No, not the bees. The beloved, now unassailably classic original “The Wicker Man” turns 40 this year, and this week a version dubbed ‘The Final Cut’ makes its way to theaters, with director Robin Hardy’s blessing. If it were any other four-decade-old British horror film getting the same treatment, it would likely be the first chance many of us would have had to see it on the big screen. But “The Wicker Man” has grown in critical esteem and public adoration since its scrappy, perfunctory first run, which means that in recent years its various cuts have been staples on the late-night-horror/Halloween/Midnight Madness circuit. Not that that necessarily makes us less likely to go see this version—as is almost a requisite for a truly cult film, “The Wicker Man” does not just stand up to, it pretty much demands repeated viewing, and yields some new level of WTF delight every time. And with cinematography this evocative and of-its-time and an ending this epic, the bigger the screen, the better.
The film’s storied rise to sit within the horror pantheon (detailed in a chatty, entertaining documentary by the participants and Mark Kermode) is part of its underdog appeal: allegedly called “One of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen” by Michael Deeley, then-incoming co-head of producers British Lion, it seems they couldn’t find a way to sell the original cut domestically, and so shopped it round Hollywood. Roger Corman made a bid, and apparently gave advice on cutting it down for U.S. audiences, but it eventually went to Warners who gave the shortened version a test release, largely in drive-ins and then seemed to lose interest in it altogether. “What hope did we have,” asked Hardy later “with an audience who were fucking themselves silly in the back of their parents’ Fords?” And so, as is often the case with cult movies, the film went into a kind of hibernation for a few years, while its reputation grew, perhaps largely because of its elusiveness. Meanwhile a few enthusiasts, led by the hugely enthusiastic critic and small-time distributor John Simon, began the campaign to reinstate the original edit, a campaign that it seems has only now borne real fruit. (Though perhaps we shouldn’t go into ‘The Final Cut’ expecting massive differences: according to this apparently exhaustively researched website there’s only about 4 minutes difference in length between the shortest existing version and this new one, and none of the new footage included is wholly ‘unseen,’ having been knocking around in some form for a while).
Just how much of the film’s compulsive, eccentric brilliance was intentional and how much the result of a happy confluence of the right off-kilter elements is hard to tell—certainly the film is a great one, but whether it’s actually good is kind of a different question. Also it’s moot, as its tonal all-over-the-place-ness (musical! horror! comedy! erotica! cheese!) is one of the things that keeps it so endlessly surprising—no matter how often you’ve seen it, there’s always some part of you that can’t quite believe what you’re watching. And however unsure one may be up to that point, the ending is simply one of the most extraordinary climaxes in cinema history, and by itself earns the film its “genius” tag.
But as near-unique as the whole “The Wicker Man” package is, it is also part of a certain tradition. The cheapie British horrors of the ’50s/’60s/’70s, led by Hammer Films and other labels like Amicus, actually evolved a very distinctive aesthetic that, coupled with the experimentalism of the period created a sort of eerie surrealism that “The Wicker Man” exemplifies but was present elsewhere (arguably even in the Brit TV shows of the era, from “Doctor Who” to “The Avengers”). So while it may be impossible to find the exact lightning in a bottle of “The Wicker Man” replicated elsewhere, if you find yourself jonesing for more of that supremely British cult horror sensibility after you stumble out of your screening, here are some other films you might like to look into.
“The Blood On Satan’s Claw” (1970)
“The Wicker Man” may not be period-set, but its isolated island community certainly feels like it is, and perhaps that’s why so many of the films that occur to us as comparable are placed in olden tymes. Or perhaps it’s just that the 17th century was really the heyday of witch hunts. Enter “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” a rather slow-moving but ultimately quite satisfying foray into the era, in which the young people of a small rural village form a bloodthirsty coven with the express intention of giving life to a demon whose partially rotted remains are disinterred by a plough early on. While it’s unfortunate that the Piers Haggard-directed film deviates from its salacious main plot as much as it does (the whole first section detailing a courtship between a farmer’s daughter and a local young ‘squire’ is kind of pointless), when it does get down to it, it’s surprisingly lurid and has moments of genuine eeriness too: a doomed game of blind man’s bluff, a quite graphic rape scene, and a strong performance by the lead teenage witch (no Sabrina she). In fact Linda Hayden’s inappropriately named Angel, who runs the coven, could stand to have a bit more screen time as the proto-Mean Girl queen bee of her particular clique/bible study group, whose descent to the Dark Side is further indicated by her growing the kind of bushy eyebrows that young girls these days seem to think are the epitome of gorgeous (digression: seriously, what is up with your eyebrows, young people?). Apparently originally conceived as a portmanteau film of three stories, it’s kind of clear that producers Cannon Films didn’t quite succeed in making the three strands gel into one coherent picture, and the actual appearance of the demon at the climax is, well, unscary, but “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” has atmosphere and bucolic English country locations to burn and enough flashes of unsettling ingenuity (that grinning redheaded boy is the stuff of nightmares and we’re not even gingerist) to warrant a watch.
Wicker-iest elements: sacrificial rituals; young, female nudity; attempted seduction of a Godly man by a young nude female; death by fire.
”Kill List” (2011)/“A Field In England” (2013)
The natural inheritor, and possibly only real claimant, to those gonzo 1970s British horror credentials is Ben Wheatley, who first overtly nodded to the film with his brilliant “Kill List”—maybe the first movie to frighten audiences in quite the same uncanny, unearthly “Oh God, oh Jesus Christ” way since “The Wicker Man.” But we also want to include “A Field In England” here, Wheatley’s most recent film, and not only because of our sudden obsession with all things 17th century. While we’d hardly accuse “Kill List” of being derivative (it’s not), “A Field In England” is one of the few films that we can say might actually blow your mind further apart after you walk out of “The Wicker Man,” and that’s not something we say lightly. Psychedelic despite its black-and-white photography, hilarious despite the grim despairing horror at its core, and blessed/cursed with some of the most unforgettable images we’ve seen in years, where “Kill List” was undoubtedly Wheatley successfully and creatively reimagining elements of “The Wicker Man” as a suburban thriller, “A Field In England” largely transcends genre and influences in a potentially epilepsy-inducing, unclassifiable cavalcade of bizarre. So purely for the visceral shock of having never seen anything like it before (the same kid of jolt you get from your first viewing of ‘Wicker Man’), ‘Field’ would deserves its spot here, even if it didn’t hint at similar unearthly forces of madness and persecution and isolation and paranoia. But hey, if you’re feeling brave and aren’t too attached to your sanity, try a ‘Wicker Man’/”Kill List”/”A Field in England” triple bill. Though we recommend having a friend in the next room ready with some whale music and a tranq gun.
Wicker-iest elements: secret cults; human sacrifice; (well-founded) paranoia; arcane symbols; WTF-ness.
“Witchfinder General” (1968)
If there’s one man who could challenge Christopher Lee’s preeminence as a horror icon, it would probably be Vincent Price, so it’s cozy that we have a film of his here too. “Witchfinder General” is a heavily fictionalized, which is to say hyper-sensationalized, account of the exploits of 17th century lawyer Matthew Hopkins, who was appointed by Cromwell’s parliament to expose and punish witchcraft and sorcery. The film became quite notorious on its release for several reasons: the first being the furor in the U.K. over its torture scenes, which were deemed far too explicit and sadistic and cut from the U.K. release (though left largely intact for the U.S., where the film did well). The second was the tragic overdose death of the director Michael Reeves at just 25 years old the following year. And the third was over its historical inaccuracies which, since it characterizes Hopkins as a corrupt, whoring, murderous, greedy, vain, sadistic and altogether revolting human, are probably manifold, but boy does it make a perfect rogue to add to Vincent Price’s gallery. Hopkins and his equally depraved sidekick are summoned to a small village to investigate the local protestant priest. In an effort to rescue him, his comely niece offers herself to Hopkins, but that only works for a while, and when her dashing Roundhead fiance returns, he finds her raped, distraught, and uncle-less. The fiance vows revenge, which he eventually exacts, but not before more imprisonment and torture and brutalizing have occurred. To the modern eye, it’s actually not as grotesque as its reputation has it, and compared to some of our other recommendations here, feels pretty tame, but as an evocation of the injustice of political and religious persecution in the era it’s quite compelling. And as a vehicle for a role of such perversion and evil for the purring, snarling, faux-pious Price, it’s terrific.
Wicker-iest elements: horror icon in a central role; religious hypocrisy; puritanism; (soft-focus) nudity; seduction of a “Godly” man by a young nude female.
“The Devils” (1971)
In most cases “The Wicker Man” is a hard act to follow. Unless, that is, you follow it up with Ken Russell’s astounding, still jaw-dropping orgy of blasphemous excess “The Devils.” An absolutely incredible film, shocking and provocative and ridiculously beautiful (Derek Jarman’s spectacular yet supremely controlled set design has plenty to do with that), the film is based on a real incident that happened in 17th century France, while the infamous Cardinal Richelieu jockeyed for power at the court of Louis XIII (here portrayed as a dissolute and depraved homosexual popinjay who shoots protestants dressed as birds for sport). In the fortress city of Loudon, the popular charismatic priest Grandier (Oliver Reed, maybe in his best-ever performance) has a somewhat loose interpretation of his Holy Orders, especially those concerning women, and his virility also exerts a pull on the erotic imaginations of a local sisterhood of nuns, particularly the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave, in a totally fearless physical performance). But when Loudon’s walls come under attack by the King’s men, Grandier stands up to them, until his clandestine marriage drives Sister Jeanne, in a frenzy of sexual repression and jealousy, to accuse him of bewitching her. The witchfinder (a totally berserk Michael Gothard) is called in and it all devolves into a series of torture/rape/orgy scenes (it’s not too clear where one ends and the other begins). To think this was made just 3 years after “Witchfinder General” caused a stir? Sheesh, due respect and all but the Vincent Price vehicle features precious few scenes in which naked nuns masturbate themselves on parts of an altar-sized crucifix, or where a tied-down mother superior has a whitish goo pumped into her mouth from a phallic syringe thingie, and later (depending on which cut you’ve seen) jacks off with the charred femur bone of a heretical priest. But for all its X-ratedness (the cert it got both in the U.K. and the U.S.), it’s utterly brilliant as well, with its outrageousness, its flashes of humor (the crocodile, the carrot) and its truckloads of visual flair belying a steely intelligence that runs underneath it all as a chilling indictment of religious hypocrisy and mob mentality, and a great story about, of all things, personal redemption.
Wicker-iest elements: the “seduction” of a “Godly” man/men by a young nude woman (or 20); religious fervor leading to herd behaviour and persecution; martyrdom; death by fire; WTF-ness.
“The City of the Dead” (1960)
Feeling like the least British entry on this list, due to the producers’ insistence that all actors speak with American accents to match the film’s New England setting, “The City of the Dead” (titled “Horror Hotel” in the U.S.) is an unfairly overlooked, pacy little horror gem of the era that in structure bears more than a passing resemblance to that same year’s much more celebrated “Psycho.” Here our resourceful blonde heroine is also abruptly killed off before the halfway mark, and here again an intrepid team, led by a sibling of the girl, goes to investigate. However it’s not Norman Bates who’s behind all this, but a coven of witches who’ve survived since the 17th century due to their pact with the devil that has them sacrifice two young women every year. Fearless (if perhaps not the brightest) co-ed Nan Barlow asks not-at-all-sinister college professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) where she should go to do some more research into witchcraft. He helpfully suggests Whitewood, a decrepit town in which burnings took place some centuries before. After she disappears, her brother teams up with the granddaughter of the blind local priest (whose best witch-fighting days are behind him) to find out what happened to her. It’s a fun, well-acted and surprisingly well-made picture for a cheapie B-movie, and if it’s a lot tamer and more generic than “The Wicker Man,” it’s also over a decade earlier. And in fact the reliance on atmosphere over effects and story over spectacle means it’s weathered the intervening decades a lot better than many big-budget films from the same period.
Wicker-iest elements: Christopher Lee; human sacrifice; occult rituals; dead wildlife; significant dates; an outsider arriving into a closed community; death by fire.
A couple of other possibilities that cropped up were: B-horror maestro Jacques Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon,” a 1957 picture starring Peggy “Gun Crazy” Cummins and Dana Andrews as an American psychologist who comes to England to assist in the debunking of a certain mystic’s claims, only to fall victim to a curse—it’s pretty good but suffers from rather slack pacing and an inappropriately cuddly looking demon/monster. And 1960’s “Village of the Damned” strays rather too far from the occult theme we were going for here, but also demonstrates that skewed British sensibility in its tale of a country village in which all the women become pregnant following a mysterious few hours of lost consciousness. The creepy children they then bear, all blond and hyperintelligent and possessed of a hive mind, grow up at a prodigious rate and soon develop murderous tendencies—the film is a little ragged around the edges now, but only perhaps because it’s been so endlessly referenced, with a parody version, “The Bloodening,” even forming a central plot point in a ‘Simpsons’ episode. Meanwhile Hammer, while specialising more in creature features and monster movies in the ’60s and ’70s, did venture into occult territory twice, both times with Hardest Working Man In Horror Christopher Lee: the rather good “The Devil Rides Out,” in which Lee stars opposite fellow Bond villain Charles Gray, and the not-so-good-but-starry-and-excellently-titled “To the Devil a Daughter” (Richard Widmark, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott, Nastassja Kinski co-starring with Lee).
Any of these titles would be excellent warm-up or cool-down fodder after a fresh viewing of “The Wicker Man” in all its digitally restored glory, but if there’s an obvious one we’ve missed, feel free to burn us in effigy in the comments below.