There’s a certain kind of country town that’s just inherently creepy. It’s the kind of place so cut off from the world that strange rules and beliefs can form and grow, safe from society’s critical gaze. In 1973’s The Wicker Man these small-town beliefs manifest in a climax so brutal and bizarre that its image has become seared into the minds of generations of horror cinema fans.
At the outset of the film, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate an anonymous report of a missing girl. But at every point he is stonewalled by a town full of people who don’t recognize his authority as a police officer. Like Howie, we are going into this investigation blind, so when the entire town claims they don’t know the missing girl, their consensus view becomes reality. Over the course of the film Howie finds himself at all levels of Summerisle, from the local school to the mansion of Lord Summerisle himself (a career-best Christopher Lee). What he discovers is a culture obsessed with sex, death and rebirth, with villagers who profess pagan beliefs that are deeply unnerving to the Christian Sergeant.
The late great director Robin Hardy constructed a dense, symbolically rich masterpiece with The Wicker Man. By eschewing the usual horror movie tropes of jump scares and gore, Hardy evoked the feeling of impending doom you might get from a particularly vivid nightmare. The sense that something deeply wrong is happening beyond the fringes of what you can see, flickering just out of sight.
But Hardy’s vision was severely compromised by the 1973 cut of the film, which failed to include vital scenes, robbing it of its feeling of grim inevitability. In the decades since re-cuts and restorations have abounded. Original negatives were lost and never found and old cuts (notably one found in Roger Corman’s possession) were tracked down in the worldwide quest to finally fulfill Hardy’s vision. In 2007, Christopher Lee said that “I still believe it exists somewhere, in cans, with no name. I still believe that. But no one’s ever seen it since.”
Yet despite its apparent incompleteness, or more likely because of it, The Wicker Man’s influence has continued in the ensuing decades. A famously ill-conceived remake was released in 2006 starring Nicolas Cage. Best enjoyed as a YouTube supercut, it involves Cage screaming at children, punching women while dressed as a bear and screaming lines like “Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!”. Most recently (and much more successfully) Radiohead made a stop-motion homage of the movie for their Burn the Witch film clip, focusing on the film’s depiction of groupthink.
Robin Hardy passed away at the start of July this year, aged 86. He wrote novels, screenplays and was directing up to 2011, but it is The Wicker Man that has assured his place in film history. The Astor will be screening The Final Cut of The Wicker Man, the one that Robin Hardy says has finally “fulfilled my vision”, this Monday. It’s a hypnotic battle between a hunter and the hunted with a concluding image that has burned into the culture memory with the power of myth.