“Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”
In 1973, the British film production company, British Lion, was on the block and two films found themselves in limbo — Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man. The new men in charge didn’t think too highly of either title and there was a desire to just get rid of them — create a clean slate for new productions, so to speak. Fortunately, both films managed to survive and in fact eventually go on to a fair degree of acclaim. Certainly, the British Film Institute thought pretty highly of them. The BFI’s list of the favourite 100 British films, created at the turn of the millennium, placed Don’t Look Now at number 8. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that 1973’s other British Lion orphan — The Wicker Man — also made the list at number 96. Anchor Bay has now made that film available on DVD.
A young girl mysteriously disappears and Police Sergeant Howie of the West Highland Constabulary is sent to a remote Scottish island to investigate. A quiet, pastoral community on the surface, Howie soon discovers that the island is home to a society that is dedicated to pagan rituals and beliefs. After a fruitless search for the girl whom no one on the island claims to have known, Howie finds himself part of a procession heading for the ultimate pagan ritual that may provide the answers he is looking for.
When I first received The Wicker Man DVD for review, I realized that the title was vaguely familiar, but that was it. I seemed to have managed to miss seeing the film or reading anything about it during the course of the nearly 30 years that have passed since it first appeared. I should say further that the version being reviewed here is the single-disc release of the American theatrical version. Concurrently, Anchor Bay has also released a two-disc special edition that also includes the original director’s cut, which is some 11 minutes longer.
One goes through several different reactions as the film progresses. At first, there’s a distinctly pleasurable feeling as one watches the opening sequences that suggest a typical British whodunit. Then pagan rituals get thrown into the mix and you start to realize that this is not going to be your standard whodunit. Then people start singing and dancing as part of the rituals (and not very well, I might add) and one begins to view the proceedings with an increasingly jaundiced eye. Things settle back onto a more even whodunit keel for a while (especially once Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle appears) and one again starts to feel kindly to the film, when the carpet is pulled out from under us and one can only gasp at the film’s climax. You’re left wondering if you saw something really good — “The ‘Citizen Kane‘ of horror films” as one magazine put it — or was it “one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen” as the new head of British Lion (the film’s production company) reacted upon viewing the original director’s cut.
Well, of course, it’s neither. “The ‘Citizen Kane‘ of horror films” is not applicable at all, because The Wicker Man isn’t a horror film, although there are horrific elements to it. A gothic mystery would be a better description, though even that doesn’t capture it fully. As for being one of the ten worst films, well I guess the British Lion head must have led a rather sheltered film life. For me, the test is always how much I find myself thinking about the film afterwards, replaying sequences in my mind and turning over the ideas and issues that the film raised. The Wicker Man passed with flying colours and I found myself eager for a second viewing as I started to write this review.
Now I have read elsewhere and as alluded to in the documentary on the DVD, that many feel strongly that the longer director’s cut is distinctly superior to the American release version on this disc. I can’t comment on that having only seen the latter, but I can say that I found the American release version to be quite satisfying. I didn’t feel that there were obvious pieces of the story missing or that the ending was in any way compromised. If the director’s cut is indeed superior, that’s so much to the better.
If you’re already familiar with The Wicker Man, I imagine I don’t need to say anything further to you. For others, this is a film well worth your time. It’s a real original, directed with style, and well-acted by the principal players — Edward Woodward as Howie and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Lee was very satisfied with his work on the The Wicker Man, feeling it to be among his best efforts on film. I haven’t seen enough of his work to judge whether that’s correct or not, but he certainly is effective in his role here.
Anchor Bay’s DVD rendition is quite a satisfying concoction. Since the original negative of the film is apparently lost (buried under the M3 highway outside London?), previous home video incarnations of The Wicker Man have not been exactly great-looking. “Restored from original vault materials” (what does that mean?), this new DVD rectifies the situation quite well. The image, which preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced, isn’t exactly pristine; it ranges from very good to fair in quality, with many portions being very crisp and detailed with excellent colour fidelity while others are grainy or soft-looking. Some night scenes are particularly murky. In general, edge enhancement is not a major issue although it is noticeable from time to time. Given what they apparently had to work with, overall Anchor Bay has done a commendable job.
On the audio side, we have a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that adds a nice presence to the original stereo sound track (also included). It’s not particularly aggressive and directional effects are minimal, but it adds a certain timbre to the actors’ voices and generally is an enriching factor that enhances the impact of the story.
As part of the supplements package on the disc, a very informative 35-minute featurette composed of interviews with a large cross-section of the filmmakers and entitled “The Wicker Man Enigma” has been included. Among the participants are actors Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, director Robin Hardy, producer Peter Snell, and writer Anthony Schaffer. We get a very thorough appreciation for the genesis of the film, its post-production ordeals, and the difficulties of resurrecting the original director’s cut. Supporting this piece are some reasonably comprehensive cast and crew biographies with selected filmographies accompanying them. A theatrical trailer, a TV spot and numerous radio spots round out the listed content. Finally, there’s an Easter egg that is fairly easily found and turns out to be an edition of a program called “Critic’s Choice, with Sterling Smith.” It’s a program broadcast in the southern U.S. featuring a local film critic. The edition presented here is one in which Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy are featured talking about The Wicker Man. The program content is fairly informative, although a little repetitious once you’ve seen the disc’s featurette. Unfortunately, the image quality is very bad.
I don’t have much to raise here. Perhaps I’ll just mention that, having seen the featurette and realizing as a result how much passion the filmmakers had for The Wicker Man, I was surprised to find no audio commentary included with the film. That would have seemed a natural to me, and given how strongly Christopher Lee feels about the film, I suspect that he would have been quite interested in doing one.
The Wicker Man was a very pleasant discovery for me. It’s a film that raises, then lowers, and then raises again your expectations before hitting you with a jolt. I’m not sure that I can think of a film that I could at all compare it with. So, something unique perhaps. Anchor Bay has done a fine job in showcasing the American theatrical version in this single-disc version — a commendable transfer backed with a nice 5.1 sound mix, and accompanied by an interesting interview featurette. Recommended.