They marketed films differently in those days. Today The Wicker Man would be sold as “from the writer of Sleuth”, for Anthony Shaffer penned the original stage classic that became the remarkable Olivier/Caine two-hander. Then audiences would know what to expect: a battle of wits between two men of diametrically opposed beliefs (Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward doubling the Olivier/Caine sparring), drawn across a plotline so full red herrings that the writer would not reveal his hand until the very last shot. All very cerebral. Arty.
But no, the film starred Christopher Lee and featured scream queen du jour Ingrid Pitt, so naturally the distributors sold it as another cheesy Hammer/Amicus gorefest. Except it had no monsters, no gore, was shot on location in faux documentary style, and featured a virgin Catholic policeman in the lead – a character who by 1973 standards was as hip as a prosthetic pelvis. Of course, the beer and chips brigade voted it the thumbs down and not even a double bill with Nic Roeg’s latest effort, Don’t Look Now, could save its fortune.
To be fair, like Sleuth there is a play on genres here. The Wicker Man does start out with more than a whiff of the gothic. A child is reported missing; a policeman (Sgt. Howie – Woodward) heads off to a remote Scottish island, Summerisle, to investigate; the locals are secretive. There are hints of paganism. Well, not hints - and this is where The Wicker Man deviates from formula. The paganism on the island is pretty blatant, and presented not in a witches-and-covens way, but a wholly up to date, natural, eco-friendly, organic manner. We feel for Howie as he tries to find out what happens to the girl, but frankly the islanders seem to have it made, and their idyllic lifestyle seems far more rational and modern – not to mention more appealing – than the pre-Reformation beliefs of the repressed and repressive policeman (who even turns down the charms of Britt Ekland because he’s saving himself for his forthcoming nuptials – by God, if ever there was a man who needed a bit of how’s-your-father to remove the bug from up his backside . . .). In fact, by the time we meet the charming Lord Summerisle (Lee) we begin to wonder just who is the goodie and who is the baddie.
And best to stop there. Some horror films jolt at regular intervals, even the so-called hi-brow ones like The Exorcist and The Shining. But The Wicker Man is more in line with George Sluizer’s excellent The Vanishing; a seemingly innocuous work that keeps its sucker punch right until the end. In fact, up to that last moment you’ll probably be wondering just what the fuss is about – and then it will hit you. Admittedly part of the film's intellectual clout has been lost: we naturally start out on Howie’s side, but that wouldn’t have necessarily be true for the early seventies cinema-going audience Schaffer was writing for (i.e. young, possibly college-educated, probably anti-authoritarian, certainly hippy). In fact, the film acquired its cult following not for its ethical debate (Howie vs Summerisle; old fashioned Catholic morality versus liberal paganism) as its stylistic approach; in an age when horror movies were the staple of British cinema, The Wicker Man stands as possibly the only one to take the genre seriously and not rely on fantasy or guignol.
And therein lies its power. Hardy’s direction is admirable not for its flourishes (of which there are few) but his deft sidestepping of cliché. Gone are the usual long shadows and skewed angles, replaced by sunshine, golden scenery and a naturalistic feel which, in its eye for local detail, sometimes feels like one of those tourist information films you used to get as the b-movie back in the seventies (remember the film on Leeds which opens The Full Monty?). The cast too avoid the usual screaming and mugging. Woodward was always too starchy, too much the martinet to truly appeal as a male lead, but Hardy uses this to his advantage, making it the foundation of the less-than-likeable Sgt. Howie (he’s the protagonist, not the “hero”). With Lee he takes the opposite approach: usually the charming villain, Lee is for once just charming – no steely glint, no subtle undertone of ruthlessness. Indeed, that is what makes him so unnerving (he’s the antagonist, not the "villain” per se). Even the minor supporting characters excel, seeming like real residents not the stereotyped villagers Hammer churned out. Good Lord, even the village actually looks like a real village, not a fibreglass and plywood construction on a Bray soundstage. And the denouement? That also looks real. My God does it look real.
And now on DVD we get the director’s cut. Almost – Hardy has only been able to restore 15 minutes of footage (the rest apparently lost under the tarmac of one of Britain’s major motorways). He has, quite rightly, griped that his original cut was butchered for release – and it was – but if this restored version is any indication, the movie would still have got short shrift from cinema audiences. Like the restored versions of Spartacus, Aliens, Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now, it plugs a few plot gaps and feels a little more rounded but doesn’t tell us anything the original, however emasculated, didn’t. Indeed, like the recent “version you’ve never seen” of The Exorcist, what was implied (i.e. Howie’s faith, his virginity; the islanders' liberal attitude toward sex) is now stated rather more bluntly. The DVD includes both versions, so you can take your pick (though alas, the iffy quality of the restored footage does stick out like a sore thumb). But even in its bowdlerized form - lost, hacked, miss-marketed and finally fobbed off on the b-movie circuit - The Wicker Man stands as the finest film either Hardy, Schaffer, Woodward, Pitt, Ekland or Lee, yes even Lee, has made.