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Posts Tagged ‘Robin Hardy’

Something of a charming tradition is beginning to develop at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford – towards the end of October last year, the cinema hosted a personal appearance by the director Robin Hardy along with a showing of his most recent film, The Wicker Tree. This year, Hardy was not present in person, but – one is tempted to say – more than making up for this is the appearance of a welcome re-release for a restored print of the director’s 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man.

Wicker-Man-Final-Cut-poster

This is not the first time I have written about Hardy or The Wicker Man, and apologies to long-term readers who may be experiencing a disagreeable sense of having been here before several times. But look on the bright side: I wasn’t able to get tickets to a recent showing of Singalonga Wicker Man, rather to my regret, so the world was spared my thoughts on that particular extravaganza (Hardy was going to be present for that one; God knows what he made of it all).

Hardy’s film is justly celebrated, and – as mentioned – I have already reviewed the original 1973 cut of the film. The version showing at the Phoenix this week makes no substantial changes to the story. As ever, it concerns Howie (Edward Woodward), a fiercely devout, somewhat pompous and rather self-righteous policeman called to a remote Scottish island by a report of a missing child. He is appalled by what he sees as the licentiousness and degeneracy he sees everywhere amongst the islanders – they are pagans, and their community leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee – of course it’s Christopher Lee!) is very articulate in defence of their paganism. A series of clues leads Howie to develop a terrible suspicion as to the likely fate of the missing girl – a suspicion which proves to be very accurate, and yet at the same time wholly false in every important aspect…

This is, I think, the third version of The Wicker Man I have seen (and the second on the big screen). I recall another restoration broadcast on British TV at the end of 2001 which reinserted a number of scenes on the mainland featuring John Hallam’s scenes as a colleague of Howie’s. Those are missing from the Final Cut version, which begins with Howie attending a church service (this adds a welcome touch of ironic symmetry, as it means the film opens and closes with him singing the same hymn) – also gone, rather regrettably to my mind, is the tongue-in-cheek caption expressing gratitude to Lord Summerisle for allowing permission to film on his island.

The Final Cut is not substantially different to the original short version, which remains the iteration of the film most widely in circulation. The two main changes are the reinsertion of another musical number accompanying the initiation of a young islander, which brings forward the first appearance of Christopher Lee quite substantially and gives him a memorable speech about the virtuousness of animals as compared to humans, and the reorganisation of a number of scenes so Britt Ekland’s naked song-and-dance routine occurs at the end of the second act of the film rather than near the beginning. Believe it or not, this gives the thematic importance of the naked dancing rather more clarity and makes it feel less gratuitous (no matter what point in the film it’s moved to, though, it’s still odds-on that this is the moment at which an unsuspecting elderly relative will walk in while you’re watching the movie).

The changes may be small, but they have a considerable effect on the impression made by the movie – it’s very difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for the short version once you’ve seen any other. What they reinforce, confirming that the makers of Singalonga Wicker Man have been rather astute, is just how crucial the music and the songs of the film are in creating a sense of the rich, bizarre, alien culture of the Summerisle people. This, I think, is where the film gets its eerie, peculiar power from – the queasy lurch one experiences upon the realisation that this society may look virtually indistinguishable from our own, but its ethics and principles and essential nature are something wholly different and – to an outsider – deeply disturbing.

Hardy’s achievement is partly in generating this sense of a real place, but also in treading an incredibly narrow tightrope. It becomes obvious quite early on that something is afoot amongst the islanders and that Howie is being led around by the nose – and given he’s so pompous, priggish, prudish, and inflexible, it would be all too easy for the audience to lose any sense of sympathy or identification with him. It’s to Hardy’s credit, and that of screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and (of course) Edward Woodward, that this never completely happens and Howie’s eventual tribulations retain their considerable power to disturb.

When I spoke to Robin Hardy last year he was rather dismissive of the various outlandish plans of Wicker enthusiasts to recover the rest of the original negative – digging up sections of the motorway for which it was used as landfill, for example – and so it may be that this really is the definitive version of the film available to us (if not necessarily the longest). Well, any version of The Wicker Man is an unquestionable masterpiece, it’s just a question of how flawed that masterpiece is. The Final Cut is the best version I’ve seen of one of my favourite movies: one to relish and revisit regularly – if not every Halloween, then certainly every May Day.

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‘How many people here have seen the original Wicker Man?’ Robin Hardy, dapper in black blazer, shirt, and trousers, peers around the dimness of the Phoenix Oxford’s smaller screen. Eight or nine hands go up. Given that he is here to show The Wicker Tree, the veteran writer and director’s follow-up to the 1973 masterpiece, probably the biggest cult movie ever made in Britain, this would be somewhat surprising were it not for the fact that only eight or nine people have actually turned up – possibly a consequence of this event being organised at very short notice and, as a result, not being well-publicised. However, if Hardy is disappointed by the poor turnout he does not show it: from the outset it is clear that he is a gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Introducing the new film, Hardy announces that it is a piece in ‘the same genre’ as The Wicker Man – which as far as he’s concerned means it’s a black comedy with musical interludes. He admits to the problems he and his production partners are having actually getting the film into theatres, and ascribes this to the decision not to include any big-name actors in the film (if he feels there are parallels with the tortuous release endured by the original film, he doesn’t mention it). Quite sensibly he opts to postpone the full Q&A session until after we’ve watched the new film, but before it gets underway Hardy clearly feels the need to reassure us on a few points. ‘This is a film with its tongue in its cheek. It’s made to be laughed with and laughed at, particularly in the first half hour. But things still get pretty… pretty black by the end.’

The Wicker Tree is one of those films which isn’t a sequel, isn’t a prequel, isn’t honestly what you could call a remake, but is nevertheless so totally in thrall to a predecessor that it has very little genuine identity of its own. As it opens we meet Britney-esque popstrel turned born-again evangelist Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicoll) and her devoted if slightly less dedicated fiance Steve (Henry Garrett), who are both residents of the great state of Texas. Intent upon carrying out the will of God, Beth and Steve are flying off to do important missionary work in Scotland. This is at the invitation and with the assistance of wealthy community leader Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife (Jacqueline Leonard). When their initial efforts in Edinburgh fall on stony ground, Beth and Steve accept the Morrisons’ offer that they try their luck in the countryside. But saving souls is hard work, especially when Steve – who is finding total abstinence to chafe somewhat – is distracted by energetic local groom Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks). Things get even worse when it starts to appear that the locals may have had an ulterior motive in inviting the couple to visit, and especially take part in their traditional May Day celebrations. Needless to say the missionaries soon find themselves in a very uncomfortable position indeed…

Well, there has been talk for years and years and absolutely years of something new and Wicker-related making an appearance – firstly, there was Anthony Schaffer’s mooted Wicker Man 2 (also apparently known as The Loathsome Lambton Worm, though Hardy refers to it as The Loathly Worm), ultimately abandoned due to the death of so many key participants, and then the American remake by Neil LaBute with Nicolas Cage, which turned out to be an utter stinker (read on to learn Hardy’s thoughts on it). And now, finally, a film which by any standard is a close relation, made with the involvement of two of the surviving principals from the 1973 production. For those, like me, for whom The Wicker Man is one of those extraordinary, nigh-on perfect films, expectations can’t help but be impossibly, unmeetably high.

Even so, it was a heavy blow for The Wicker Tree to be quite as thoroughly disappointing as it actually turned out to be. That in itself is slightly surprising, given how closely it cleaves to its inspiration – the two films have, fundamentally, exactly the same plot, very similar settings, and identical themes. How can two such superficially similar movies be so wildly different in terms of quality? My opinion of the original film has been aired quite often enough – suffice to say it’s one of my absolute favourites. The Wicker Tree is an exasperating, strangely-pitched, un-evocative and borderline silly micro-budget comedy horror film.

If nothing else the follow-up throws into sharp relief just how brilliant the 1973 film is – every single difference from The Wicker Man serves only to make The Wicker Tree less involving, less thoughtful, less atmospheric, and less memorable. The most noticeable thing is the overall tone – which is, very much as Robin Hardy promised, one of camp excess with more than a hint of broad comedy. At one point an ominous pagan heavy gets stabbed up the kilt, to the consternation of the colleague tasked with giving first aid: ‘Och! They’ve well-nigh severed one of your googlies!’ she trills.

On top of this we get drawling cowboys, creepy villagers, and perky young maidens, all out of Central Casting, all issued with a script fatally short on any kind of subtlety and with precious few ideas. The performances themselves are not that bad – one senses the actors are delivering what’s been requested of them – and the two leads are reasonably good. That said, Robin Hardy assured me both of them were actually British doing American accents, which Brittania Nicoll’s own website flatly contradicts – if they are using their own voices it’s a little less impressive. Needless to say, the standout moment is a brief cameo from Sir Christopher Lee as Morrison’s enigmatic mentor. Briefly, Lee manages to give the film a real intelligence and sense of gravitas which its sorely lacking the rest of the time. Hardy leaves it open as to whether Lee is reprising his role as Summerisle; Lee assures us he is not, and I tend to agree simply due to the chronological issues involved.

Lee’s appearance is sadly curtailed, but perhaps that’s for the best: I think the film would have dragged Lee down rather than him raising it up. As it is, the resonances with the 1973 film are more often than not unfortunate as you are simply reminded how much better this material was handled then. Where the original film walked a razor’s edge in making the Edward Woodward character sympathetic while credibly naive, here, the two Christians just come across as stupid. The strange and oppressive atmosphere first time around is completely absent, replaced by a crashingly unsubtle tipping-off of what’s really afoot very early on. The songs are not as good either. When the film does shade over into explicit horror, there are a couple of mildly effective moments – but the film is edited so as to cut away from two crucial, climactic scenes much too soon. Overall it has none of the weird and ghastly power of The Wicker Man and very little to commend it beyond the basest curiosity value.

And so, following the film, it is with a slightly odd atmosphere prevailing that we loyal few assemble in the bar, gathering around Robin Hardy for the promised talk with the director. Hardy beams at us cheerfully. ‘So, what did you think of it?’

This is an awkward question in the circumstances. The most anyone says is that the new songs aren’t as good. Luckily, Wicker Man fans being as they are, the conversation almost at once goes off on a weird tangent or two. Someone quizzes Hardy in somewhat surprising depth on his work with veteran character actor Aubrey Morris, while someone else, having treated Hardy to a drink, also treats him to a long and rambling anecdote concerning real-world pagans and the Rollright Stones. On his part, Hardy seems utterly nonplussed by his adoption as some kind of figurehead by pagans, and also by the wealth of academic material The Wicker Man has spawned.

Eventually I spin the question back at Hardy: though I’m aware he can hardly be objective, how does he think the new film stands up in comparison to the original? Hardy bats it away and doesn’t even look at me. ‘It’s doing terribly well. The DVDs are selling like hot cakes.’

Oh well. I make the point that the lead characters of Wicker Tree just come across as sort of stupid. He blinks at me. ‘Well, they are American.’

This, and a discussion on the gender politics of the films too murky to recount here, at least leads us onto the topic of Neil LaBute’s version of The Wicker Man. What does Hardy think of it? He shifts in his seat and doesn’t quite snort. ‘Well, it has nothing to do with my film… I was rather surprised that a film made by so many talented people turned out to be such a ****-up.’

Well, we agree on that at least. The conversation moves on, concentrating mostly (of course) on the arcana surrounding the original: the mysterious fate of the original Wicker Man negative (apparently it’s almost certainly not under the M3), the issues Hardy is having with the digital restoration of it – apparently the restored bits of the extended cut are so grainy that the technicians don’t want to put them out on Blu-Ray –and the plans for The Loathly Worm. According to Hardy, and contradicting what I’ve heard elsewhere, Peter Cushing was never in the frame to play Howie – this of course leads us on to discuss where The Wicker Man stands in relation to the Hammer tradition. Personally, I think it’s well apart; but others disagree.

Soon enough Robin Hardy is looking at his watch and train ticket home with mild consternation and a few books get signed. I shake his hand and make my excuses, still pondering one of the announcements he made – work on his latest project is well underway, and he’s optimistic about it going in front of the camera quite soon (he touches wood). The name of the new film? The Wrath of the Gods, the final part in what Hardy’s calling The Wicker Trilogy.

I wish I could be as positive as Robin Hardy about yet another attempt to nail another appendage onto the Wicker Man edifice, but in the light of The Wicker Tree I really honestly can’t. Having met him, my respect and appreciation for Hardy as a gentleman and artist are undiminished, but I can’t really summon up any enthusiasm for his recent work. A very nice man, but a deeply flawed movie.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th December 2001.

The researcher would like to thank the Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the writing of this review.

Well, even as I type this, Christmas is just around the corner and so I thought I should do an appropriately seasonal review. There don’t seem to be any particularly Christmassy films out this year – unless your idea of a joyeux noel is a visit from the Nazgul – and so after some shallow thought I’ve settled on Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man as this week’s offering. Partly because it’s one of my favourite films, but also because it’s deeply and fundamentally festive (although I feel I should point out that the festival in question isn’t Christmas, nor anything like it). It also contains some lovely pantomime elements such as a transvestite dame (of sorts) and a cheerful singalong at the climax. Although having said all that it works equally well as a summery film – I find it a particularly excellent accompaniment to a barbeque.

The Wicker Man has had a famously tortuous and occluded history. Very, very, very loosely based on an obscure 1960s pulp thriller, it was scripted by the late Anthony Shaffer as an intelligent suspense thriller with fantasy elements. The production company, British Lion, virtually disowned it (mainly a result of corporate politics), hacked nearly a fifth of the running time from the original cut, and barely released it in the cinema. Legend has it much of the missing material now lies beneath a motorway in southern England. It seems that everyone involved in the project has their own contradictory account of the production. (For one such account, see BluesShark‘s article on The Wicker Man).

The film occurs at the end of April, 1973. Devoutly religious policeman Neil Howie (a remarkable performance by Edward Woodward) visits the remote community of Summerisle, off the Scottish coast. He’s received an anonymous letter alluding to the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison – but the islanders claim no such girl exists. Howie is revolted by what he sees as the loose morals and licentiousness of the community, and his suspicions are further aroused when he finds evidence of a conspiracy to hide Rowan’s disappearance. Something completely different is aroused by the landlord’s seductive daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, though it would be invidious not to mention the major contributions made by her body double and the woman dubbing her voice), but Howie resolutely ignores her.

From the community’s schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) and its lord (Christopher Lee, who may yet hit the big time in the movies if he can only get a part in a film people actually want to go and see) Howie learns the truth – Summerisle has renounced Christianity and returned to the worship of ancient Celtic nature-gods. The May Day festival is only hours away, and Howie has a horrible suspicion as to Rowan’s role in the proceedings…

It’s normal to class The Wicker Man as a horror movie but it’s a highly unusual one in both style and themes. It’s straightforwardly (some might even say plainly) photographed and directed, probably due to the tiny budget. But there is a genuinely unsettling atmosphere – the viewer empathises with Howie throughout, and shares his sense of being a stranger in a very strange community. There are some truly eerie moments emphasising how, beneath the surface, this is a society totally unlike our own. Adding to this is Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack of – brace yourselves – folk music. At several points the islanders burst into song, a startling occurence to say the least (the most memorable of these occasions is Ekland’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-nude solo number, one of the movie’s most weirdly powerful sequences). The result is a strong sense of a community returning to traditional ways, and also a stark reminder that this is not a by-the-book gothic melodrama like many other British fantasy films of the period.

The other differences are more subtle and thematic. Most horror films are about sex, one way or another, and usually the message is that sex means death – consider Dracula’s mock-seduction of his victims, or the rules of slasher-movies as satirised by Scream. The Wicker Man is different. Here, sex means life, fertility, and ‘the regenerative influences’. Howie’s rebuttal of Willow’s advances is crucial to his role in the story. Furthermore, most horror films take place in a universe of strict moral absolutes – there is Good and there is Evil, and the two are unmistakable. Again, The Wicker Man is different – the script is scrupulously fair in comparing Howie’s beliefs with those of the island (although Robin Hardy’s complaint that Christopher Lee’s long on-screen association with the powers of darkness was likely to prejudice the audience against him and the islanders seems justified). It does not play ethical favourites, operating in the grey area where society, morality and religion overlap. It suggests an absolute moral relativism, where Good and Evil have no objective existence. It is from this concept that the film draws so much of its ability to disturb.

Of course none of this would matter if the film was badly written or acted and it has nothing to worry about on either count. Woodward gives the performance of his life as the stubborn Christian copper – it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part (Peter Cushing was considered for it but rapidly discounted as Shaffer and Hardy already had two Hammer veterans – Lee and Ingrid Pitt – in the cast). Lee, in a role written for him, uses his stock-in-trade patrician authority to devastating effect, while Diane Cilento is impressively matter-of-fact in another key role. The script builds subtly and cleverly – even in the standard, butchered version – towards one of the great plot reversals in cinema history, where the significance of the title becomes horribly apparent.

And, you lucky, lucky people, the British TV premiere of the director’s cut of The Wicker Man is on one of the, ahem, non-BBC channels at 11.40pm on New Year’s Eve. If you live in the UK I hope you’ll consider watching it (what do you mean, you’ve got plans that night?!?); don’t be put off by the dated opening credits or clearly-miniscule budget. Open yourself to the film’s power and I guarantee you’ll have trouble sleeping afterwards. Merry Christmas everyone!

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