Film history abounds in examples of misunderstood works being cut by unsympathetic distributors, receiving minor, perfunctory releases, and even being shelved outright. THE WICKER MAN is a sad example of such treatment: This well-told tale of mounting horror was completely mishandled on its initial release, and trimmed cruelly. Scottish Sgt. Howie (Edward...read more
Film history abounds in examples of misunderstood works being cut by unsympathetic distributors, receiving minor, perfunctory releases, and even being shelved outright. THE WICKER MAN is a sad example of such treatment: This well-told tale of mounting horror was completely mishandled on its initial release, and trimmed cruelly. Scottish Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), a devoutly Christian policeman (so much so that he remains a virgin) and lay minister, receives a photograph of a girl name Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper) in the mail with an anonymous note stating she has mysteriously vanished. Woodward heads out to Summerisle, a Scottish island community within his jurisdiction, in his search for the girl. No one admits to knowing Rowan, not even postmistress and shopkeeper Mae Morrison (Irene Sunters), whom Howie suspects of being the child's mother. Howie takes a room at the inn run by Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp) and his daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), vowing to stay until he's solved the mystery of the missing girl to his own satisfaction. Howie is shocked by the ribaldry and sexual freedom he encounters on Summerisle: At the local school he's horrified to hear Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) teaching children about phallic symbols (like the maypole in the school yard) and decidedly un-Christian religious practices. After a visit to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), Howie begins to suspect that these pagan people have kidnaped little Rowan and plan to sacrifice her in May Day festivities. But there are more secrets on Summerisle than he can imagine.
The setting of Summerisle is hardly that of horror: It's populated with genuinely happy individuals. Their way of life is unusual, but not nearly so abhorrent as the devout Howie finds it — it's a world full of light and color, in contrast to the dark clothing Howie wears. Only in the end is Summerisle's true nature revealed, when the building tension between Howie and the islanders explodes in a horrifying crescendo. THE WICKER MAN was written by Anthony Shaffer, best known for his play "Sleuth." This was his first original screenplay, which was to be financed by British Lion in an attempt to revive that studio's former status. Despite some problems on the set (including tension between the pregnant Ekland and first-time director Hardy), the final cut, running 102 minutes, looked to be a promising film. Hardy wasn't entirely pleased, but Lee thought the film represented the best of his work. However, shortly before its release British Lion was taken over by EMI, whose film division head clearly didn't know (or care) about the project. After talking over its US possibilities with Roger Corman, EMI's Michael Deeley cut the film by 15 minutes, which caused some drastic changes in plot logic. This version was released in England in 1973, with the American debut a year later in Atlanta and San Diego. The distribution rights were acquired by a tax-shelter group that didn't care whether or not the film made money. It was advertised as straight horror when eventually Warner Bros. took over the distribution, but this ad campaign was all wrong for the film. Horror fans looking for special effects and gore were disappointed, and the film was quickly pulled. Two years later a pair of New Orleans film buffs bought the distribution rights. After conferring with the much-disillusioned Hardy, they learned the original director's cut might exist in negative. Though this led to dead ends and outright deception by EMI, a full version of the film turned up at the Corman offices. A new negative — still seven minutes short — was struck from this print for the first video version. When Anchor Bay Entertainment rereleased THE WICKER MAN on video in 2001, the rest of the missing footage was filled in from a telecine print; while there's a difference in image quality, the additional material footage adds to the story's subtle development. THE WICKER MAN is intelligent entertainment that takes its subject seriously without resorting to gratuitous effects to make a point. It remains a fine example of occult horror that remains with the viewer well past its
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