Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Talent Bios, TV Spot, Radio Spots, Trailer
The cult movie scene has perhaps never had as mystifying an entry as Robin Hardy's 1973 art-house hit "The Wicker Man." Shrouded in mystery and controversy, the story behind the film is just as provocative as the end result, which has been proclaimed a masterpiece by historians and critics. A dreamlike exploration of religious conviction and primal human behavior, the film is often referred to as a horror story, but this is really a misnomer. In fact, it is actually quite subdued and straightforward until it reaches its ironic and justifiably famous climax. This final scene has resulted in "The Wicker Man" being ranked among the most frightening movies in cinema history. Anchor Bay Entertainment has already released this film several times on DVD, but they have now brought out their most complete edition to date with a 2-disc Collector's Edition.
An upright police officer, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), is called to a small island off the coast of Scotland to investigate the recent disappearance of a young girl. He is immediately met with relative indifference from the locals, who claim that they have never seen the girl. Even her mother seems convinced that the girl never existed in the first place. Unyielding, the sergeant continues his search, visiting the local school and searching through death records to find an answer. He quickly comes to the conclusion that the child did, in fact, exist, and that fowl play might have been involved in her disappearance. The problem is that nobody is willing to cooperate with him. No one even really seems to care, as their minds are focused solely on an upcoming celebration.
To Sergeant Howie's utmost disgust, the local villagers are all part of a pagan cult, not far removed from the Druids, that deifies nature and celebrates the pleasures of the flesh. Phallic symbols are visible in just about every location, and the villagers have no qualms about publicly expressing their sexual passions. A devout Christian, Howie openly condemns the people for their heathen activity, but he finds his own convictions tempted by Willow (Britt Ekland), the seductive daughter of the innkeeper where he is staying. He eventually takes his concerns to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the proprietor of the island. Summerisle, however, is just as disinterested as the rest of the community and advises Howie to leave before their annual harvest celebration, which might offend his delicate sensibilities. His drive to find out what happened to the missing girl is whetted more than ever, and nothing will keep him from uncovering the final, horrifying truth.
Written by Anthony Shaffer, who also adapted Hitchcock's "Frenzy" and penned both the play "Sleuth" and its later film version, the film masterfully builds a sense of discomfort and dread in the viewer, even though nothing particularly scary happens through the bulk of it. It plays on the audience's presumed traditionalist views, just as the locals play on Howie's, to shock us with the characters' promiscuous behavior and disregard for prevailing religious values. There is a tangible air of paranoia surrounding Howie's investigation, and even as the mystery seems to unravel before us, we are never able to make any clear assumptions about anything. Instead, the film titillates us with bizarre and frequently erotic imagery that is at once fascinating and disturbing.
Edward Woodward is pitch-perfect as Sergeant Howie. He makes a character who, to be honest, is not extremely likeable into a sympathetic figure. We root for him in spite of his flaws because Woodward is so genuine, so thoroughly convinced that he is a righteous man in a community of depravity. Breaking away from his typical roles in the Hammer horror films, Christopher Lee is a marvel as Lord Summerisle. He claims to this day that it is his favorite role and has maintained for years that he did it for free. Cast along side the sturdy male leads are a trio of sultry ladies, namely Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, and Ingrid Pitt. Though their roles are relatively small, all three leave a lasting impression.
The controversy surrounding the release of "The Wicker Man" revolves chiefly around its butchering for its American theatrical release. Originally running 99 minutes, it was shortened to around 88, leaving some valuable elements on the cutting room floor. Anchor Bay has assembled a DVD set with both versions of the film, each housed on its own disc. The transfers are apparently no different from the previous releases, and as such look very good, especially considering their age. Both are presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. The image is mostly sharp, with fine skin tones and often lush color saturation. There are times when the picture is a bit soft and washed out. A good amount of grain riddles the film as well, but in light of the film's modest budget, it is unimaginable that it could look any better right now. Anchor Bay has certainly showed its strength in restoring older films. For the extended version on disc 2, the recovered scenes were only available on video, which accounts for the rather poor quality that turns up. This is only small carping, however, since the film should still ONLY be seen in its full version.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track accompanies the theatrical version on disc 1. It shows signs of its age, but dialogue is consistently strong, as are the music (of which there is plenty) and ambient sounds. An optional stereo track is also available for this. The extended version has only a mono soundtrack. There are no subtitles for either version.
The only special feature created new for this set is a fantastic audio commentary with director Robin Hardy and actors Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, moderated by English film critic Mark Kermode. The track accompanies the extended version on disc 2. Fans of this movie could not ask for a better group to discuss it, and indeed they have a lot to say about the making of the film and its legacy. Hardy, Woodward, and Lee all stand by this film proudly, and Kermode does a good job of guiding the conversation, though the three old pros seem perfectly capable of keeping it going on their own. Even if you have the previous 2-disc release, this commentary may be worth the double dip for serious fans.
The features on disc 1 are all carry-overs from the previous release, starting with the 35-minute documentary, "The Wicker Man Enigma." Woodward, Lee, Ingrid Pitt, and Hardy are all interviewed, as well as writer Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, and legendary filmmaker Roger Corman, among others. This is a solid retrospective that offers insight on the production and on the trouble over the distribution of the film, which at one point looked destined to be handled by Corman. We are also given an interesting look at the inspirations for the film and the cult following that has developed since its original release.
Talent bios for Hardy, Shaffer, Woodward, and Lee follow, all concisely written with some good information. A trailer is also available, with a TV spot and 14 radio ads rounding out the disc.
There can be no denying the powerful energy of "The Wicker Man," one of the great suspense films of 1970s. It creates a unique atmosphere and steadily builds upon it until it explodes like a bomb. I have seen few movies that are as intriguing or deeply mystifying as this and give it my highest recommendation. If you have not seen this film yet, do yourself a favor and do not read up on it first, as you may very well encounter spoilers. Also, do not go in expecting a horror movie. This film is not comprised of cheap shocks and violence, but relies rather on mood and character. It envelops you in a time and space that is unfamiliar, fascinating, exotic, and frightening all at once. This truly is unlike anything I have seen before or will likely ever see again.