie as, say, Easy Rider was in the States: though it's narratively no more specific to Vietnam, thematically, at least, The Wicker Man serves as a cautionary tale for any bullheaded conservative thinking of blundering blindly into unfamiliar territory, while its embrace of a "new" pagan sexuality (as incarnated by Britt Ekland, the cream of 1973's pin-up crop, and her body double, striving to bang down the last remaining walls) was very much of its time. (Unlike Dennis Hopper, hellbent on martyrdom, Hardy even lets the longhairs win.)

Four decades on, its sheer unconventionality - as a horror-musical several years before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, full of weirdy-beardy folk songs about men turning into trees and such - positions it as very much a spiritual offshoot of the New American Cinema, yet its various incantations are sung as seriously and as sincerely as the Christian hymns with which The Wicker Man now opens, and might - if we kept our ears open - be heard as clues: in those gay rhymes about men and trees, is there not already a conjunction being made between wood and death? (See also: the film's makeshift coffins, the apple crates piled atop gravestones from which an outraged Howie fashions his rudimentary crucifix.)

It was, then, meant as an education - a broadening of the mind - for both viewers and clueless protagonist alike, and the more one sees The Wicker Man, the more one can't fail to be impressed by the masterclass Woodward gives in actor empathy. We have no business having any sympathy for a character as pompous and stuffy as Howie - a little man, oblivious to the worldly delights and pleasures with which the film surrounds him - and yet Woodward somehow dignifies him, shows us the character's limitations (his blinkered approach, his imprisoning chastity) as a warning to us all, and in doing so, he gives this deeply eccentric film not just its centre, but its own inexorable logic. The final reel - which still impresses in its physicality, even as it turns on the revelation of the biggest faux pas in horror cinema - becomes tragic and horrific for a reason: all that knowledge, all that conviction, and to see it all go up in smoke...

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is in selected cinemas ahead of its DVD release on October 14.

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