The Wicker Man: 3-Disc Collector's Edition Review

Although the ending of this film is well known, please be aware that this review contains plot spoilers.

Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl. A devout Christian, Howie is horrified by what he sees as the immorality of the island community – led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Soon he himself comes into temptation and fails to see that he is being led into a trap.

Few films have such a cult reputation as The Wicker Man and few have such a tangled history, aspects of which remain unclear to this day. Not many films have been, until quite recently, so difficult to see in a version approximating its makers’ original intentions. It is also a challenge to the auteur theory: screenwriter Anthony Shaffer has the possessory credit rather than director Robin Hardy…whose only other feature to date, 1986’s The Fantasist is a dud. Shaffer, best known otherwise for Sleuth, can claim to be the true auteur of this film (twin brother Peter helped with research), and his is a strong, richly written script. Yet you have to give Hardy some credit, as you have to Harry Waxman for his cinematography, and especially Paul Giovanni for the thirteen folk songs that make up the soundtrack. (Giovanni also appears uncredited as a musician. This was his only work for the cinema and he died of AIDS in 1990.) And not to forget Christopher Lee in what he considers his best-ever role (until he made Jinnah, a quarter of a century later), and equally strong work from Edward Woodward, who holds the film together in a difficult role that he keeps just this side of being totally unsympathetic. At times the film seems to be taking every opportunity to mock Woodward’s uptightness…but he is granted a martyr’s death.

The history of The Wicker Man is well known by now. It was shot in October and November 1972, a freezing Scottish winter standing in for the springtime when the film is set. It was a difficult shoot, with the production distancing itself from Britt Ekland’s comments that the Dumfries and Galloway locations were “the most desolate place on earth”. (Ekland’s then boyfriend, Rod Stewart, was rumoured to be wanting to buy up every copy of the film so that her nude scene could not be shown.) Eventually a version was put together of between 102 and 103 minutes, despite Lee’s objection that some of his best scenes were missing. The film was rejected by both the Odeon and EMI circuits and was only released in a cut-down version (87:31 according to the BBFC) as the second half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now. With some instigation from Lee, some critics took notice and the film had some showings in its own right.

The negative and outtakes of the full-length version apparently no longer existed, allegedly being used as landfill. However, a print had been sent to Roger Corman in the USA, for his consideration to distribute. When Hardy looked to reconstruct the full-length version of his film for a US theatrical re-release, it turned out that Corman still had the print, which appeared to be the only one of the full-length version in existence. A dupe negative was struck from the print.

It is here that events become murky. Hardy’s reconstructed version runs 97 minutes approximately, restoring the film’s action over three days and two nights, rather than two and one in the theatrical cut, but not putting back the five-minute prologue introducing Howie on the mainland. Hardy contradicts himself in the commentary on this DVD: at first he says the prologue was included in the US theatrical reissue, but later on says that the reason the entire film was not restored was due to a lack of money. However, the full version did receive a US video release, and that is the source of future releases of the complete version, including this one. (What happened to Corman’s print, or indeed the dupe negative struck from it, is not clear.)

Back in the UK, for many years the short version was the only one available for cinema and television showings. However, the BBC showed Hardy’s reconstruction as part of its Moviedrome season in 1987, though it was acknowledged at the time (by presenter Alex Cox) that this was not the complete cut. The first UK public showing of the full version in the UK that I am aware of took place at the British National Science Fiction Convention over Easter Weekend 1992 in Blackpool, which I attended. That was a projection of a NTSC video copy (which I timed at just under 103 minutes). The major addition is of course the sequence introducing Howie on the mainland, which contains the only clear reference to Howie’s virginity. The longer versions also reinstate the “Gently Johnny” sequence, in which Lord Summerisle introduces a young boy to Willow (Ekland) for his sexual initiation, while Howie watches and prays. The re-editing also moves Willow’s naked dance to the first night.

Unavailability can condemn a film to obscurity or it can cause its reputation to be inflated. To me, The Wicker Man has been, and can be, overrated. Yet there is something unique about it, something intangible that lurks within its sprocket holes – a film with a strange, distinctive atmosphere. For a horror film there is little overt horror, until the end, when Howie has his appointment with the Wicker Man of the title, which is one of the most disturbingly bleak scenes in British cinema.

The Wicker Man

was previously released by Warner Brothers in a two-disc edition. With the rights to the StudioCanal catalogue passing to them, Optimum have reissued the film in this three-disc Collector’s edition, which is encoded for Region 2 only. Optimum’s edition is much the same as Warner’s, with some minor extras deleted, one significant extra added, with the third disc being the soundtrack CD.

Both the original theatrical version (84:01) and the director’s cut (99:40) are included, both given anamorphic transfers in the original ratio of 1.85:1. The additional scenes in the director’s cut are remastered from a video copy, and the noticeable drop in picture quality makes them easy to spot. Otherwise the transfer is fine, faithful to Waxman’s soft-focus camerawork.

Warners’ edition included a remix in Dolby Digital 5.1 on the theatrical cut but not the original mono track, so it is a point in Optimum’s favour that they do include it. The director’s cut is monophonic on both releases. The 5.1 remix is as pointless as these things usually are, spreading the music out onto the surrounds, but keeping the dialogue in the centre channel. This is a film intended to be heard in mono. Unfortunately neither release has subtitles.

Most of the extras from the Warners release have been carried over to this, though they have been rearranged. The only extra now on the single-layered Disc One (the theatrical cut) is the theatrical trailer (2:09), which is dated (early 70s guitar on the soundtrack) and spoiler-ridden, playing up the film’s thriller aspects.

Disc Two (the director’s cut) is dual-layered and contains the bulk of the extras. First off is a commentary moderated by Mark Kermode and featuring Hardy, Lee and Woodward. This is a model of its kind, genuinely informative (though there are a few grey areas, as mentioned above), with all four people contributing and very few dead spots. Also on the disc is a “making of commentary film” (15:51), which had been an Easter Egg on the Warners release. Being able to see the participants (or not, as the camera is frequently pointing the wrong way) adds little to the commentary, and this extra simply uses up space.

“The Wicker Man Enigma” (34:44) is a fine documentary which was on the previous release, while “Burnt Offering” (48:15) is new to DVD. Mark Kermode introduces the latter, which features an interview with Anthony Shaffer shortly before his death in 2001. The two documentaries complement each other nicely, though inevitably there is some repetition. “Burnt Offering” has a wider range of interviewees, including Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland and benefits from being more up-to-date, including some footage of the recent Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which has sprung up since the film’s release. “Burnt Offering” is 16:9 anamorphic, while “The Wicker Man Enigma” is 4:3 anamorphic.

Also on the disc is a 1973 interview with Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy from a US programme called Critic’s Choice (24:49), introduced by “the Mid-South’s leading film critic” Sterling Smith. He’s no Siskel or Ebert, for sure. This is a video clip of notably poor quality (it’s not your eyes, it really is that much out of focus), as an opening caption explains. Having said that, Lee and Hardy have interesting things to say, Lee talking about working with Orson Welles, and demonstrating a fine bass singing voice. Interestingly, one of the clips of The Wicker Man shown is from the Gently Johnny scene deleted from the theatrical release. This item is also in 4:3 anamorphic.

The following extras have not been brought over to the Optimum release: TV and radio spots, talent biographies and a PDF of the original press book. The third disc in the Optimum release is the soundtrack CD, but this was not supplied for review. Finally, the Optimum disc has trailers for other releases: Don’t Look Now, the 2006 Wicker Man remake and Cronos.

The third disc is the soundtrack CD, which was not supplied for review.

The Wicker Man’s cult reputation is secure for the foreseeable future, and remains a remarkable one-off in many people’s careers, including Robin Hardy’s and the late Paul Giovanni’s. If you already have the Warner’s edition it’s up to you as to whether the extra documentary and the soundtrack are worth an upgrade. If you haven’t it certainly is, though the lack of subtitles is a shortcoming.

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