The Wicker Man Review
The Wicker Man is certainly one of the eeriest films ever released. Decidedly British in both decorum and tone, the film has since become legendary in terms of its cult status, and has even spawned a comedy television series that pays homage to it, in the form of The League Of Gentlemen.
Essentially, The Wicker Man is a deeply cynical religious allegory, disguised as a typical outsider-detective-investigates-disappearance-of-girl mystery thriller. Rather than embracing the traditional horror genre conventions of gore and violence, The Wicker Man effectively works because it draws upon the fears of extreme faith and deep alienation to act as its horrific core. Because the film was practically buried by its distributors after release, and only became popular due to a determined and rigid fanbase, the film has emerged twenty years later as a British movie rarely seen by its own public.
The Wicker Man tells of Police Sgt. Howie (played in the most brilliant pompous tone by Edward Woodward) who is an officer in the Scottish mainland. Howie has two faiths - he respects the letter of the law and is also blindly devoted to his faith in God. He has a fiancé with whom he has never had intercourse, as this is an act he only intends to carry out after his marriage. Howie suspiciously receives a letter that pleads to his better nature, and asks him to investigate the disappearance of a young girl in the mysterious offshore community of Summerisle. Arriving at Summerisle, Howie is shocked to learn that he is met with resistance from the Pagan-like ritualistic members of the community, who seem willing to subvert his investigation at every turn. Determined to find this missing girl, Howie embarks on a journey in which his faith in both sanity and God will become severely questioned.
Superficially, The Wicker Man seems to be nothing more than a dated, Hammer-esque B-movie from the seventies. However, audiences are in fact provided with a shocking movie experience that rivals Roeg's Don’t Look Now and Boorman's Deliverance in terms of leaving a foul taste in your mouth. It's hard to understand why the film works so well. The locations exhibit a dated aesthetic and are typically cheap-looking, and yet seem so perfect for the location of Summerisle. The film works because the performances are so strong. Edward Woodward is tremendous as Sgt. Howie and provides his greatest cinematic performance. Howie is presented as self-righteous, arrogant and obnoxious; all of the qualities that you wouldn't usually associate with the heroic character of the film. Yet, despite the audience not necessarily liking Howie, they certainly care for him, and pile all of their support towards him. Christopher Lee is deliciously charming with a hidden evil core. His portrayal of Lord Summerisle could even be Count Dracula in another guise. Britt Ekland is the token sultry female, and her famous nude scene is still enchanting even if one is aware of the body double used for scenes involving her rear.
The captivating aspect of the film is its story-within-a-story, in which the mystery elements are replaced by a religious allegory in which a man's own faith is tested to its limits with downbeat results. Also, the concept of a community rallying together for a common goal is a rather disturbing notion, since it suggests that their faith is even stronger than that of Howie's. Expertly penned by Anthony Shaffer, the film is almost one big satanic laugh at the futility of the Christian religion.
Director Robin Hardy presents the film as morbid fascination. We the audience, along with the film's protagonist Sgt. Howie, are fully aware of the fact that the more we venture towards the truth the more disgusted we will become, and yet we are compelled to continue our quest. Considering the cheap budgets and short schedule, Hardy expertly utilises the natural surroundings and contributes some startling imagery to the film that has helped to confirm its cult status over the years.
The Paul Giovanni songs featured in the film are simply terrible, even if they have gained their own cult following. However, they are supposed to be terrible; so terrible in fact that they are almost creepy to listen to, which in turn adds to the eerie and unsettling atmosphere the film carries with it from the outset. It would have been worse if the music in The Wicker Man was beautiful.
The Wicker Man has existed in many different versions over the years, and this DVD contains both the original hacked eighty-eight minute version and the Director's Cut which contains almost fifteen minutes of extra footage. The latter version is the one that people should watch, as characters are provided with more explanation and background plot elements have been filled in more substantially.
Essentially, the film is a must-see. It's typically British in tone, and won't be everyone's cup of tea, but there is no doubt that The Wicker Man is one of the eeriest horror films to ever come out of Britain.
As there are two versions presented on this DVD release, the picture quality obviously differs between each version. The theatrical cut exhibits acceptable soft-focus picture quality for a film barely seen in the last thirty years. The Director's Cut version is essentially the theatrical cut with spliced-in sequences pulled from a poorly maintained one-inch telecine master. Therefore, it is possible to instantly spot which scenes were added when watching the Director's cut, as the picture quality changes drastically. Obviously, any extra footage of The Wicker Man will be appreciated whatever the quality, but anyone seeking reference quality visually should be warned that the picture quality of The Wicker Man isn’t the best. That said, both versions are presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.
The theatrical cut is presented in a remixed 5.1 version, which maintains mono dialogue with a few ambient background noises and musical cues given subtle spatial channelling. On the other hand, because of its low-quality master, the Director's Cut is presented merely in its original mono mix, although there is hardly any difference between the two other than the theatrical cut sounding less tinny and possessing a higher level of clarity.
Menu: A very nicely animated and atmospheric menu that manages to be in keeping with the film and be stylish with it.
Packaging: Whereas the Region 1 Anchor Bay release was a strictly limited edition packaged in an excellent wooden box, the Region 2 version plumps merely for a fold-out cardboard packaging housed in a cardboard dust-cover sleeve and more conventional artwork.
Audio Commentary With Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward & Mark Kermode: This is the extra that has made Region 2 fans mock those who spent their hard-earned cash on the Region 1 version, as this commentary is exclusive to the Region 2 version and was only recorded at the end of 2001. The commentary is magnificent, with Lee, Woodward and Hardy all talking fondly of the production and offering their own viewpoints, and each are kept at a merry pace by moderator Mark Kermode, who is surprisingly keen to just sit back and let the participants talk to their heart's content. A magnificent extra, and one worthy enough to start selling your Region 1 version for.
The Wicker Man Enigma: This is an excellent retrospective documentary looking back at the legend that has grown around the film since its release. The documentary lasts for thirty-four minutes, and features excellent interviews with the cast and crew and allows them a forum to vent their personal grievances against those who have tried to bury the film over the years. Unfortunately, despite being designed to appear in fullscreen, the DVD producers have foolishly framed the documentary at anamorphic widescreen, which gives the documentary massive black bars at the sides and even appears as a letterbox-within-a-letterbox when clips of the film are shown.
Interview With Christopher Lee: This is a twenty-four minute Critic's Choice interview with Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy from the nineteen-seventies that was presented as an Easter-egg on the Region 1 release. Because of the obscurity of this extra, the quality is exceptionally poor, but still watchable, and features some fascinating discussion with both Lee and Hardy, even if the presenter Sterling Smith is so personality-less. This lasts for twenty-four minutes, and is again annoyingly presented in anamorphic widescreen despite being composed in a fullscreen ratio.
Trailer: A very tense and very dated original trailer from 1973 that runs for just under two minutes and is presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1.
TV Spot: The TV spot exhibits very poor quality but is still a collectible relic, lasting for thirty seconds and presented in fullscreen, but yet again given the absurd anamorphic treatment.
Radio Spots: Four minutes of enjoyably eerie radio spots are presented in addition to the trailer and TV spots.
Talent Biographies: Good biographies of Lee, Woodward, Hardy and Shaffer combined with selected filmographies, and presented as text on screen.
DVD-ROM Feature: This is an enjoyable extra in which those who own a DVD-ROM drive can access a promotional press brochure about the film in .pdf mode. The brochure is in colour and typically early-nineteen-seventies in both layout and design.
One of the greatest British horror movies of all time is given arguably the greatest DVD release it is ever likely to have, and one that is certainly better than the Region 1 release. There is nothing that should prevent any fan of British cinema from buying this title, and anyone who hasn't seen the film should quickly make it their priority before they become swayed by the hype surrounding the potentially-dreadful Nicolas Cage/Neil LaBute Hollywood remake.