Occult Classic

The thematic daring and genre-bending perversity of the original Wicker Man

Whatever the fate of Neil LaBute's Yank remake of The Wicker Man—which Warner Bros. is releasing this Friday (without advance press screenings) —it's unlikely to generate the enduring passion and rancor inspired by the 1973 occult classic. Other British films, such as Peeping Tom, The Devils, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, steeped in violence and sexual sadism, have been more controversial; Get Carter, lionized by the '90s lad fad, has similarly gained in retrospective glory. But The Wicker Man's genre-bending, thematic daring, and tortuous history have made it the U.K.'s definitive cult movie. Equally admired by witchcraft geeks and cineastes, though critically neglected, it has spawned two books, three documentaries, websites, and fan conventions.

The film was conceived by the consortium of writer Anthony Shaffer; producer Peter Snell of British Lion; and actor Christopher Lee, who wanted to break from the Hammer films that had typecast him in gothic horror parts. They bought the rights to David Pinner's 1967 novel Ritual, but chose instead to work on an original Shaffer script about a sexually repressed Christian police sergeant from the Scottish mainland who investigates the disappearance of a schoolgirl in a remote Hebridean village. Shaffer admitted to being influenced by Pinner's book, albeit unconsciously, when the author complained of plagiarism.

First-time director Robin Hardy picked Edward Woodward, best known for playing a troubled TV spy, to play Sergeant Howie. Lee took the role of Lord Summerisle, the island's suave phony magus—auguring his Saruman in The Lord of the Rings—who exploits the villagers with his theories on parthenogenesis and agrarian fecundity. Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt (another Hammer favorite) were cast respectively as the lubricious barmaid, Willow, and the sexy librarian who test the sergeant's celibacy; the third blonde in this contemporary spin on Macbeth's witches is Diane Cilento's teacher, who outrages Howie by instructing her adolescent female pupils in phallic symbolism. The naked Willow's primal mating dance, in which she smacks impatiently at Howie's bedroom wall, is still a shocker; only production stills survive of Pitt's nude scene.

Misled by the villagers, who have abandoned Christianity for pagan fertility rites involving the human sacrifice of virgins, Howie proceeds through an increasingly dreamy labyrinth of temptations, traps, and cul-de-sacs, only to realize he is the prey. He is encaged in a Brobdingnagian wicker-work effigy that the villagers burn as a Beltane offering to the Celtic sun god. The film's perverse merriness, underscored by Harry Waxman's floaty handheld camerawork and Paul Giovanni's airy folk songs, gives way to last-minute dread as the screen fills with stately images of the blazing colossus backlit by a tangerine sunset.

Shaffer was designated the film's auteur. Drawing on James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, he made it a repository of Celtic and druidic folklore and an evenhanded dialectical allegory of the culture war between free love and establishmentarian censoriousness. Whether or not he had read John Buchan's Witch Wood, The Wicker Man is redolent of that haunting novel's story of a young Presbyterian minister who stumbles on a witch's coven in 17th-century Scotland—especially in the nocturnal orgy Howie spies on the village green.

It was Hardy, however, who endowed the picture with cunning visual touches. During the locals' ribald song about Willow that appalls Howie in the Green Man pub, the bearded mythological figure depicted on the tavern's sign materializes as the most bellicose of the revelers. Served dinner by Willow in a back room, Howie's sarcastic remark, "Broad beans in their natural state aren't normally turquoise, are they?" gains context from Willow's low-cut turquoise top. Lord Summerisle identifies himself with the sun god when he shows up in a bright yellow sweater with his hair teased into a leonine mane. A strip of umbilical cord hanging from a gravestone and a woman suckling her baby nearby strike a more visceral note.

Filmed in various Scottish locations, The Wicker Man fell foul of executives at EMI, which had absorbed British Lion. According to Steve Phillips's website (steve-p.org), the studio's 99-minute cut omitted 20 minutes of significant material, enraging Lee. Further cut to 87 minutes, it was dumped into drive-in theaters in the U.S. and onto a double bill with Don't Look Now in the U.K., though Lee's promotional work secured it a proper West End release. Despite the destruction of the raw footage, Hardy eventually pieced together a 95-minute cut that was released successfully in 1979. A print partially struck from the long version owned by Roger Corman has been shown on TV and released on DVD.

Hardy and Lee remain incensed about the cuts—though they didn't bother Pitt—and are irked by LaBute's remake. Hardy hopes to adapt the movie into a stage musical, and he's currently planning a film of his like-minded novel, Cowboys for Christ, about two young Texan virgins, a gospel singer and her boyfriend, who go a-preachin' in Scotland. Vanessa Redgrave has signed on and Hardy wants LeAnn Rimes to play the girl. Call it Stand by Your Wicker Man.

 
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