The Wicker Man

Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN (1973). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/ StudiocanalThis September sees the cinema debut of perhaps horror’s most abused classic in its intended form: the ‘Final Cut’ of Robin Hardy’s 1973 pagan chiller THE WICKER MAN.

A devoutly Christian policeman, Sargeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), is called to the Hebridean island of Summerisle, to investigate the apparent disappearance of young Rowan Morrison. On arrival, however, he finds an island population brazenly clinging to The Old Religion, overseen by the charismatic, imposing Lord Summerisle (a career-best Christopher Lee). Howie is led a merry dance (literally) into their nightmarish festivities, culminating in his still-shocking appointment with the Wicker Man.

Rod Stewart allegedly tried to buy every single copy of the film…

It’s a folky brew of pagan eroticism and eldritch menace, and remains profoundly influential. It’s also, thanks to its extraordinary mistreatment, wreathed in myth. Mock Scottish rock lothario Rod Stewart allegedly tried to buy every single copy of the film to prevent his girlfriend Britt Ekland being seen cavorting about in the nip. Other rumours point to the original negatives being used as landfill under the M4 motorway.

Originally cut to 100 minutes, the UK version clocked in at a compact 88 minutes, released as the b-picture in a double bill with Nic Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW. Our old friend studio interference resulted in around 12 minutes of cuts, compressing events into a much shorter timeframe than intended, excising some opening sequences on the mainland and radically altering Lord Summerisle’s entrance . But even in this gutted state, Lee had such faith in this beguiling film that he was willing to pay for critics to see it and spread the word.

During the 1970s Robin Hardy searched in vain for his original negative, hoping to restore the film. It found its saviour in US genre legend Roger Corman. Corman had been sent an original edit, with a view to distrubuting it Stateside. That deal fell through, but Hardy used this print for a 1979 American re-release with a 92 minute running time. This was only ever seen in the UK once, on Alex Cox’s BBC 2 ‘Moviedrome’ strand. It was, however, widely available in US home video for decades after.

Canal+ acquired the rights in the early 2000s, again seeking to compile a complete cut of the film, which by now had become something of a cause celebre. Sadly, Corman’s print was now lost, but a videotape transfer remained. Canal+ spliced the theatrical cut together with videotape elements to create a 99-minute ‘Director’s Cut’, and released this to DVD. This was the closest version yet to Hardy’s original. However, the videotape portions are painfully apparent on viewing, like they’re drawn on old sellotape rather than filmed. Without the now lost original negative, a proper restoration was impossible.

It’s been a bumper year for fans of vandalised horror movies.

This year, Studiocanal renewed the search for lost material. In the Harvard Archives, they chanced upon a 35mm print of the 1979 version. With a new 2K transfer, UK audiences will finally get to see a restored, Hardy approved print on the big screen. It’s highly unlikely that this version will contain any more unseen material. At 92 minutes, it’s a good deal shorter than the previous Director’s Cut. However, Hardy is happy to release it without the extra Howie mainland sequences, as events now unfold in the correct timeframe.

It’s been a bumper year for fans of vandalised horror movies. Clive Barker’s Fox-butchered monster epic NIGHTBREED has been similarly reconstructed and is headed to BluRay shortly. Now that we’ll get to see THE WICKER MAN in a restored print, we’ve run out of Horror Holy Grails. Unless someone has a copy of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT hanging around their loft, that is.

THE WICKER MAN: THE FINAL CUT screens at Cambridge Film Festival on Tuesday 24th at 15.30 (Picturehouse) and 20.30 (Cineworld).