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Cinematic Uncertainty: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man – the Final Cut review

October 1, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, In Cinemas, Retro with 0 Comments

Yet another version of Britain’s greatest horror movie provides another chance to ponder if it’s really a horror movie at all… or a musical.

The Wicker Man
(Robin Hardy, 1973)

For certain films, finality is a luxury. Fought over, debated, and endlessly recut, they exist in a weird limbo between different versions, none of them absolute. Blade Runner, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and now The Wicker Man – all have apparently achieved their ultimate destination with a director-approved assembly cherry-picking the best bits of earlier incarnations, yet the ghosts of previous versions hover over the ‘final’ cut, goading its certainty.

Which is to say: when the check discs were sent out containing Robin Hardy’s long-lost, best-of-breed 1979 cut, the distributor accidentally included an incorrect version of the sequence where Britt Ekland dances naked to tempt virginal Edward Woodward. It’s an easy mistake to make, given that I’d already seen two versions of the film (one where the dance takes place during the story’s first night, another where it happens) before I even knew of The Wicker Man’s status as an incomplete masterpiece. Or possibly the people pressing the discs were just distracted by Ekland’s charms.

But the lack of certainty suits The Wicker Man; after all, it’s a film that challenges the laughable idea that anything is certain. Christianity isn’t worshipped by everything, the crops don’t always grow and Britt Eklund can’t decide what night to take her clothes off. For my own sins, I used to think that The Wicker Man was an amazing ending in search of a decent story to go with it… but that’s only because in my younger days I valued the certainty of a straightforward tone.

Now, I better appreciate that this is a deliberately playful, messy film in whatever order the scenes take place. In outline, it’s a horror movie, but one that takes place largely in daylight and soundtracked by the jolly strains of ye olde folke musick. [In many ways, it’s more fun to regard the film as a musical whose songs keep getting interrupted by Edward Woodward, until they work out a way to drown out his moaning.] And Anthony Schaffer’s screenplay is an absolute hoot once you know what’s going to happen. Huge chunks are played for laughs, a religious satire that conspires to kick out the ground from under Woodward’s puritanical policeman by focussing on his spluttering indignation at al fresco orgies and children learning about phallic symbols.

Robin Hardy, astutely, goes with the flow. This isn’t the most refined or stylish of films, but it shouldn’t be. Instead, there’s a lived-in, organic feel to the filming, its camera placements seemingly chosen by chance rather than pre-ordained. It’s a film you can imagine the moss growing on: a survivor. No wonder its reputation clings on, past the rumours of footage buried under the M3 or the insanity of remaking it with Nicolas Cage playing Woodward. Yet unlike, say, Halloween, whose brethren tended to be carbon copies, The Wicker Man’s disciples are an odd bunch of waifs and strays: The League Of Gentlemen, Hot Fuzz, Kill List. It’s almost as if their creators were watching several completely different films.

The Wicker Man: The Final Cutis in cinemas now.  The Blu-ray set – containing all existing versions of the film – is released on Monday 14th October.

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