on 13 October 2013
Robin Hardy's cult horror classic finally gets an HD makeover. This review covers the content and technical aspects of the new blu-ray release. The main selling point is the "final" director's cut, using a newly-discovered print. This version does not include several scenes of Sergeant Howie on the mainland prior to the opening credits that featured in the extended version, but director Hardy has made clear that these were effectively deleted scenes spliced back into the film and did not represent his preferred vision. In any case the "extended version" scenes only exist as videotape copies, so the change in quality on HD would have been particularly jarring. Studio Canal has done a fantastic restoration job - the majority of the film from the theatrical cut looks like it could have been shot yesterday, with natural grain and colours and no print damage evident. The additional scenes taken from the found footage show an increase in grain and contrast, which is clearly noticeable but not to the same extent as the switches between film and videotape-sourced footage in the extended version. Included in the extras is a before-and-after comparison showing the restoration of the new footage, an impressive achievement given the scratches, print damage and colour casts on the source material. Overall this is an essential blu-ray upgrade, although fans of the film might want to hang on to the 2002 DVD release for the videotape-sourced deleted scenes.
on 2 August 2002
They marketed films differently in those days. Today The Wicker Man would be sold as “from the writer of Sleuth”, for Anthony Shaffer penned the original stage classic that became the remarkable Olivier/Caine two-hander. Then audiences would know what to expect: a battle of wits between two men of diametrically opposed beliefs (Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward doubling the Olivier/Caine sparring), drawn across a plotline so full red herrings that the writer would not reveal his hand until the very last shot. All very cerebral. Arty.
But no, the film starred Christopher Lee and featured scream queen du jour Ingrid Pitt, so naturally the distributors sold it as another cheesy Hammer/Amicus gorefest. Except it had no monsters, no gore, was shot on location in faux documentary style, and featured a virgin Catholic policeman in the lead – a character who by 1973 standards was as hip as a prosthetic pelvis. Of course, the beer and chips brigade voted it the thumbs down and not even a double bill with Nic Roeg’s latest effort, Don’t Look Now, could save its fortune.
To be fair, like Sleuth there is a play on genres here. The Wicker Man does start out with more than a whiff of the gothic. A child is reported missing; a policeman (Sgt. Howie – Woodward) heads off to a remote Scottish island, Summerisle, to investigate; the locals are secretive. There are hints of paganism. Well, not hints - and this is where The Wicker Man deviates from formula. The paganism on the island is pretty blatant, and presented not in a witches-and-covens way, but a wholly up to date, natural, eco-friendly, organic manner. We feel for Howie as he tries to find out what happens to the girl, but frankly the islanders seem to have it made, and their idyllic lifestyle seems far more rational and modern – not to mention more appealing – than the pre-Reformation beliefs of the repressed and repressive policeman (who even turns down the charms of Britt Ekland because he’s saving himself for his forthcoming nuptials – by God, if ever there was a man who needed a bit of how’s-your-father to remove the bug from up his backside . . .). In fact, by the time we meet the charming Lord Summerisle (Lee) we begin to wonder just who is the goodie and who is the baddie.
And best to stop there. Some horror films jolt at regular intervals, even the so-called hi-brow ones like The Exorcist and The Shining. But The Wicker Man is more in line with George Sluizer’s excellent The Vanishing; a seemingly innocuous work that keeps its sucker punch right until the end. In fact, up to that last moment you’ll probably be wondering just what the fuss is about – and then it will hit you. Admittedly part of the film's intellectual clout has been lost: we naturally start out on Howie’s side, but that wouldn’t have necessarily be true for the early seventies cinema-going audience Schaffer was writing for (i.e. young, possibly college-educated, probably anti-authoritarian, certainly hippy). In fact, the film acquired its cult following not for its ethical debate (Howie vs Summerisle; old fashioned Catholic morality versus liberal paganism) as its stylistic approach; in an age when horror movies were the staple of British cinema, The Wicker Man stands as possibly the only one to take the genre seriously and not rely on fantasy or guignol.
And therein lies its power. Hardy’s direction is admirable not for its flourishes (of which there are few) but his deft sidestepping of cliché. Gone are the usual long shadows and skewed angles, replaced by sunshine, golden scenery and a naturalistic feel which, in its eye for local detail, sometimes feels like one of those tourist information films you used to get as the b-movie back in the seventies (remember the film on Leeds which opens The Full Monty?). The cast too avoid the usual screaming and mugging. Woodward was always too starchy, too much the martinet to truly appeal as a male lead, but Hardy uses this to his advantage, making it the foundation of the less-than-likeable Sgt. Howie (he’s the protagonist, not the “hero”). With Lee he takes the opposite approach: usually the charming villain, Lee is for once just charming – no steely glint, no subtle undertone of ruthlessness. Indeed, that is what makes him so unnerving (he’s the antagonist, not the "villain” per se). Even the minor supporting characters excel, seeming like real residents not the stereotyped villagers Hammer churned out. Good Lord, even the village actually looks like a real village, not a fibreglass and plywood construction on a Bray soundstage. And the denouement? That also looks real. My God does it look real.
And now on DVD we get the director’s cut. Almost – Hardy has only been able to restore 15 minutes of footage (the rest apparently lost under the tarmac of one of Britain’s major motorways). He has, quite rightly, griped that his original cut was butchered for release – and it was – but if this restored version is any indication, the movie would still have got short shrift from cinema audiences. Like the restored versions of Spartacus, Aliens, Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now, it plugs a few plot gaps and feels a little more rounded but doesn’t tell us anything the original, however emasculated, didn’t. Indeed, like the recent “version you’ve never seen” of The Exorcist, what was implied (i.e. Howie’s faith, his virginity; the islanders' liberal attitude toward sex) is now stated rather more bluntly. The DVD includes both versions, so you can take your pick (though alas, the iffy quality of the restored footage does stick out like a sore thumb). But even in its bowdlerized form - lost, hacked, miss-marketed and finally fobbed off on the b-movie circuit - The Wicker Man stands as the finest film either Hardy, Schaffer, Woodward, Pitt, Ekland or Lee, yes even Lee, has made.
on 24 November 2009
The often quoted comment that sums up the film's appeal was along the lines: it was based on a horror novel, had a screenwriter who tried to write a psychological thriller, a director who tried to make a musical, and the film won an award at a science-fiction festival. In short, it's different to other horror films in that for the most part nothing particularly horrific happens, but it nestles its way into your mind and the more you think about it, the more layers you find. The story starts simply enough. Police Sergeant Howie visits a remote Scottish island looking for a young girl who has gone missing. But his Christian sensibilities are shocked when he discovers that the islanders are pagan worshippers and he soon begins to believe that she might have been kidnapped so she can be sacrificed in a hideous ritual...
Edward Woodward's Howie is just right. He's stiff and prudish, being far from a heroic lead, but he's intelligent enough to follow clues and reveal the bigger mystery. He comes up against Christopher Lee as the Lord of Summerisle, but he too is far from the usual bad guy. He's sophisticated and friendly, and seemingly not in the least bit threatening. The rest of the cast is also not what you'd expect. Unlike the usual 'we don't like strangers around these parts' villagers, everyone is charming and welcoming, and it's only Howie's suspicions and self-imposed limitations that stop him mixing. The pagan rites too are not carried out in dark places, but in the open air, in the light and with joy, and it's that joy that creates the odd atmosphere. We are invited to view the hero as being the one who is out of touch and the alternate way as being the more sensible one.
Throughout the traditional rules of good versus evil are turned on their heads so that it's hard to know who should be rooted for. Even the ending, aside from being memorable and haunting, maintains ambiguity. Horror is perhaps one of the few genres where evil can be allowed to triumph, or at least to hint that the demon will rise again, but here the ending provides a unique variation. Nothing really triumphs in the end as both ways are shown to be impotent. Good cannot defeat ingrained evil, but evil will defeat itself. Such an uncompromising attitude ensures this film's status.
"The Wicker Man" is one of those films that I had heard great things about for several years before it finally came to an art theater in town and I was able to see it. My initial response was one of disappointment, not because I found the film to have major flaws or anything, but simply because my expectations had been raised to the level of something like "Citizen Kane," "The Seven Samurai," or at least "Psycho." In retrospect, the problem is more that the film is characterized as a horror film (Christopher Lee has a major role) and "The Wicker Man" does and does not fall into that category. Certainly very few horror films take place so much during the daylight hours.
When Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) of the West Highland Police comes to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle to search for a missing schoolgirl, Rowan Morrison, he finds that something a bit more disturbing that the secrets kept by the locals. Howie, a professed Christian, is repulsed by the open devotion of the people to the Old Gods, complete with pagan rituals and open sexuality. Even worse, these abhorrent practices are endorsed and encouraged by the local Lord. They also refuse to help with his investigation, more out of a sense of detachment rather than as a concerted effort to keep Howie from discovering the truth. He wanders the town and the surrounding countryside, and it from this footage of the Scottish highlands that you get the sense there are things older than civilization and Howie is an interloper.
Howie's suspicion is that young Rowan was sacrificed by some sort of cult headed by Lord Summerisle (Lee), but he is half-right in that horrible way that becomes suddenly and tragically clear at the film's climax. The grand irony of the film is that Howie is being judged and found wanting, just as he is doing the same of others. Besides the climax, the most memorable scene in the film is when the local sex siren, Willow (Britt Ekland) keeps the sergeant awake by dancing naked outside his door (I have to point out that a body double was used for some of this scene and that Ekland's voice was dubbed in the film). Howie obviously suffers from a repressive idea of Christianity where his carnal desires torment him even more than the horrible crime he suspects has been perpetrated. Another delicious irony of Anthony Schaeffer's script is that the character of Howie, who obviously cannot handle the sexual freedom of the Sixties, is confronted by its implications in a remote village that harkens back to the old days.
"The Wicker Man" is a rare horror film since the key person in its success is writer Anthony Shaffer ("Frenzy," "Sleuth"), whose script takes ancient Druid practices, pagan rites, and the origins of the celebration of May Day to give the story a sense of authenticity bound more in fact than fiction (cf. Dracula/vampire movies). The script also takes advantage of our expectations that Howie is the film's "hero," so that we become victims of the storyteller as much as the main character. In fact, this film works so well because it violates certain key expectations we have about horror films while seeming to embrace them.
I know it will be seen as heresy, but I think "The Wicker Man" would have benefit from casting someone else other than Christopher Lee. While the actor's presence is obviously strong, just looking at him makes you think that "The Wicker Man" is going to turn into a Hammer monster movie at any moment. I mean, because it is Lee, we are not surprised that his character is even weirder than the townspeople, the same way that we are not surprised Eklund is running naked at some point in the film. In a film which works best when it works against our expectations in terms of the story, should follow the same logic with the casting as well.
FINAL WARNING: If you have never seen "The Wicker Man," avoid watching trailers or anything else before you screen it for the first time. When you go back and watch these things after the film you will know why.
Anthony Shaffer's iconic 1973 classic starring the perfectly-cast Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee (in his best-ever role), Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland (overdubbed because she couldn't get her Scottish accent right and body-doubled in her nude scene) is one of the most original independent British films ever made. Little of useful substance can be added to the many excellent reviews of the film posted here without indulging in repetition; but if you're interested in film and have never seen "The Wicker Man", then you can now experience the full, uncut 100-minute film in its entirety for the first time.
Having seen the shortened "theatrical" version of the film on its cinema release in 1973 paired with Nicholas Roeg's "Don't Look Now", I had waited many years to see the lost footage. Well, here it is offered on its own disk, as the "director's cut." It's definitely the better version, with the initial ten extra minutes showcasing Sergeant Howie's life on the mainland, his chaste and traditional relationship with his fiancée (anachronistic even in 1973), religious zeal singing in church, and the quiet mockery of his unassailable Christian faith from police colleagues. Howie opens and reads the fateful letter, addressed specifically to him, from an anonymous Summerislander informing him that Rowan Morrison is missing: this makes the plot development and shocking denouement all the more poignant, as the audience realises it's all been planned and Howie tested by the islanders to ensure he's fully what he appears to be. Other short but important scenes are restored to the middle of the running time, deepening the narrative and making the film more coherent.
The restored minutes are of lower image quality than the rest of the film, as the original high-def master was lost forever - suspected to be accidentally discarded by a careless engineer and unintentionally buried beneath the new M3 motorway construction. Roger Corman's personal copy was the only source available for the missing scenes, and you'll be able to tell the restored scenes right away due to the quality difference.
The original butchered cinema release version is also included on its own disk, along with some interesting extras including a truly excellent 50-minute documentary narrated with intelligence and insight by respected film critic Mark Kermode. Finally, there's also a separate CD of the soundtrack with all the original film's extraordinarily atmospheric music.
Through the decades, this eccentric 1973 masterpiece has gone from strength to strength and found newer audiences who appreciate its originality, iconoclastic theme, witty and realistic script and shocking ending. It's like no other film ever made, and it works brilliantly. This 3-disk set is the best edition we're ever likely to see, and well worth buying.
Neil LaBute's abysmal 2007 "remake", starring Nicholas Cage and departing completely from the original film's delightful nuanced complexity to descend into a hopeless, risible schlock-horror flick, should be avoided at all costs. See Shaffer's 1973 original. Please.
on 8 September 2006
The Wicker Man is a unique film in that it is to some extent a murder mystery in process rather than that has already happened.
Seargant Neil Howie comes to the mysterious island of Summerisle on behalf of an anonymous letter telling him of a missing girl. Practically all the citizens of this remote island claim to not know the girl, including the girl's mother.
The story is full of twists and contains one of the more disturbing endings in British Cinema. It is a classical movie as Edward woodward and Christopher Lee (as the teasing Lord Summerisle) give fine performances. Watch this and ignore the remake.
The film contains lessons to be learned, for instance the dangers of religious fanaticism, and the disrespect of other's religious beliefs. The Director's Cut is intersting as it gives more depth to Seargant Howie and makes the film more accessible, worth the money.
In a lot of ways The Wicker Man isn't really a horror film - it's a drama about faith and conviction. Or, alternately, a great musical that confirms your worst suspicions about folk singers. It's heavy on irony: to most on the mainland, God is indeed dead for most people, which only highlights the sincerity of the islanders' beliefs. But more than just sincerity, the islanders have some delicious dialog on their side courtesy of Anthony Shaffer's terrific script - blasphemy never sounded so wittily erudite before or since. It's very much of it's time, with Christopher Lee sporting a barnet and wardrobe that leaves him looking like Peter Sellers and the throwaway camp of Lindsay Kemp's pub landlord seeming a reminder of a whole different kind of filmmaking, but that only adds to the surreal strangeness of the piece.
For the record there are three versions in existence, that's the uncut version that was never theatrically released in the UK (wrongly referred to as the director's cut on the DVD), the genuine director's cut (deleting all of the mainland prologue aside from the church service: this version has never been released on video but did play once on BBC2) and the shorter theatrical version that played on the wrong half of a double bill with Don't Look Now when it couldn't secure distribution as a main feature (The double-billing was unusually appropriate - both films are about men who bring about their own destruction by completely misinterpreting events). Usually referred to as the `one night' version, it does in fact take place over the same period, but moves Britt Ekland and her botty double's nude dance forward to the first night at the expense of Christopher Lee's entrance. (It also contains one shot not in the other versions of islanders watering a grave at night.) The deleted prologue does have the problem of distancing us from Howie. Whereas in the shorter versions we experience Summerisle through his eyes and share his shocks, in the full version it's made pretty clear that he's just as out of place on the mainland. In truth, all versions work well - in many ways it simply depends on how much time you want to spend on the island.
As befits the film's troubled history, recounted in some detail in the DVD extras, this has been released in various configurations since Anchor Bay first released an NTSC edition in a wooden box containing the longest and shortest cuts alongside a documentary, archive interview with Lee and trailers. These were also included, with a new audio commentary by Lee, Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy, on Warner/Studio Canal's two-disc release, which was in turn reissued by Optimum with an additional 48-minute documentary and a CD. Which was then reissued as a single disc edition of the original cut with most of the extras. Since Amazon have lumped the reviews for all versions together, exercise some caution when ordering to be sure to get the right one.
on 15 October 2013
The Wicker Man - 3-Disc 40th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray] A unique film not just weird or unusual, a musical horror thriller which has a serious Paganism V Christianity thyme a film some will think the worst they've ever seen or a masterpiece, nothing else like it! The acting of the supporting characters is excellent the island's rituals grotesque and Christopher Lee convincing as Lord of the island but the movies greatest asset is a remarkable performance from Edward Woodward cast against type as the (sacrificial) Christian cop. Diane Cilento & Ingrid Pitt are OK as for Britt Ekland she looks ravishing though her voice had to be dubbed and her bum (a very good performance)played by a stripper. Previous releases of The Wickerman had poor picture quality but this final cut on BD at last does justice to the film. MPC
on 19 February 2004
Pretty much everything about this film is odd.
By that I mean it's like no other film that I can recall.
Having just watched it again tonight it haunts me.
It's dated, but then if you go to Plockton (where a lot of the exteriors are filmed) and around the West coast of Scotland to get the flavour of the place you realise these places are real & still exist pretty much as they were- they're not just some made up place with no character. This flavour plays as much a part as any on the film.
The music too is an integral part and it's worth getting a copy of the soundtrack- unavailable for a long time. In fact I resorted to recording the whole film off the tv on a microphone when I was a kid so I could relive the film & memorise it!
The film itself (the directors cut) suffers in places because of the quality of the print but it's worth it to see the extra scenes (especially the initial prelude).
I won't go into the details of the film (read the other reviews for that!)
The documentaries are interesting- true there must be a lot more they could have included but when some other films are re-released with nothing added I think this is well worth investing in.
I love this film. I hope you agree.
on 28 July 2007
the wicker man is the daddy of all cult films.
edward woodward plays sgt howie , a devout and pious christian , investigating the disappearance of a girl on summerisle after an anonymous tip off. what he finds is a close knit community revelling in the old religion and polytheism of our ancestors before the christians came to europe and spoiled the party.
as his investigation proceeds a dark and terrible secret unfolds and he unwittingly is at the heart of it.
the wicker man mixes genres - murder mystery, fantasy , comedy and musical - with a deft enchantment. the shocking ending however places this film firmly within the canon of great horror movies.
panned pre-release by movie executives , butchered down to 84 minutes to fill a supporting slot for another eerie classic 'dont look now' , this movie survived despite a conspiracy to keep it from the viewing public in any meaningful way. and it's reputation has grown over the decades .
see what all the fuss is about and immerse yourself in the merryment of the pagan hedonism and sexual freedom of summerisle . the culture portrayed is part of the northern european collective unconscious but such joys and freedom come with a terrible price in the wicker man !