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What's so good about The Wicker Man anyway?
A retrospective and region 2 DVD review of the original THE WICKER MAN by Lord Summerisle
 

To coincide with the wonderful event of the theatrical release of the Hollywood remake, Optimum have brought out their Collector's Edition of the original classic on DVD. I will attempt to rekindle the flame that burnt so brightly that the embers still shine 33 years on.

The 1960s saw a lot of British horror films, more or less exclusively from Hammer. By the time the early 70s came around we were craving something different. Something with a bit more substance. Our prayers were answered in the form of The Wicker Man in 1973.

 

Written by Anthony Shaffer, who wrote the screenplay based on the little known David Pinner novel called Ritual, and directed by first timer Robin Hardy, the film was sold on the author's name (Shaffer had success with previous screenplays and his Sleuth was a hit on Broadway) and the inclusion of Hammer favourite Christopher Lee. It is a story about the occult on an island off Scotland. At the time one would be forgiven for thinking 'Nothing remarkable'. But what set The Wicker Man aside from British Hammer horrors and the overseas American Corman movies was a mixture of an adult naturalism counter to the gothicism and exploitationalism of the established modes of the genre.

For those not familiar with the premise of the film, I will give a brief synopsis.

Inspector Howie (Edward Woodward) of the Scottish police is sent to an island off the mainland called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a child native to the island, Rowan Morrison. He is greeted by suspicious characters and unusual happenings as his search commences. No one seems to know of the girl, including her mother, but it is clear there is something the island folk are hiding. Greeted by a strange, lewd song about the landlords daughter Willow (Britt Eckland), Howie's introduction to The Green Man Inn is anything but routine.

Inspector Howie is challenged professionally and ethically as his search takes him into a sinister world of Pagan ritual, forcing Howie to test his faith in Christianity, leading to a meeting with leader of the commune, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) that serves only to deepen the intrigue into the whereabouts of the missing Rowan. As Mayday approaches, and with it ritual celebration, Howie becomes more enraged and uncompromising in his quest, and the locals more sinister.

NOTE: Serious spoilers ahead – click here to bypass if you do not know the full plot of the film do not want the ending revealed.

The film's climax reveals the whole thing to be a set up by the islanders and involves the shocking ritual burning of a wicker man to improve the following harvest in which Howie is sacrificed as the 'Fool for a day', a virgin and martyr.

This plot could have been filmed in such a way as other horrors of the time, but Hardy creates an organic and naturalistic atmosphere which adds to the menace of the island. It is in the almost ordinary treatment of happenings in the film that this works the best. For example much of the encounters Howie has with the islanders are in daylight, framed by beautiful landscapes, or in the cozy atmosphere of a pub. The locals are cheerful and smiling. All is treated normally, be it a sing-song in The Green Man or Maypole dance, yet it is the unorthodox nature implied in what they are doing; singing about how promiscuous Willow is or Pagan fertility rites. On the other hand there is a surreality to the jolly musical style that serves to off-balance the contrary style that is otherwise depicted. Much of this atmosphere is thanks to wonderful soundtrack provided by Paul Giovanni. All of this is juxtaposed to Howie's stiff posture and devout Christian beliefs at a time when Britain was more of a religious people. Howie is symptomatic of the time, and viewing the character now he may seem a little over the top in his staunchness, but in the early '70s The Wicker Man highlighted a period of social and cultural transition. It was a time of questioning and revising of traditional modes and embracing a contemporary ideology. The new challenging the old. This is has much to do with the story of this film. It questions both the stubborn inflexibility of tradition, the lack of embracing the different, as well as the destructive power of unkempt freedom. The theme of sacrifice is prevalent in this; the obvious sacrifice of Howie is brought about by his inability to sacrifice any of his own beliefs and revise his sense of self. The people of Summerisle seem, in all their possible disillusionment, to be comfortable with the notion of sacrifice and fear little compared to Woodward's character.

It is this strong marriage of the thematic with national concerns that further elevates The Wicker Man above less substantial narratives.

The performances are another remarkable element to the whole. Edward Woodward is cast cunningly out of type, known before for rookie London coppers, a different brand of police officer to the old fashioned Howie. Whereas many of the rest of the main cast are known for their inclusion in Hammer horror movies, they benefit from the excellent script and come across as much more real than their often two dimensional characters of the potboiler franchise. One can pinpoint this film as where Christopher Lee broke free of his Dracula typecast and started to be taken seriously, in arguable the best of his performances to date.

There is so much to say about this film that many a book has been written and documentary made about not only the academic and technical aspects of the film, but the mythos behind the production and the mishaps encountered along the way by cast and crew, including much speculation regarding the relevance of its occult subject matter to unexplained events. Personally the finished article is all that matters to me when it comes down to it, and be it the theatrical release or the director's cut, The Wicker Man is a benchmark in the world of cinema and a British horror that has yet to be equaled.

sound and vision

This is the same transfer that appeared on the previous Warner DVD release and thus shares its stengths and weaknesses. Framed 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs, at its best the picture quality is very good, with good colour reproduction and picture detail, with black levels in the night exteriors just how they should look.

As fans will be already aware, the restored scenes have been rescued from low band video, and thus stand out a mile in terms of quality, which looks something like second generation VHS. There are no surviving film prints of the missing scenes (or at least none that anyone has so far discovered), and so this is as good as these sequences are ever going to look, and their inclusion, given that the theatrical release is part of the package, is still welcome. It should be noted that the incorporation of the restored scenes from a video source means that the 'directpr's cut was mastered on video rather than film, and as the original release was through Anchor Bay in the US, this means NTSC video. Thus the director's cut is an NTSC to PAL transfer, which means that the film elements are slightly inferior to those on the theatrical release, which is a PAL master.

The two soundtracks offered on the original cut – Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 – are largely similar, the main difference being the spread of the sound – oddly enough, it appears to be more central on the 5.1 than the 2.0 track. There are no real issues here – dislogue and music are both clear and clean of noise and damage.

extra features

It is worth mentioning that the previous region 2 disc set of The Wicker Man released in 2002 by Warner Home Video includes most of what has been collected for the new Optimum edition reviewed here. If you are familiar with that release there are only a few things to attract you to the new set.

Disc One

This contains the original theatrical release and a theatrical trailer. I know there is much speculation as to which version of the film is best. Personally I think this version is. It contains all the crucial elements of the film without becoming unnecessarily tedious. I know there is an opposing view to this but that is merely my personal and humble opinion. The trailer is what one would expect from a trailer, these things are pointless fillers to me, but if you like trailers its for you.

Disc Two

This disc is packed with goodies. First up is the director's cut of the movie with feature commentary with Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Robin Hardy and moderated by Mark Kermode. This is the very same commentary that appears the aforementioned 2002 set. It is a wonderfully informative feature, although it is sometimes rambling as you find Mark Kermode having quite a job reining in the chatty aging film makers. Because of the wealth of information out there this may not be of help to the more informed Wicker Man enthusiast, but is a worthy and interesting commentary.

Next up is one of only two new additions to disc two, some filming of the commentary. It does what it says on the tin, and is basically the first thirteen minutes of the commentary detailed above, but filmed. I don't really see much point to this apart from giving an insight to the set up of an audio commentary which is slightly interesting.

The next two features are familiar to the older release as well, the first being an interview with Christopher Lee (25 mins). I find this man an interesting combination of wise veteran and pompous old thespian. This said, he does have much to say about The Wicker Man (if in somewhat of a self-involved capacity) and it is unremarkably fascinating viewing. The second, The Wicker Man Enigma documentary (35 mins.), is a short run through of pre-production to post, and has interviews with most key personnel responsible for the film, including Shaffer, Hardy, Lee and Woodward. This is a lesser version of the next extra called Burnt Offering: The Cult of the Wicker Man, which details the happenings of the film in greater detail, and with more intelligence. Presented Mark Kermode once more, he takes us through the locations of the film, speaking in his articulate way of both the thematics of the piece and the sensationalism surrounding it. The fifty minute documentary is also packed with interviews with all of the people from the above Enigma feature as well as others, including author David Pinner who wrote Ritual, on which the script is roughly based, and Eric Boyd-Perkins, Shepperton exec who was the bane of much of post-production creativity and distribution. This, coupled with disc three, is the best new inclusion to the extras by far.

Disc Three

The original soundtrack CD is a great addition to the set. Hearing the folk songs by Giovanni on record is nice, as well as cast appearances such as the Lee and Diane Cilento duet. The only complaint I have with this is the lack of any track listing anywhere in the packaging, which I feel is quite an oversight.

Booklet

An interesting six page illustrated article by Ryan Gilbey accompanies the set. It is glossy, well written and although provides information there is little here you cannot glean from the other features.

summary

Another addition to the Wicker Man phenomenon, this collectors edition does improve on the last DVD set, although not in a great capacity. Even though this release is just another money maker, I will never tire of Wicker Man related productions (the remake is an exception), and if this provides extra insight and enjoyment for Wicker Man fans, as well as creating new ones, then its alright by me!

The Wicker Man

UK 1973
84/100 mins
director
Robin Hardy
starring
Edward Woodward
Christopher LeeDiane Celento
Britt Ekland
Ingrid Pitt
Lindsay Kemp

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Robin Hardy and Mark Kermode commentary
Trailer
The Wicker Man Enigma documentary
Burnt Offering: The Cult of The Wicker man documentary
Booklet
distributor
Optimum
release date
Out now
review posted
12 October 2006

related reviews
The Wicker Man [Blu-ray review]
The Wicker Man (2006)

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews