The Wicker Man (Limited Edition) Review
Of all cult films, The Wicker Man has had perhaps the most interesting journey. While such films as Withnail and I and This is Spinal Tap became famous relatively quickly, The Wicker Man did not draw any real interest until 6 years after it was released, and then only in the US. Indeed, even today, it doesn't have that strong a reputation in the UK, hence the continued unavailability of the true, extended version of the film. Happily, Anchor Bay have produced a DVD that will make fans of the film very happy indeed.
The plot is, as has been noted correctly by other critics, a nightmarish spin on such films as Whisky Galore and Local Hero, as an uptight insider, Sgt Howie (Woodward) heads to Summerisle island in search of Rowan Morrison, a missing girl. At the island, he discovers paganism and sin beyond his wildest dreams, as the search for Rowan becomes more and more nightmarish, culminating in one of the most understatedly horrific finales ever put on film.
In a sense, it's pointless trying to analyse the film; if you haven't seen it, it's best that you know as little as possible about it, in order to be surprised by the genuinely unexpected twists and turns. If you have seen the UK video version, then the extended version of the film will be something between a pleasant surprise and a revelatory experience; unlike The Shining, where the additional 30 minutes of footage makes comparatively little difference, every minute of extra footage here gives invaluable insight into character and plot. The most noticeable restoration is a prologue showing Howie at home and interacting with his fellow police; it's a brilliant collection of scenes, setting up Howie as an outsider even among his own people, and indicating his religious beliefs, which will be tested to their limits in his stay at Summerisle. The extra footage also answers a notorious plot hole; namely, why did Howie head for Summerisle in the first place, and who asked him to?
The performances are all first rate. Woodward, an actor who only gave one performance that even approached the quality of this, in Breaker Morant, is superb as a man of faith who is not at all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but whose dogged determination and moral values are admirable, even while Howie's puritanical impulses seem absurd. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, has repeatedly described the film as the best he has ever been involved in, and his performance is certainly one of his best, combining civility with eccentricity, and eventually a perverse kind of threat. In fact, the casting of locals and non-professionals for many of the smaller parts in the film works superbly, as there's an air of authenticity to many of the scenes that a bunch of rhubarbing professional extras would be unable to replicate.
The film's history is almost as interesting as the film itself, and is recounted in Allan Brown's excellent book 'In Search of the Wicker Man'. However, the film is as good a place to start the search as any, and this DVD is unreservedly recommended for fans of the film. This isn't a conventional horror film, or even a conventional film of any kind; it is, however, one of the key films of the 1970s, and certainly worth purchasing if you have any interest in the cinema.
The short version: 9/10
The extended version: 10/10
The 88 minute version of the film is presented in a very nice anamorphic transfer. Although the comparatively low budget nature of the film means that there is some print damage, it is comparatively minor, and colours are clear and sharp. There is some grain, as you would expect, but it does not badly detract from the film.
However, the more desirable version is the 99 minute one, and it was widely feared that Anchor Bay would be unable to source especially good materials for the extended version, and that it would look like their Manhunter director's cut, i.e like a poor video copy. The good news is that the extended version is perfectly watchable, with the inevitable degradation in the restored scenes not nearly as bad as had been feared, and Anchor Bay's sensible decision to splice the 88-minute version's transfer in when footage was not deleted means that the vast majority of the transfer is as good as the other one. It's easily the best presentation of the extended version that exists thus far, and a decent replacement to bootlegged videotapes.
The short version: 8/10
The extended version: 6/10
A 5.1 mix is provided on the shorter version, with a mono mix on the extended cut. To be honest, there is little real difference between them; the 5.1 mix has no real use of surround effects, and the mono mix is clear and crisp. Given that the preferred version to watch is the extended one, it is unlikely that the absence of a really good 5.1 remix will bother many people.
The short version: 7/10
The extended version: 7/10
The only omission, and an understandable one given the age of many of the cast and crew, is a commentary track; however, an excellent 35-minute documentary, 'The Wicker Man Enigma' more than makes up for it. The documentary includes interviews with all the major cast and crew apart from Britt Ekland (who is referred to disparagingly), and is a candid exploration of both the production and the subsequent problems. It's a great addition to the disc for fans of the film, and a fascinating watch.
Other extras appear to be more prosaic; a dated trailer and TV spot, and some remarkably dull radio spots. However, the disc is catapulted into Criterion-level excellence by an Easter Egg that is actually the second best supplement on the disc, being a 70s American TV interview with Lee and the director. Admittedly, it's somewhat cheesy, but Lee is good value, and there's some surprisingly in-depth discussion of the film's religious themes and production. A highly enjoyable watch, especially as it includes more footage of Christopher Lee singing.
The extended version of the film, in a limited edition of 50,000, is absolutely terrific, and adds extra depth and characterisation to a film that was superb even in its earlier, shorter incarnation. Anchor Bay have done the best possible job with the transfer and sound, and have included some superb extras. Recommended for all film lovers of taste.