"The Wicker Man" (1973) is a unique film. Made on a shoe-string budget under very difficult conditions and based on a script by Anthony Shaffer which eschews clear-cut depictions of good and evil in order to examine the nature and excesses of two competing forms of faith. There was, however, a lack of faith from the production company which had put up the money for the film and so it ended up being savagely cut and dumped on the wrong end of a double bill for its British release. In the United States it was initially barely released at all, but, later in the decade it had begun to develop a small cult following and so, through the efforts of enthusiasts, some of the lost footage was restored and the film became a limited sensation among young movie-goers, especially in college towns. It's reputation has continued to grow over the years so that it is now rightly regarded as one of the treasures of British cinema.
But almost as interesting as the film itself is the story of its production and trouble it had finding its way to an audience. This is the subject of Allan Brown's book which is a must for fans of the film, but also highly recommended for those who are interested in the nature of film-making. It is truly exhaustive in the detail with which it recreates each day's filming - the personality clashes, the controversies and the technical and other challenges. And the sad tale of what happened to the film once it was completed is also clearly laid out - practically disowned by producers; slammed by some critics; a source of conflict between small-time distributors; championed tirelessly at his own expense by one of its stars - Christopher Lee; having its negative lost - the most likely explanation being that it is now buried under a freeway; its longest cut available because Roger Corman, who only wanted it if he could have it cheap and cut it to the bone, neglected to dispose of his preview copy. (Such was the situation at the time of the release of this book. Since then a complete print of the film has surfaced.)
What makes this more than a thorough reference book on an important film, however, is that Brown writes about the significance of the film with great passion and insight and that he has a biting and iconoclastic wit.
On the film's prescience :
"A change, however, was coming, and 'The Wicker Man', in its obliquely visionary way, signalled an early warning. Before long, the consensus would be shattered, the boundary between civility and barbarity less defined, increasingly porous. Cities ceased working effectively, so towns expanded. As they bit into the green belt, the ire of countryside communities was roused. In the process, it became clear that urban and rural were not merely geographic contrasts but implacably opposed mindsets. Harshening social conditions and intellectual evolution made religious observance seem at best a luxury, at worst an irrelevance. Yet some innate need for belief had to be answered somehow, and it was, by an explosion of neo-orthodoxies, such as Buddhism, and the Charismatic movement. The recent resurgence of Islam and its disjunction with Western Christianity would have made sense to Anthony Shaffer. Meanwhile, it would come to suit the purposes of some to allege that the union between England and Scotland was politically anachronistic, even if popular support for this contention was debatable at best. Catalysed by the feminist revolution, the sexes went to war, as did science and religion, each convinced it possessed the only plausible explanation for the human condition.
"These oppositions - urban versus rural, science versus religion, nation versus region, men versus women, pew-bound religion versus the heathen relativism of the new faiths - are woven through 'The Wicker Man' like the red bands in tartan. It is the films clairvoyance which guarantees its longevity. However far we go, the Wicker Man is always further down the track, further up the hill, waiting for us, just as it waited for Sergeant Howie."
On "The Exorcist" :
"There is little in 'The Exorcist' that merits serious textual consideration. It certainly says nothing interesting about the nature of good and evil; being a film concerned with the supernatural it never could, for the supernatural is the invention of the chronically impressionable and the callously fraudulent. In the end, all 'The Exorcist' argues is this: certain individuals possess convictions so strong they are willing to lay down their lives for others, as the priests Karras and Merrin do for the seemingly possessed Regan. Yet the point is scarcely worth expressing: it is implicit in every war film ever made. In reality, 'The Exorcist' attracts the serious attention only of those who respond to the sight of crucifixes violating teenage vaginas."
On Neil LaBute's notorious 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage :
"The remake is a truly astonishing film, one which emits the authentic bat squeak of lunacy. Viewing it is like watching men in boxing gloves attempt to steer a circus clown's jalopy away from the edge of a precipice."
And Christopher Lee comes in for quite a ribbing over a letter he wrote to Cinefantastique when one of their writers criticised him for a habit of playing "depthless" characters :
"It is often repeated that Lee considered Lord Summerisle the finest role he ever played. I recall asking him which was the second best. He mulled for a moment, then said Doctor Catheter. In 'Gremlins II'."
As an added bonus, the book contains a detailed summary of the script for Peter Shaffer's proposed sequel to "The Wicker Man", which would have been a very different kind of film full of explicitly depicted supernatural beings including a dragon. Passing mention is made of the actual sequel "The Wicker Tree" (2010), written and directed by the original film's director, Robin Hardy, but the author had not actually seen it at the time of publication.