In 1973, British cinema was an industry in crisis. The classic Hammer Horror productions were dwindling in popularity and American studios were withdrawing their funding on British films. So, when cinematic legend Christopher Lee wanted to branch away from his established portrayal as Count Dracula, he aided first-time director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer into producing one of the classic British horror films of all time.
The Wicker Man is the haunting tale of Sergeant Howie (played by a stoic Edward Woodward) who travels to Summerisle, a remote island in the Hebrides to track down Rowan, a young missing girl from the area. As he delves further into her disappearance, he finds that there is more behind the missing Rowan – leading to one of the most horrifying climaxes in film history.
This fabled extended cut coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 1973 release. Originally feared lost, Hardy’s ‘Final Cut’ is the vision he had always imagined for the film but never managed to release. Regardless of its aim to further unsettle Howie’s suspicions about Summerisle, the additional footage is so light that those unfamiliar with the film may not notice the slight changes.
When it comes to the horror genre, The Wicker Man encompasses that sense of uniqueness that British cinema can do so well. Whilst modern films have the tendency to concentrate on high body count and gore, The Wicker Man focuses on the traditional aims of crafting a sinister and full-on creepy tale. It is one that begins as a simple investigation but quickly takes the audience to a dark place long forgotten by civilisation. As Howie explores the town, intrigue builds and then gives way to mystery and foreboding around the fate of young Rowan.
The case then becomes a personal crusade for the pious and devout Howie, whose fervent religious beliefs clash with the resurgent pagan heritage of the island. Through him and Lord Summerisle, we bear witness to a confrontation of faiths – the ancient nature religion that once used to be taken for granted in the British Isles on one side, and the usurper monotheistic Judo-Christian ideals that replaced it.
As the charismatic Lord Summerisle, Christopher Lee easily delivers one of the best portrayals in his career. After a lengthy tenure as Count Dracula – a character that was ultimately destroyed in the name of God, it is ironic that he reinvents himself as a man who has turned away from Christianity to save his people. After all, if Christ has abandoned him, should he not, in turn, abandon Christ?
Simple yet timeless, The Wicker Man can possibly be seen as a subtle commentary on religion’s place in society. However, as a horror film, it works by subverting the established conventions and audience expectations of the genre – that light will prevail, that rescue is just around the corner – and provides an ending where a man pleads for mercy from his God but yet is abandoned to a painful death.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is out in UK cinemas on 27th September. It is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 14th October.
Director: Robin Hardy
Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento
Runtime: 88 min