Michael Deeley

How The Wicker Man (Almost) Disappeared

The 2006 Wicker Man remake is coming to Netflix, and I am groaning eternally. I BEGRUDGE NO ONE THEIR BEE MEMES, but it does kill me that there’s almost no content for the original 1973 film (at least around here).

I mean, there’s the fact that it’s one of the finest horror films ever made, but also, its production history is completely baffling. The universe practically conspired to make this movie disappear. 

First of all, it was made on an itty bitty little budget - 500,000 GBP (that’s about $650,000). And a big chunk of that went toward building the famous final sequence. Christopher Lee, the guy the film was written as a vehicle for, worked for free so that the project could keep going.

And y’all, this film was Christopher Lee’s baby. He went around on an actual road tour of the U.S., appearing on radio stations in small towns at the asscrack of dawn just to promote this film. He loved it.

Unfortunately for him, the higher ups…did not love it. Or rather, this one particular guy really hated it, and he just so happened to be at the top of the food chain. When TWM was written and shot from 1971 to 1972, it was under the production studio called British Lion. But by 1973, when the film was completed, British Lion had been bought out by a larger studio. And thus, Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley inherited the smaller studio’s work. 

Deeley hated The Wicker Man. Fucking. HATED. It. Straight up telling Christopher Lee it was one of the worst films he’d ever seen levels of hate. FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF - etc. He didn’t want to release it at all. The film’s previous producer basically snuck around his back by submitting the film to Cannes (just to show, not for any prizes), which is how it got picked up for foreign distribution. 

Now, the original edit of the film, the longest version, was 99 minutes. Already that supposedly has 15 minutes of material shaved off, mostly Christopher Lee scenes. The show’s composer recalls scoring a psychedelic dream sequence that was never in any released cut of the film at all. 

BUT WAIT, it gets better. 

When he found out that he couldn’t just bury the picture and have done, Deeley went to Roger Corman. Yes, Roger Corman, or “that guy who directed Vincent Price a whole bunch” (and also eventually made Sharktopus yes really). This is the guy you come to with the weird unsettling cult movie. And Corman did indeed have suggestions for what an American audience would like, which ended up with the film cut down to 87 minutes with a few scenes rearranged. At that length, it could be released in the UK as a “B-movie,” i.e. the second half of a double-billing. 

So, the film goes out, Lee does his work. Some people get to see the film, sort of (though the U.S. showing was quite limited, and it only made around $50,000). But then, in 1976, the director, Robin Hardy, decides he wants to try and restore the original cut. So he calls up the studio, only to find that that’s apparently impossible.

Because Deeley told his staff to get rid of the film negatives. The famous urban legend is that he had them thrown in a landfill, though others claim they were burned). The ONLY reason it wasn’t lost forever was because a single copy of that initially cut had been sent to Corman, and he’d held onto it - and was further willing to send a duplicated copy to Hardy.

One guy’s fervent dedication to being a spiteful dick almost lost us one of the greatest films in horror. 

And THAT is a way better story than bees. 

Bowie, in any case, was my star; and like any other star his every whim, fear, demand or tantrum would have to be dealt with as promptly as possible, and at the smallest possible expense to the production budget. There was a moment when filming might have ground to a halt: this was when the star became convinced that someone or something had poisoned his preferred tipple, a glass of skimmed milk. He claimed to see some strange matter swimming about in the liquid, and was ill for two days afterwards. On another occasion there was a fuss because the star’s mobile dressing room had been set up on a site which he felt must be an old Indian burial ground. There were no grave markers, sign-posts, artefacts or any other necrological indications, but we moved the dressing room anyway.
—  Michael Deeley, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters, and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies