This is a review of the Special Edition 2 Disc Director's Cut Set (black & white cover).
Just watched this strangely compelling film again with my wife. The idea was just to see it for a bit of Halloween fun. What a great film it is! Kind of bonkers: a neo-pagan horror musical, in effect, with some great and some rather hammy acting. But it really does have some kind of je ne sais quoi, a special bizarre and unusual charm.
Edward Woodward is great, playing uptight Christian copper Capt. Howie dead straight, whilst Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle is, well, it's hard to say: is he simply hamming it up, or is he also playing it straight? 'What my grandfather started out of expediency, my father continued out of love' he tells Howie as they tour his property: 'He brought me up the same way, to reverence ... the old Gods.'
The image of Lee dressed in a bizarre kind of drag, standing atop a wagon, axe in hand, offering a beery libation to the sea, is etched upon my mind forever. Wonderful! Lee has said on numerous occasions that it was his favourite role, adding that the part was written specifically for him. At the website anthonyshaffer.co.uk he's quoted as saying "It's totally different from any kind of film that has ever been made. I've never seen any film even remotely resembling it in any way." Hearing Lee sing The Tinker Of Rye as a duet with Diane Cilento is not to be missed!
Lee also recalls that when he first saw the film, at a private screening put on by the company that produced it, Lion's Gate, one of the execs present said he thought it was amongst the 10 worst films he'd ever seen. Like many great works of art it can be interpreted in many ways! Some have felt that it was a lucky freak accident that it appears to have anything more going for it than being an oddball horror film. But, once again, as Lee likes to point out, it really isn't simply just a horror film, although of course it does also work in that way as well.
There are a number of things about The Wicker Man (some of which do actually have parallels in a few other isolated films such as Deathline and The Island: all these films share ideas of violence done by humans living contemporary to us but in a state of atavistic ancient barbarism), which make it resonate above and beyond what might be expected. For me - and many others it would appear - two chief attractions are the treatment of sex and the wonderful music.
These two things help turn the apparently fanciful and bizarre scenario of two religious ideologies clashing on a remote Scottish Island (an occurrence that has of course occurred countless times in countless places in the real world) both interesting and credible. Firstly we have Christianity, familiar and contemporary, but shown here in a new and refreshing/disturbing light via the juxtaposition with the second, Summerisle's paganism, unfamiliar in some respects, yet also revealed, thanks to the unusual premise of the film, to be a part of our own lost heritage. Howie's time in the library is a fascinating moment, at once both schlock horror and, even if only in part, history lesson.
Viewed from certain angles The Wicker Man clearly doesn't proselytise for paganism. Indeed, read as straight horror the paganism, whilst attractively louche in some places, is ultimately treated as mendacious, barbaric superstition. However, made not long after the era of flower-power, the beautifully mellow yet powerful folk-influenced soundtrack kind of sanctifies the pagan themes of a love of nature and, particularly powerfully, sexuality.
Coming so soon on the heels of the flowering of the swinging sixties, the notion that sex might be openly and joyfully celebrated, as for example in the maypole school scene, seems plausible, reasonable, and even perhaps preferable to the grim, gloomy legacy of Christian earnestness and guilt which still suffuses, informs, and, I would argue, dominates attitudes towards sexuality in our present culture. Along with Lord Summerisle's anti-Christian harangue that follows the beautiful rendition of a highly libidinous Gently Johnny (Paul Giovanni and his associates deserve special mention: the music plays a huge part of the success of the film) these threads do make a very real and strong 'age of Aquarius' type critique of Christian culture.
So, whether by accident or design, The Wicker Man works on a number of levels: it's the only serious yet beautiful and genuinely moving horror musical I'm aware of; read as straight horror, it's a highly intriguing film about encountering a primitive and bloody pocket of throwback pagans; and lastly, philosophically, it offers the juxtaposition of two religious ideologies, leading to intriguing lines of thought on our heritage, both past and present, lost and imported.
This particular edition is intriguing because you can compare the original theatrical release with the partially restored director's cut. I prefer the slightly longer director's cut, but I'm not sure they were able to restore all that had been lost. There's also the option of a Christopher Lee audio commentary (not tried that yet!). If you haven't seen it, give it a go and see what you think. Amongst those that have seen it, it continues to accrue, quite aptly really, an ever growing cult following.