October 28, 2014 - 2:31pm
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man  was written by Jenna Stoeber, Media and Cultural Studies Grad Student and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication Arts at UW, Madison. The Wicker Man: Final Cut will screen at the Cinematheque on Halloween, October 31, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue 4070 Vilas Hall.

The history of The Wicker Man is one mainly composed of cuts, from the original run time of 99 minutes (though some records suggest it was even longer) to the brisk 87-minute film that most audiences are familiar with. Large portions were removed so that it might run as a B-movie attraction to A-headliners like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (which screened earlier this month at the Cinematheque). Somewhere in the editing process, the clips of those 12 minutes were lost, and audiences have had to make do with the truncated version ever since.

Even in its trimmed state, however, the movie has been a hallmark of high quality horror cinema. For example, it was described by the film magazine Cinefantastique as being “the Citizen Kane of horror films.” Even for people who aren’t fans of horror, it’s not hard to see why this film is a classic. Few movies - and fewer horror movies, especially - can so adeptly reposition a viewer from one screening to the next. When first seeing the film, we, the audience, are very much positioned in the same role as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a deeply devout police officer who has come to the paganistic island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison. Seeing the story with fresh eyes, it’s impossible not to follow along with him as we all piece together what happened to Rowan, if indeed she exists at all. He canvases the town, but Mrs. Morrison insists she doesn’t have a daughter named Rowan, and the townspeople contend that they’ve never seen her picture. However, traces of her presence are seen throughout the village and every piece of information leads us closer to understanding what’s happening. As Howie investigates, we uncover more clues about the jubilant heathen religion practiced on the island. The villagers clearly know more than they let on, and each sinister hint we find and Howie finds only leads to more questions.

But something happens when viewed a second, third, or fourth time (or more, if you’re like me); once you know the mystery, you can’t help but identify with the villagers as they drop small hints about Rowan’s fate and about the unknown rituals they practice. Instead of helplessly allowing the coy barkeep Alder MacGreagor (Lindsay Kemp) to direct our gazes, we are free to watch as he smirks at the increasingly frustrated sergeant. We know, as the incisive Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) knows, the grim pagan lore that grounds their belief system.

The insight provided is astounding. In a particularly unsettling scene, Howie tears open a desk he believes is Rowan’s, only to find a beetle with a string glued to its back, circling around a nail until it can’t move any more. A school girl laughs and calls it a poor old thing, to which the sergeant snaps “Well, why in God’s name do you do it, girl?” But she can’t say just yet- that would spoil everything. For those re-viewing, the machinations are laid bare and we are encouraged to take part in the festivities.

For years, Christopher Lee, who plays the island’s eloquent patron, Lord Summerisle, insisted that a longer, more complete version must exist somewhere, in some canister waiting to be untombed- and he was right. As the movie’s 40th anniversary approached, film distributor StudioCanal called for a search for any existing prints that might contain the missing footage. After several months, a 92 minute version was found buried in the Harvard Film Archives.

The Wicker Man: Final Cut - perhaps named prematurely, as several minutes are still missing- features a restoration of roughly 5 minutes of footage that has been unseen for decades, as well as some familiar scenes shuffled into their original order. For fans of the movie, watching the extended version is like hearing a second punchline to your favorite joke. The additions include two fantastic extended monologues by the always impeccable Lee, including a salacious sequence in which he stands beneath the barmaid Willow’s window and recites Walt Whitman’s “I think I could turn and live with animals…” Also restored are some of the movie’s beautiful musical sequences, such as the subtle and demure “Gently Johnny.”

The restoration offers satisfying new sights and sounds even for old fans. The Wicker Man: Final Cut is a Halloween necessity, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it- and especially if you’ve never seen it at all. As Lord Summerisle would doubtless say in his assiduous way, “it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.” (Jenna Stoeber)