A very nasty piece of work

After years of cock-ups and recrimination, the director's cut of The Wicker Man is being shown on TV. So is everyone happy now? Don't you believe it, says Mark Kermode
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Jutting out of the ground on a stretch of coastline at Burrowhead in south-west Scotland are two ragged wooden struts, pointing at awkward angles toward the blackening heavens. To the casual observer, these pillars seem unimposing, but to the cult film fan they are a religious relic, the last surviving fragments of British cinema classic which was savagely cut down back in the early Seventies, but which would later rise from the grave to be hailed as the "Citizen Kane of horror movies".

Inspired by a single sentence and an eye-catching illustration in an edition of Caesar's Gallic Wars, The Wicker Man is a tale of a puritanical policeman named Howie who visits a remote Scottish island, where he becomes an unwitting player in an act of pagan sacrifice. Written by playwright Anthony Shaffer (who died last month), and featuring career-defining performances from Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, this uniquely British oddity remains a font of controversy regarding everything from its origins (which may or may not lie in author David Pinner's 1967 novel, Ritual) to its content (is that Britt Ekland's voice and bottom on screen, or an imposter's?) to its length (anything between 87 and 99 minutes, but apocryphally recorded as 102 minutes). It is, as Shaffer says, "a very nasty little plot indeed".

Although set in May, The Wicker Man was actually shot in Dumfries and Galloway between October and November, requiring the use of artificial tree blossoms to offset the freezing rain and sleet. According to legendary horror icon Ingrid Pitt, the weather was so cold that Edward Woodward used to warm his naked feet between her knees, although she comforted him by saying, "Don't worry, they're going to burn you in a minute!" The burning itself took place inside a vast colossus at Burrowhead, in which Howie faces a fiery end along with a menagerie of sacrificial cattle. "I've done an awful lot of things in the years since that picture was made," says Woodward, "but never, ever have I been so frightened as when I was in the wicker man itself. It was horrifying. The heat was intense and I felt at times that I was really burning." And it wasn't only Woodward who was scared. According to director Robin Hardy, "This goat kept pissing on our heads, because the poor thing was very nervous. You can hardly blame it." As for Shaffer, he added fuel to the flames by telling a delegation of concerned, animal-loving locals that they were only going to burn "pandas, fluffy Chihuahuas, and other cuddly creatures". The locals were not amused.

Relations between the film-makers were strained, too. Hardy reports that cinematographer Harry Waxman kept asking "Why the hell are we doing this?" Art director Seamus Flannery says that he found Hardy "unforthcoming"; Christopher Lee suspects that the British Lion management deliberately defiled and buried the finished film; and Shaffer and Hardy became permanently estranged after completing the movie. Most (in)famously, leading lady Britt Ekland turned her back on The Wicker Man, refusing for years even to talk about it. "People were not really nice to each other," she says now. "It was every man for himself. And if you cheat and lie to people, it creates ill feeling all around."

The causes of Ekland's grievances are two-fold. Firstly, she claims she was "secretly" body-doubled during a naked dance sequence, with "a model with a big ass" being brought in to do the rear-view shots after she allowed the director to shoot her naked only from the waist up. Worse, Ekland claims that she was dubbed against her wishes. "I did a Scottish accent and they didn't like it, so they brought [jazz singer] Annie Ross into the studio and she dubbed my voice. It's the only time in my career that I have not used my own voice." (Intriguingly, although the voice on screen sounds nothing like Ekland's, editor Eric Boyd-Perkins insists that neither he nor his sound man dubbed anything more than a song, leaving an enigmatic question mark over the offending dialogue, which director Hardy is now inclined to think may be Ekland after all. Curiouser and curiouser...)

All this, however, is a mere appetiser for Christopher Lee's grievances against Michael Deeley, incoming managing director at British Lion who, Lee insists, declared The Wicker Man to be "one of the 10 worst movies I have ever seen". "Absolute nonsense!" counters Deeley, who has long been vilified by Wicker Man fans as the devil of this piece. "I never said that. I don't think it's one of the 10 worst films I've ever seen. I've made worse films than that myself. I thought it was fascinating and genuinely ahead of its time. But it was also rather indulgent, and very difficult for an audience." Indeed, both Hardy and Shaffer have confirmed Deeley's assessment, reporting that the marketing men at British Lion were aghast when first shown The Wicker Man. According to Shaffer, "When the lights went up, they just said 'Is that it? Don't the cavalry come? Jesus, it's a bit heavy, isn't it?' To which I replied, 'Yes, it is, isn't it!'" Hardy remembers that they simply declared it "unsaleable".

Faced with such a response, Deeley sent a print of The Wicker Man to movie legend Roger Corman in America, who made some vague suggestions for cuts, and then instructed Eric Boyd-Perkins to cut around 12 minutes from the film, enabling Deeley to release it as a supporting feature with Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now. Although some have alleged that The Wicker Man was cut to Corman's instructions, it was, in fact, Boyd-Perkins who figured out how to restructure the movie, shortening Howie's stay in Summerisle from two nights to one, and losing much "incidental" dialogue, thereby making Christopher Lee "extremely cross".

Some years later, a revival of American interest in the film led Hardy to go looking for the original negative, only to be told that it had disappeared, having either been "buried in landfill under the bridges of the M3" or "accidentally dumped in a waste disposal skip". Today, Christopher Lee says ominously, "I don't know whether instructions were given to destroy it, or to hold it somewhere under another name, but I believe that the negative still exists." Deeley thinks it's possible, but has no time for the "paranoid" fantasies of those who think it's been deliberately secreted away.

In the end, an uncut print of The Wicker Man was traced to Corman's offices, and this was used to strike dupe negative elements for new prints, and also to create a new master for a "Director's Cut" video, released with an alleged running time of 102 minutes. In fact, this version (which has long been seen as the Holy Grail by fans) actually runs only to about 99 and a half minutes, and was simply mistimed by distributor John Simon when first obtained from Corman's vaults. "I guess I just looked at my watch at the beginning and end of the screening," says Simon, "and I had always assumed that someone else would double-check the timing." Apparently not, for we now have legions of Wicker Man devotees worrying on the internet about why a recent definitive US DVD release is "three minutes shorter than it should be", when in fact it is intact (although Lee still thinks it could do with being 10 minutes longer). And so the cycle of mystery and myth continues.

As for the perennial appeal of the film itself, Lee believes that "there is a touch of paganism in all of us insofar as we do all depend on the elements, which have been there since the dawn of time". Hardy agrees, adding that "the idea that that this rather happy, singing, loving society could come back and the only price was that we had to burn the occasional policeman sounds pretty good". As for Anthony Shaffer, a beacon of wry mischievousness to the end, he declared in the last days of his life, "I look forward to the day when we are pagans again. We'd have a much better time of it. I think we'd have a lot more fun, a lot more belief, a lot more faith, and a lot more immediacy with the things unseen."

'Burnt Offering: The Cult of the Wicker Man', Channel 4, 29 Dec, 12.20am; 'The Wicker Man: Director's Cut', Channel 4, New Year's Eve, 11.40pm