The Wicker Man is a low budget British horror film from 1973 that over the years has acquired the status of a cult movie and has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of horror movies” by Cinefantastique magazine.
It features Edward Woodward as Sergeant Neil Howie – a devoutly Christian policeman who is sent an anonymous letter recommending that he investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, on the mythical remote Hebridean island of Summerisle. During his investigations he discovers to his horror, that the entire population follows a strange neo-pagan cult under the island's owner, Lord Summerisle, believing in re-incarnation, worshipping the sun and engaging in fertility rituals and sexual magic in order to appease immanent natural forces.
The film climaxes with Howie discovering that he has been tricked into the investigation and that he himself is about to be used as sacrificial appeasement in the form of being burnt to death in a large wicker man.
On its original release, as the ‘B-feature’ in a double bill alongside Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the film was received with critical bewilderment - both critics and audiences alike were unsure what to make of its mix of horror, comedy, sex, bawdy folk songs and unremittingly bleak ending. However, it was largely unknown to both parties that the film had been the victim of a severe editing process, with the distributor British Lion / EMI, cutting down the movie from 99 minutes to 87 minutes in order to satisfy the logistical exhibition pressures of screening two movies in a double bill format.
The BBFC received The Wicker Man for formal classification in the summer of 1973 and passed the film with an X certificate– broadly equivalent to today’s 18. The main classification issues that determined the decision were sex, nudity, occult theme and horror.
The BBFC had already requested that a scene featuring female back and buttock nudity be removed from a trailer for the film. However, apart from this, the film was deemed to be unproblematic at the adult category and was released uncut. Despite two complaints regarding the moral ambiguity of the film’s ending, the BBFC took a very light view of the work, with one senior examiner noting “there can be few people who do not recognise this film as simple fantasy. Inhabitants, even of spoof islands, in the United Kingdom are not really given to burning constables and cattle”.
Over the next twenty years The Wicker Man attracted a new audience and its cult status grew amongst genre fans - encompassing fan conventions, fanzines and websites dedicated to the film. Inevitably many myths also grew around the movie and many of its fans were confused by the various versions of the film that existed and whether the BBFC had a hand in cutting it or not.
The BBC had screened a different version to that of the UK theatrical release, running at approximately 96 minutes, and Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) and director Robin Hardy had gone on record claiming that they both remembered an even longer version. To add further confusion, during the early 1980s director Hardy had managed to piece together a version of the film from various prints he had tracked down. He claimed that this re-construction came close to that of his original, but he had only secured the rights to screen and release it in the US.
A version identical to the 1973 theatrical version was submitted to the BBFC for video classification for the first time in May 1990 by Warner Brothers Home Video. The examiners who reclassified the film argued that under current standards there was a case for passing the film 15, stating that the film’s fantasy elements and theatrical occult theme would be seen as slightly dated and possibly amusing to a younger audience.
However, the film’s dark ending with its prolonged scene of human sacrifice, persuaded them to rate it 18, with one examiner claiming that “the 18 is quite simply because the feature ends with human sacrifice - the ritual burning of Howie offers us no escape from his predictable but awful end”.
It was also noted that several scenes of nudity, including an orgy in a graveyard setting, also gave credence to the 18 decision, with another examiner claiming that it highlighted the importance of “preventing adolescent emotions, already in turmoil, from further complications”. However, the release of the 87 minute video version of the film only added further speculation as to the existence of a definitive print of The Wicker Man. However, as far as the BBFC was concerned, the Warner's video version matched that of the original theatrical version submitted by British Lion in 1973.
In 2001 the film’s new worldwide rights holder Canal+ pulled together various found prints of the film and combined them to create the longest and closest version to Hardy’s original 99 minute cut; this version was submitted on DVD to the BBFC in December of 2001 for reclassification as ‘The Director’s Cut’. The BBFC’s policy with regards to reclassifying works that have been passed previously is that the work “must be passed at the existing category unless that category is no longer reasonable or defensible according to current guidelines and practice. If the existing category is too high, the category should be lowered to the most appropriate category by current standards.”
In September 2000 the BBFC published a new set of Guidelines, therefore The Wicker Man was up for reappraisal. The examiners who viewed the work acknowledged that there had been significant changes in public attitudes to the portrayal of sex over the previous decade and that the current Guidelines reflected these changes. With reference to the infamous orgy scene one examiner noted “the orgy happens at night and the visuals are dim lit; only showing in MLS a woman riding on a man who is caressing the former's bare breasts…No genital nudity is featured. Given the story which explores the issue of the Pagans' attitude towards sex, the treatment is considered restrained and well justified in context for 15”. Both examiners agreed that the human sacrifice scene created quite a strong impact, but was also similarly restrained in its treatment– “The burning of the victim is almost painless. There is not any sustained or detailed infliction of pain. The scene has its impact on the psychological front rather than (dwelling) on graphic details”.
Taking these points into consideration both examiners felt that under the new set of Guidelines 18 would be an unreasonable recommendation; therefore the film was reclassified at 15.
In 2006 The Wicker Man was re-released theatrically (the 87 minute version) and on DVD (both versions), partly to coincide with Neil LaBute’s remake of the movie starring Nicolas Cage as Howie. Surprisingly, despite the work being updated for a modern audience, La Bute’s remake was classified at 12A, whilst Hardy’s original retained its 15 certificate accompanied by the consumer advice ‘contains moderate horror, sex and nudity’.