Saturday, October 5, 2013


One of the hidden gems of the long storied history of horror films is the 1973 release of Robin Hardy's THE WICKER MAN. Critics are polarized as to its importance in the genre (some not calling it a "horror film" at all), but it has also been hailed as the "Citizen Kane of horror films" by CINEFANTASTIQUE mangazine. There's no denying, however, that its plot is seductive, the acting superb, and the ending, if you weren't hit with a spoiler, is a guaranteed shocker.

Legend has it that the entire production was a result of Christopher Lee wanting to shake the shackles off of his Hammer persona. Later he is said to have claimed that both his role and the movie itself were his favorites. Ironically, the film has a familiar feel to it, and it's no wonder that some people mistook the British Lion film as a Hammer production.

Nevertheless, THE WICKER MAN is generally described as a favorite "cult" film by its fans and supporters. I believe it to be one of the most important horror films of the 1970's. Had it been released in the 1960's, say, right after ROSEMARY'S BABY, I would venture a guess that it would now be regarded as a classic.

THE WICKER MAN is not a lost film, per se, but the original, longer cut went missing for many years. The full version was discovered at the Harvard Film Archive and has been restored to it's never-before-seen glory, fully endorsed by the director Robin Hardy, with a current UK theatrical run and a Blu-ray release forthcoming. Of course, like the recent release of the restored HORROR OF DRACULA and a slew of other Blu-ray Hammer re-issues, this is all happening across the pond. So American fans, unless you have a region-free DVD player, you will have to wait a while.

Following are three online news stories about the resurrection of THE WICKER MAN. Each one takes a slightly different angle, but they all acknowledge the fact that the release of "The Final Cut" of this film is definitely newsworthy.

'The Wicker Man -- The Final Cut': Director Robin Hardy on the re-release of his cult classic
By Clark Collis on Sep 24, 2013 at 4:31PM

Rejoice, fans of cult British horror films, twist endings, and big-screen nudity! On Friday, The Wicker Man will return to the big screen in a newly restored and recut version largely scanned from a 35mm print recently discovered at the Harvard Film Archive.The work of British director Robin Hardy, the 1973 horror classic stars the late Edward Woodward as a devoutly Christian policeman named Howie hunting for a missing girl on a remote Scottish island. Our hero soon discovers the burg’s inhabitants — including Christopher Lee‘s sinisterly welcoming Lord Summerisle and Britt Ekland’s frisky barmaid — practice a form of lubricious paganism very much at odds with the moral code of the virginal investigator.

The film was originally released in a savagely truncated form, and over the years, the number of versions of varying lengths has almost overtaken the number of copulating couples Woodward’s appalled copper discovers outside the island’s pub (which is saying a lot). This latest version, The Wicker Man — The Final Cut, comes after a Facebook-based quest by the European company StudioCanal to locate original film materials and, according to Hardy, is vastly superior to a previous restoration which played cinemas in the late ’70s. “What we can do, and have done now, in restoring it is 100 times better than what we were able to do then,” says the director. “The whole technology is miles ahead of what we could do then.”

Indeed, Hardy describes this latest cut as “definitive” and says he is particularly pleased that, after it debuts at New York’s IFC Center this Friday, the movie will screen at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, where the film played way back in 1979. “We had protesters outside, which one should always have,” he laughs. “[They were] pagans, with piercings through every orifice, complaining that we were giving paganism a bad name.” (In addition to New York and and San Francisco, the new Wicker Man will also play Santa Fe, Nashville, Duluth, Chicago, Dallas, and San Diego, among other cities.)

Of course, many people will only be familiar with the infamous Neil LaBute-directed, Nicolas Cage-starring 2006 Wicker Man remake, which since its release has gained a reputation as one of the truly awful movies of our time — and deservedly so, according to Hardy. “I’ve been to some of LaBute’s theater stuff, very good indeed, and I admire Nicolas Cage too,” says the director. “So how they could have possibly thought what they were getting into was good, I cannot imagine. Absolute disaster.”

Hardy himself directed a companion piece-cum-spiritual sequel to his original, 2011’s The Wicker Tree, and has plans to wrap up the Scotland-set trilogy with another film, Wrath of the Gods. “It’s got a certain amount of sex, it’s got some lovely music, and it’s got a very Wicker Man-ish ending,” he promises. Given Nicolas Cage has a house in the U.K., maybe the director should pop along and ask if the seemingly always working Ghost Rider star is interested in taking a role. “Yes, I should. Except for he’s pretty un-Scottish.” 

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut: Film Review
10:04 PM PDT 9/24/2013 by Stephen Dalton 

Digitally restored with the blessing of director Robin Hardy, this vintage British shocker retains its potent mix of pagan horror and trippy hippie weirdness 

Returning in a new restoration to mark its 40th anniversary, The Wicker Man is a cult classic of left-field British horror whose reputation has only deepened over the decades. The film’s most obvious cheerleaders in contemporary cinema are Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright – who paid indirect homage in their fanboy genre spoof Hot Fuzz – as well as the acclaimed comedy thriller director Ben Wheatley, who tapped a similar seam of pagan weirdness in Kill List and Sightseers. Teasingly dubbed The Final Cut, this latest digitally restored edit returns to theaters later this week before its deluxe DVD and Blu-Ray release next month.

Loosely inspired by David Pinner’s novel Ritual, which itself began as a rejected screenplay for Death Wish director Michael Winner, the script was written by Sleuth author Anthony Shaffer and directed by young first-timer Robin Hardy. TV tough guy Edward Woodward, later to find U.S. fame as The Equalizer, plays Howie, a straitlaced and devoutly Christian policeman investigating the apparent ritual murder of a young girl on a remote Scottish island, which is run as a kind of giant free-love hippie commune by the saturnine Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Thwarted at every turn by the cheerfully unhelpful islanders, whose pagan worship of nudity and sexuality arouses conflicted passions inside him, Howie learns too late that he has been lured into a terrifying trap.
Initially an obscure midnight movie, The Wicker Man has become more culturally resonant during its 40-year afterlife. The notion of a spiritually inclined death cult run by a charismatic guru has since acquired plenty of real-life parallels, from Jim Jones to David Koresh to Osama Bin Laden. The film’s spellbinding score of haunted folk ballads, composed and arranged by transplanted American songwriter Paul Giovanni, has also earned evergreen cool status among generations of bearded acoustic hipsters. In some scenes it feels like a psychedelic hippie musical, in others a creepy soft-porn thriller.

Watched today, however, some of the performances look comically hammy. Lee is the chief offender here, closely followed by Lindsay Kemp – former mentor and lover of David Bowie – as a camp pub landlord. While the picturesque Scottish locations are authentic, the locals speak a preposterous polyglot gumbo of accents. The colorful cast of unlikely Celts includes Swedish starlet Britt Ekland, Australian-born Diane Cilento and Polish horror-movie veteran Ingrid Pitt. Ekland’s Nordic vowels and naked bottom both required stand-ins. Cilento was in the final stages of her marriage to Sean Connery during the shoot, and later married Shaffer.

A commercial flop on British cinema screens back in 1973, The Wicker Man began its slow journey to global cult status in the U.S. Having acquired the film as part of the ailing studio British Lion, EMI unceremoniously hacked down Hardy’s original edit from 102 to 88 minutes for U.K. release as the B-picture in a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. But across the Atlantic, the film received positive interest from the legendary cult movie mogul Roger Corman. Warner Bros. marketed it unsuccessfully to drive-in audiences, then sold the rights to a smaller connoisseur outfit called Abraxas, who worked with Hardy to restore the film back to a near-complete 94-minute cut. Finally re-released to critical acclaim in 1979, it was dubbed “the Citizen Kane of horror movies” by Cinefantastique magazine.

Over the decades, The Wicker Man has accumulated its own potent mythology, including oft-repeated claims that the elusive full original negative had been buried in the concrete foundations of an English motorway. Hardy insists these nonsensical rumors originated with EMI as a fanciful excuse for losing the negative. The film’s reputation even survived Neil Labute’s disastrous 2006 U.S. remake, starring Nicolas Cage and set on a matriarchal island commune off the Pacific Northwest coast, which was fatally low on tension and bombed at the box office. Hardy himself did the film no favors with his “spiritual sequel” The Wicker Tree, released in 2011, a little-seen low-budget misfire notable mainly for its brief cameo by Lee.

In assembling this latest restoration, the current rights-holders Studiocanal tracked down a print in the Harvard Film Archive that once belonged to Corman. This print became the source of several long-missing scenes that have now been reinstalled into the shorter U.K. theatrical cut, expanding it to 94 minutes. The most significant revived scene is Howie’s first sighting of Lord Summerisle, performing the erotic ballad Gentle Johnny under Ekland’s bedroom window, and reciting Walt Whitman lines over close-up scenes of copulating snails. Of the brief early sequences set on the Scottish mainland, Howie’s thematically significant church scene remains, while the superfluous police station section has been dropped with Hardy’s blessing.

As any serious fan will tell you, none of the restored footage is new material, all of it having appeared in previous edits. But Hardy is claiming this latest remix is as close to definitive as possible, and concedes his long-lost 102-minute “Director’s Cut” is most likely gone forever. The cleaned-up picture and sound mix is not perfect, with some grainy third-generation transfers, but scenes struck from the original negative look as crisp as if they were shot yesterday. Most importantly, The Wicker Man retains its occult power, and remains as bizarre and bewitching a fable as when it first appeared four decades ago. Once seen, never forgotten.

The Wicker Man and the cult movie myth
As yet another version of The Wicker Man is released, Geoffrey Macnab argues that most long-sought directors' cuts are not the masterpieces that fans hope for
Geoffrey Macnab Friday, 27 September 2013

You could call it the Orson Welles syndrome. The film director delivers the final cut of the movie. Then come the previews and the financiers panic. The film is re-edited behind the director's back before being released in a bowdlerised version that does patchy business and gets lousy reviews. Years pass. The film is rediscovered by critics and fans and the hunt is suddenly on to track down the original version, which has mysteriously vanished. Its champions scour the labs and the archives but the original film never turns up.

There are many, many films that will never be seen in the way their directors intended. That, though, arguably, adds to their mystique. Their fans are desperate to see them in their original cuts but, at the same time, wary that if these films do surface in an archive somewhere, they might prove just a little... anti-climactic.

Erich von Stroheim's silent movie Greed (1924) is the most celebrated of the lost masterpieces that we can only see in our imaginations. Von Stroheim's first cut was over eight hours long. The version viewed by the public after MGM had pared it down was a quarter of the length. We have to rely on von Stroheim's own testimony and on that of the few of his contemporaries who saw Greed as he intended that it really was one of the greatest films ever made. Given that MGM reportedly burned much of the original footage to extract the silver in the nitrate, it would be a miracle if Greed turned up now.

Posthumous restorations of films that were butchered during their directors' lifetimes are invariably slightly unsatisfactory. Whether it's Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (1980) or Donald Cammell's Wild Side (1995), the restorations are fascinating in themselves and far richer than the botched studio versions but we're never quite sure whether they are really what their directors intended.

Robin Hardy, director of cult favourite The Wicker Man (1973), has seen several different versions of his film released over the years. Dubbed by some critics as “The Citizen Kane of horror movies”, it is now about to be re-released yet again to mark its 40th anniversary in what its distributors are calling its “final cut”. This isn't the version that Hardy first delivered but the 83-year-old filmmaker reckons it is true to his intentions.

What happened to The Wicker Man first time round was precisely what happened to Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 30 years before. These were movies caught up in studio politicking. Senior executives stood to gain if they failed.

In Welles's case, The Magnificent Ambersons previewed in front of a roughhouse Saturday night audience in Pomona in 1941 in a double bill with a Dorothy Lamour romp called The Fleet's In. The response was mixed at best and gave the studio RKO the excuse to whittle down the film from 131 minutes to less than 90.

Even now, the circumstances in which Ambersons was re-edited remain shrouded in controversy and mystery. The editor Robert Wise (later to direct The Sound of Music) defended the studio's changes in light of the supposedly disastrous preview. Others claim that RKO (then undergoing management changes) was simply looking for an excuse to end Welles's contract. Whatever the case, Welles was known to have had a print of the long version of the film with him in Brazil where he was making his equally ill-starred documentary It's All True. Welles fans have long dreamed that this print will one day turn up somewhere in Brazil.

Hardy's battles were with the businessmen at Shepperton Studios. The Wicker Man had been financed by British Lion, then under control of young tycoon John Bentley, “a takeover and break-up merchant” as he was styled by the press. The unions were intensely suspicious that Bentley was going to end film production at Shepperton (then run by British Lion).
“In order to prove to the unions that Shepperton and British Lion were still in business, he [Bentley] hunted around on his desk for a script that they could make into a film,” Hardy explains the haphazard way that The Wicker Man was greenlit. “We were the lucky ones. He signed a cheque and we made the film.”

However, before The Wicker Man was released, Bentley had sold on British Lion/Shepperton. The new regime didn't care for the film at all. “They planned simply never to show it.” Hardy recalls.

The director credits the film's star Christopher Lee (who called The Wicker Man “the best-scripted film I ever took part in”) with rescuing it from total oblivion. “Christopher, not an easily bowed chap, put the film under his arm as it were and went off to Paris to submit it to the Festival du Film Fantastique.” The film won the Grand Prix and its critical reputation began to grow.

Even so, when The Wicker Man was released in the UK, it had been “butchered” (in Hardy's words.) The running time had been winnowed down to less than 90 minutes and the film was put out as the bottom half of a double bill with Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now.
As with The Magnificent Ambersons, the original long cut of The Wicker Man appears to be lost. However, a 1979 version assembled from the 35mm print of the original edit Hardy made in 1973 was recently discovered in Harvard's Film Archives. It is this version that has been restored and is now being released.

Hardy is sanguine enough about the new “final cut” of The Wicker Man. He accepts that the long version he first delivered in 1973 will never be found. (One much repeated myth/theory is that when the studio cleared its archives, the original reels were used as landfill under the M3 motorway.) However, he is happy that Christopher Lee's character, the pagan Lord Summerisle, is properly foregrounded and that the image and sound are now so pristine. Some of the mainland scenes have been removed. (“In retrospect, they don't particularly help the film,” the director suggests). However, audiences can still see dour Christian policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in his own church on the mainland before he is introduced to the devilish rituals on the Hebridean island.

The director is currently beginning to raise finance for a new feature, Wrath of the Gods. This will mark the third and final part in the “Wicker” trilogy, following on from The Wicker Man (1973) and The Wicker Tree (2011.) He now seems resigned to the fact that the original edit of The Wicker Man will never turn up.

“As far as I am concerned, I am completely satisfied,” Hardy says of the latest, supposedly “final”, release of The Wicker Man. It's a surprising remark given that this still isn't quite the film he first delivered. However, it's a version he endorses and approves. “If somebody wants to re-cut it, it's up to them!” Besides, perhaps he realises the myth of the missing masterpiece is better served if the original Wicker Man doesn't turn up. That way, fans can still dream of the perfect movie without any risk of anti-climax.

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