A key moment in British horror filmmaking, The Wicker Man needs little introduction. The disturbing, darkly funny story of a virginal, self-righteous policeman, Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) and his search for a missing girl on a remote, pagan island, it’s an intelligent, measured film to stir the blood. Yet despite the brilliance of its casting – with horror alumni Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee in supporting roles – and the precision of its filmmaking, The Wicker Man was subjected to brutal treatment before release, with some 20 minutes hacked from its duration by an unsympathetic studio.
Although much of that footage has been lost forever – popular legend suggests that the negatives now lie buried beneath the M4 motorway – efforts have since been made to reinstate the excised scenes that still remain. To coincide with The Wicker Man‘s 40th anniversary, Studiocanal is releasing a 92-minute version of the film, discovered in the Harvard Film Archive following a high-profile internet campaign to find missing footage.
Although not the longest edit released so far – a slightly longer restoration appeared on DVD a few years ago – The Final Cut has been given a seal of approval by director Robin Hardy, who’s stated that it “fulfils my vision of what is was intended to convey to the audience.”
With The Wicker Man: The Final Cut out in UK cinemas on Friday 27th, followed by its Blu-ray and DVD release on the 14th October, it was our pleasure to speak to Mr Hardy about his work on this remarkable film, its continued relevance, and his next movie, The Wrath Of The Gods.
It’s hard to believe that The Wicker Man’s 40 years old. Do you think it’s endured so well because it’s so different from other horror pictures? It’s very literary, measured and detailed.
I don’t think it’s a horror film, really, I think that’s one of the reasons. It became a horror film almost within months of being seen for the first time at the Grand Prix at the Festival du Film Fantastique in Paris, and therefore being given a review in Variety and so on. It hadn’t been labelled – partly because the studio hated it, and wanted to get rid of it anyway they could. At that point, a magazine in the states, which was the equivalent of Empire now here [in the UK] – Cinefantastique – devoted an entire issue to it, and a huge thing on the cover. Rather like we’ve got this month on the cover of Sight And Sound, by the way.
The quote they had was, “The Citizen Kane of horror films”. Well, obviously, being compared with Citizen Kane, the great Orson Welles picture, was very flattering, but we had to take the horror film label along with the quote, if you see what I mean [laughs]. I actually would have started calling it a black comedy even then, which I think it is. It’s very black at the end, but it’s certainly a comedy – a comedy in different ways, along the way , from the beginning to the moment where we suddenly realise what’s going on up there on those cliffs.
Do you think your background as an artist was partly what made The Wicker Man so visually striking, and so symbolic?
It may well be so, yes. My entry into filmmaking was… I was trained in Paris, and at that particular time, art had taken the turn into abstract expressionism, something I’ve never understood or been able to do. So, as a figurative artist, I really had to earn my living somewhere, and film seemed to be an obvious route.
I was interested in film already, so that switch – it’s wrong, in some of the articles that have been written, that I was an art director. I wasn’t an art director. I tried to bring art direction to my direction, as you suggested.
There’s a theme in the film, as well – a very prevalent theme – of religious fanaticism. That, if anything, is even more relevant now than it was 40 years ago, don’t you think?
Well, it’s very interesting you should say that. Because if we were having this conversation in the middle of the 80s, or the end of the 80s or the beginning of the 1990s, you probably wouldn’t have said that – don’t you agree?
I probably wouldn’t, no.
I am amazed about that particular period, where we believed that religion, as an issue in politics, or indeed in anything, was pretty well finished with. And of course the Middle East was totally quiescent. Now, it’s like we’ve gone back to the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, in which millions of people of died, and, well, it went on for 30 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one… whatever they agree, between the Russians and the Americans, isn’t going to affect the war very much, I don’t think.
But, you know, we were interested, as far as religion is concerned, primarily in how paganism in our country or in the Christian area of our country, had been permeated from the very start. In other words, it was the other way around, really – when the Christians, very cannily, began putting up their churches and pushing their religion in these islands, they had to face up to the enormous power and potency of paganism. They did it by absorbing it. It’s there all over Christmas. It’s there all over Easter.
And perhaps why the film’s so resonant, as well. It reaches back into that ancestral memory.
Yes, yes. And some very practical superstitions. Silly little things like the frog in the throat, you know?
As you said before, the ending of The Wicker Man is very, very black. And even now, if you’ve never seen it before, it’s surely a shocking ending. What was the reaction to the script like before shooting began?
Well, we were very lucky, I would say, about that. The studio was being run on a temporary basis by a man we called Bentley. And he was quite young – I think in his early 30s. He was a disciple of somebody called Slater, and Slater was a famous asset stripper. This was one of the business practices going on at the time; Ted Heath, the prime minister at the time, called it the unacceptable face of capitalism. Buying companies so you could strip them of their assets.
The belief was that it would happen to British Lion. Shepperton had this huge studio, and it was going to be turned into a building site, and all the filmmakers were going to be let go. So in order to combat that, Bentley looked around – he wasn’t really a filmmaker at all – for something on his desk that could be made into a film right away.
So The Wicker Man script was there, and he signed a cheque, and we were making the film – it was as simple as that. There were no great discussions about its marketability or anything like that. His producer was his managing director – Peter Snell, he was also the producer. It wasn’t subject to the usual kind of supervision that a studio would give. No one had thought seriously about its marketing, it was just, “Let’s make a film quickly”, to satisfy the unions and ward off the financial press, and so on.
While actually, they planned to sell the studio. Which they did subsequently, to EMI.
In the aftermath of its making, when the film was cut down, that must have been incredibly frustrating for you.
Being locked out of your cutting room is very frustrating! It happens. Producers have ultimate power, because they represent the money. But in this case, the guy who did it wanted the film to be as long as it needed to be for a second feature. He hated the film, thought it was undistributable, you know, and there was no question of discussing it to see if he could understand it, or testing it even, which is something that would happen today. And even then, they could have tested it.
Thankfully, The Wicker Man got the recognition it deserved. But afterwards, were there any offers to work with Anthony Schaffer again or Edward Woodward?
Yes, of course. But I was going to the States and making television for a lot of that time.
You followed The Wicker Man with The Wicker Tree in 2011. What can you tell me about your next film, The Wrath Of The Gods?
The Wrath Of The Gods I’ll shoot at least partly in the Shetlands, and then possibly in Iceland. The script’s being approved by me – I wrote it, so it’s not difficult for me to approve it! It’s partly cast, and I hope to shoot it in the spring of next year.
And with that, we were sadly out of time. Robin Hardy, thank you very much.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is out in UK cinemas on Friday 27th, with its Blu-ray and DVD release following on the 14th October.