Review first published by Little White Lies
At the heart of 1973’s The Wicker Man is a clash of old and new — although given that the ‘new’ is a stuffy, conservative form of Christianity, and the ‘old’ a revived paganism bearing an uncanny resemblance to the nature worship and free love movements of (then) contemporary Britain, here the terms old and new are oddly non-exclusive and reversible. The stand-off between Catholic copper Howie (Edward Woodward) and guru-like Laird Summerisle (Christopher Lee) remains an unresolved conflict of competing fanaticisms, with the future left on hold.
Now 40 years old, The Wicker Man is rooted in revisionist nostalgia — and not just for these Isles’ ancient gods. Yet while many cinephiles would love to travel back in time to when the film was first released in an extraordinary double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, even that would be a pursuit of irrecoverable authenticity, since the UK version of The Wicker Man was a product of compromise, shorn very much against the director Robin Hardy’s will.
Since then, despite the disappearance of the negative for Hardy’s originally submitted footage, different versions have emerged, including a Hardy-approved 1979 US rerelease (in a reconstruction longer than the 1973 UK version), and a home release of the full-length version sourced from ultralow-quality one-inch videotape (and including clunky extra mainland scenes that Hardy himself would prefer to see excised). After a lengthy international search, StudioCanal located a 35mm print of the 1979 version at Harvard, and has, under Hardy’s supervision, remixed elements from that with the negative of the shorter 1973 UK version to create a respectfully restored 4K preservation copy that retains the original aspect ratio (1.85:1) and uses no inferior videotape footage.
This 94-minute ‘final cut’ now begins with a balanced set of images: Howie worshipping in a mainland church, and an icon of the sun god venerated on Summerisle. The film’s chronology has been reordered, with the seductive siren song of the innkeeper’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) restored to the second night, so that Summerisle’s character is now introduced in an earlier scene with Willow the night before. With the images discreetly cleaned up, stabilised and regraded, the film has never looked better, and now, for the very first time in British cinemas, conforms to Hardy’s fully authorised vision (other available elements rejected by Hardy will appear as extras in the Blu-ray release).
The new scenes are in fact old, while the old scenes have been made to look new — and there is a compelling continuity to these hybridised materials no more difficult to synthesise than the vibrant character of Willow, composited from Britt Ekland’s upper body, Annie Ross’ voice and Jane Jackson’s gyrating backside. Of course, nostalgia can cut both ways, and most British viewers’ affection for Hardy’s classic goes back to the version released in 1973 — but the few additional scenes here feel less like sacrilegious intrusions than tasteful grace notes to a near perfect oddity in the annals of British cult horror.
Enjoyment: The print may have proved as elusive as Summerisle’s missing girl, but the hunt has yielded fertile fruit.
In Retrospect: A British horror oddity like no other, now fully authorised.