Monday, July 29, 2013

Inside The Wicker Man: How Not to Make a Cult Classic

The Wicker Man makes its UK Blu-Ray debut this coming October in what promises to be most complete surviving version of the film. When the film's distributor Studio Canal announced that a 35mm print of the film had been located in the Harvard Film Archives there was much excitement among the fan community, leading many to believe that the film would now be seen in it's original full-length director's cut. Sadly, this wasn't to be the case - the original director's cut of The Wicker Man is almost certainly lost forever and despite all the press releases in the last week or so, I'm still unclear about what this new version, to be known as The Wicker Man - The Final Cut will entail. I'm thinking The Final Cut will most likely be the version of the film that played in US cinemas in the latter half of the 70's, distributed by an outfit known as Abraxas, and would be best described as a third cut of the film, pitched somewhere between the shortened UK theatrical version that originally played second on a double-bill with Don't Look Now, and the extended version of the film which was first released on DVD in 2001.

Allan Brown's book, Inside The Wicker Man, originally published in 2000 and brought up to date with a second edition in 2010 recalls in fascinating, and sometimes distressing detail the long and tortuous history of the film which began when screenwriter Anthony Shaffer promised to write an intelligent horror film for a despondent Christopher Lee. In his forward for the book Edward Woodward writes that the film was "surrounded by a strange kind of evil" and one is inclined to agree when reading the chapters detailing the film's near ruin at the hands of indifferent financiers, and later, the complex and convoluted circumstances behind the film's revival in America. Fortunately the book reads less like a dry production report, but rather a black comedy of errors. Brown's writing is breezy and irreverent, each chapter kicking off with a humorous summary (e.g. Chapter 5: In which Christopher Lee relates an interminable anecdote concerning golf and a mime artist admits to constant drunkenness) and Brown skillfully wades through some wonderful stories to separate fact from fiction - most of Edward Woodward's tall-tales are given a wide berth, while a few myths about the film are thoroughly dispelled - the shot of the Wicker Man headpiece toppling over to reveal a blazing setting sun was not an accidental gift from the gods but a carefully planned effect, and Rod Stewart's wish to bury the film to protect girlfriend Britt Ekland from the lascivious gaze of the raincoat brigade is completely apocryphal.

 Crew preparing The Wicker Man for his appointmentment with  Sergeant Howie
 
Still, parts of the book will make for unpleasant reading for Wicker Man devotees, the film has prompted its fair share of the bitter disputes, chiefly concerning screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy, who both claim authorship of the film for themselves. Production designer Seamus Flannery evidently has little regard for Hardy and rarely holds back in his opinion of the director, while Britt Ekland who hated making the film, was in turn hated by the locals after she made a flippant comment to a journalist. And one of the book's final chapters which investigates the disappearance of the original negative is truly heart-breaking stuff. Rounding off the book is a compressive appendix section which sweeps up some stray curios, including a scene-by-scene breakdown of the locations used in the film, Lord Summerisle's introductory speech from Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay, a Wicker Man related excerpt from Christopher Lee's 1977 autobiography Tall Dark and Gruesome, and the spoiler-laden plot synopsis from the back of the Thorn EMI VHS tape released in the UK in 1981.
 
Inside The Wicker Man is currently out of print for paperback (a kindle edition is available) but thankfully the book will be reprinted for October to tie-in with the Blu-Ray release. Absolutely essential reading.


3 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to re-read this book and it seems like you've given me the perfect reminder. Yes, I'm very curious abou the new re-release of "The Wickerman". Just what will this cut consist of? It will be a shame to still loose out on some of the scenes from the extended cut on the previous dvd set in this new version.
    I'm very curious as to what you thought to "The Wicker Tree?" I have mixed feelings, on one hand I liked the '70s British vibe to it (almost a lost 'Carry On' film), but on the other hand I couldn't shake the feeling of faded former glories and that it need not have been made.

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  2. Jay, I have not seen The Wicker Tree and if the truth be told it's kinda not on my radar - I mean if it's surfaces on TV at some stage I will definitely tune it, but I wouldn't risk a blind buy. I'm actually quite curious about Robin Hardy's 1986 film The Fantasist which was shot in Ireland. I saw it about a decade ago on television and it's quirky enough to maybe pick up the UK Network DVD for a revisit. I wouldn't mind seeing the Wicker Man remake as well, the film was so comprehensively demolished I just have to see it !

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  3. I saw The Wicker Tree as part of the Frightfest film festival, where upon it recieved a polite if somewhat disappointed applause. The film was introduced by Robin Hardy whom, to my mind, reminded me of a Michael Winner type character - definitely one of the old school of British film directors!

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