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'The Wicker Man' gets overdue anniversary present

MoviesEntertainmentReligion and BeliefLifestyle and LeisureBars and ClubsDining and DrinkingChristopher Lee

"The Wicker Man" lives again.

This cult classic 1973 British film, long distributed in a variety of severely edited states, is now available in a 40th-anniversary restoration at the Nuart Theatre that director Robin Hardy embraces as the definitive version.

Though it's often misleadingly classified as a horror film, "Wicker Man" is in fact uncategorizable, an odd, one-of-a-kind little film that features an involving plot by Anthony Shaffer ("Sleuth," "Death on the Nile") and a performance by Christopher Lee that the iconic actor declares is his best.

It also features paganism. Lots and lots of paganism.

"The Wicker Man's" plot opens in Scotland with Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary flying a small police seaplane to a remote island named Summerisle to conduct an investigation.

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As played by Edward Woodward (who had the title role in the Australian classic "Breaker Morant"), Sgt. Howie had earlier been glimpsed (in a newly restored scene) as a devout churchgoer reading a New Testament passage about the powers of Communion, a character detail that later proves critical.

The sergeant has come to the island because he received an anonymous letter claiming that a 12-year-old girl, Rowan Morrison by name, has vanished. The islanders, a clannish bunch, insist at first that they've never heard of the girl. Howie's relentless investigative techniques gradually get them to admit that they do know her, but no one is willing to say where she might be, and the sergeant is convinced they are hiding something.

What is not hidden at all are the island's unapologetically pagan beliefs, which are taught in school ("the May Pole is a phallic symbol" is the unlikely lesson of the day) and acted out all over the island. Young couples copulate in public, naked girls leap over a sacred fire in front of a mini-Stonehenge, and a caring mother puts a frog in her daughter's mouth to cure her sore throat.

One of the strengths of "The Wicker Man" is the care taken to make it seem like the island really is a pagan stronghold. Director Hardy spent considerable time with "The Golden Bough," Sir James Frazer's magisterial study of mythology and comparative religion, and it shows in numerous visual details such as "The Green Man" sign for the local tavern and oddly shaped treats in the local bakery.

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The living embodiment of these beliefs is the fetching Willow (an effective Britt Ekland), the tavern landlord's daughter, whose genial brazenness makes the stiff and humorless Howie a little crazy. (Ekland is scheduled to appear in person at Friday's 7:30 p.m. Nuart screening.)

Also confounding Howie is Lord Summerisle, the owner of this private island, who has the temerity to tell the officer of the law that Jesus "had his chance and blew it." It's great work by actor Lee, the acknowledged king of British horror who more recently was Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

All this nonsense comes to a head on May Day, when locals dress in papier-mâché animal masks and engage in all manner of odd behaviors. The conclusion is chilling, disturbing and perfectly in keeping with what has taken place before.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'The Wicker Man'

Rating: No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles

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