Once upon a time horror films were a much more guileful proposition, gently ensnaring the audience before creeping up on them with the thrills and spills. From Nosferatu to The Innocents to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the best horror films tended to rely on a sense of dread and foreboding. Compare that to the majority of today’s fare, which seems to rely solely on crude music cues and extreme gore. You can’t imagine a film like The Wicker Man, which has just received a brand new 2K restoration and re-release, being made in today’s environment.
The Wicker Man must go down as one of the most unusual and distinctive horror films ever made. One could easily re-cut the film as an ode to some idyllic rural British past, a promotional video for 70’s hippies. It’s this mix of sun dappled rural landscapes and eerie paranoia that makes the film such a beguiling, memorable piece of cinema. It’s a fairly simple story; puritanical police officer Howie (Edward Woodward) goes to investigate the disappearance of a girl on a remote Scottish island and finds that the oddball locals aren’t ready to help him.
Writer Antony Shaffer relishes placing the devoutly Christian Howie into a hotpot of wayward pagans and their frequent orgies. Walking out into the night, Howie stumbles into a throng of youths fornicating in the grass, while the pub landlord’s daughter (Britt Ekland) makes gratuitous advances towards the tempted officer. Elsewhere the sanctity of the graveyard has been tainted by the remains of last year’s harvest strewn across the graves. All that Howie holds dear in life is being challenged by these ‘heathens’.
The film itself plays out a little like a murder mystery; Howie perusing houses and records for the missing girl. There is a delicious air of conspiracy running through the narrative, as if Howie is playing a game that he doesn’t know the rules to. The locals are strangely ambivalent to the girl’s welfare, which incites a new kind of terror for the audience. The introduction of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) spices up proceedings. His louche, idealistic leader adds to the sense of strangeness emanating from top to bottom.
Robin Hardy’s direction is unusual for a horror film, almost ponderous. At times his wandering camera is like a documentary of the community, studying the faces and symbols of this tightknit world. Hardy utilises a fair number of ethereal folk songs, which in any other horror would seem mind boggling. It conjurs up a slightly fairytale atmosphere, but with an ominous edge. He also elicits a strong performance from Woodward; we get a solid sense of righteousness and angst from his Howie.
Any chance to see this classic horror on the big screen should be taken, but this time the film has been enlivened by a lost cut and a 2K restoration. Hardy had originally devised a longer version which was later cut down for a commercial release. This recovered cut embellishes Christopher Lee’s role and provides more context for the harvest narrative. Personally I feel the leanness of the original commercial cut had a greater sense of mystery and propulsion to it, but it is intriguing to see what Hardy had really envisaged in the beginning.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is out in cinemas September 27th and out on DVD/BD Oct 14th.