Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant reviewed a reissue disc of the 1978 theatrical revival version of The Wicker Man just three months ago. Now Anchor Bay has reissued the long- OOP double disc version of the feature, which includes the far more desirable uncut version of the elusive horror classic. It is the same as the earlier release, except that it has a new-to-Region 1 commentary. I've decided to repeat the review one more time, just to let readers know. How many copies of The Wicker Man have you accumulated?
Created by top talent with the specific aim of making a horror film about ideas a little more fresh than Hammer's vampires and zombies, The Wicker Man is a good movie with a truly superior script. As a cult item it's tops; few other marginal cult films even begin to approach its quality. A victim of the virtual extinction of the British film industry, The Wicker Man could have been as big as The Exorcist. As Anchor Bay's new disc explains, it instead became landfill for a roadway.
Strictly devout and slightly priggish, Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) uses a small seaplane to visit the many scattered islands in the North of Scotland. He goes to balmy Summerisle to check a report of a missing child, Rowan Morrison, and lands in the middle of a situation that both outrages him and warps his judgment. The privately owned Summerisle is wholly Pagan, in the old Celtic sense. Its society centers on the concept of fertility and appeasement of the sun God, so as to guarantee a good crop of famous Summerisle apples. Bawdy songs in mixed company are one thing, but the straight-laced Howie sees couples having sex in public, teachers teaching blasphemous sex education in the schools and naked children jumping through fires and dancing around Maypoles. Even though Rowan Morrison is listed in school records, the locals either deny her existence or infer that she's been transformed into a Hare. The cheerfully boorish Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) counters Howie's protests with a calm defense of his religion, backed up by his casual lover, schoolmarm Miss Rose (Diane Cilento). And the local strumpet Willow (Britt Ekland) further confuses Howie with an attempted seduction that may be aided by drugs, or magic. When Howie finds a dead rabbit in the missing girl's grave, he becomes convinced that Rowan Morrison has been kidnapped to await Pagan sacrifice on May Day.
Cinefantastique magazine devoted an entire 1978 issue to The Wicker Man, telling the tale of a neglected horror classic that most fans had never even heard of. Abandoned by its distributor during an ownership change, it was licensed to Americans lacking the means to put it in theaters, and then practically forgotten. Roger Corman's New World Company was outbid for the distribution rights, but nevertheless retained the preview print it was given. When the show was pointlessly cut down and its entire original negative discarded in a vault error, Corman's print became the only possible source for the partially restored 're-premiere' given the film in 1979, which was understandably compromised in visual quality.
Savant saw this special release on the early cable "Z" channel in L.A. in the early 80s and still has a fuzzy VHS taken from it. The Wicker Man made its DVD debut in 2001 when Anchor Bay issued two separate disc packages. A flawless but short theatrical cut was on one version and a special edition boxed (or wickered) set added a version that reintegrated the "lost" scenes from a fairly pathetic 1" source. With Christopher Lee touting the movie as his best role and urging the recovery of more lost material, The Wicker Man is way up there on the list of hot horror mysteries.
After writing so much about horror films with vibrant visuals but nonexistent texts, it's refreshing to revisit such a beautifully written movie - this is the All About Eve of terror films. In the middle of the so-called swinging sexual revolution of the early '70s, The Wicker Man makes its hero a virginal and self-righteous Bible man who abhors impropriety of any kind. In the most crippling omission from the short version, we see him taking communion with his fiancée and suffering the contempt of his police staff, repressed louts whose sniggering attitude towards sex speaks poorly for our Christian societies.
The classic horror film usually presents violence and sex bursting forth from within the middle of complacent and stuffy conventional society. There's usually some implied criticism of society that can make a clever horror show satisfyingly subversive. The Wicker Man puts free-sex advocates on the defensive by showing what a society that literally worships sex might be like. Sergeant Howie is as noble as any Knight of the Round Table, yet defenseless against the wiles of foes that do not share his definition of virtue.
The second remarkable triumph of the film is its music, which convincingly creates an alien society through song. The ballads about barley and rebirth are beautiful, as are songs that describe carnal sex as a joyful part of the natural cycle. Pagan symbols like Maypoles suddenly recover their original hardcore meaning as a song alludes to the 'tree' with which a man impregnates a woman. The eerie tune sung by Willow during her sex dance (that Howie doesn't witness directly but which inexplicably enraptures him anyway) has a seductively creepy tone, that Savant hasn't recalled anywhere this side of the wondrous "Once upon a time .." song from The Night of the Hunter. Even pompous singer Chris Lee gets to exercise his baritone, to pleasing results. 1
Savant isn't going to discuss the plot any more than he already has. It's a highly original variation on Anthony Shaffer's previous puzzle-and-trap crowd pleasers. But the concept of The Wicker Man has provided something more than a puzzle. The Pagan vs Christian theme is fascinating and extremely well exposited. Yet, it's lacking something. All a horror movie really need do is achieve a terrifying response, so The Wicker Man is obviously successful on that end. But reaching higher raises new questions, and Savant hasn't found a personally meaningful message in the film's resolution. Perhaps this isn't bad, and the expert grilling the film deals out to our Judeo-Christian foundation is sufficient unto itself. Hammer in particular has a strong history of making cultural / religious comparisons a sub-issue of its horror films, a tendency that has certainly enriched their library for subsequent viewings. 2
In The Wicker Man this subtext IS the text. It's all out in the open; Howie sticks to his Catholic/Anglican? beliefs and Lord Summerisle contemptuously touts the beauty of natural Pagan faith. Since this was filmed somewhere in the middle of the 'Is God dead?' controversy, it seems strange that Summerisle should proclaim Howie's Christian God to be dead. A better case could be made for the Celtic Pagan dieties being far longer dead, like, fossilized. In 1973, when a big piece of the world feared that society was going to abandon the church for good, Shaffer and Hardy's show portray Christianity threatened by an older faith, one far more 'conservative' even if more sexually liberal. Since audiences can be expected to root for and champion Christian Knight Howie against the Pagan foe, The Wicker Man carries its own conservative charge, one equally as resonant as the righteous thrill we get, say at Horror of Dracula. In that best of all vampire movies, Van Helsing turns us into 'believers' for at least the few moments that his crucifixes do their wondrous magic against evil.
The only fly in the ointment of this superior text is the lack of religious complexity given the Summerisle Pagans. They function as a variation on the coven in Rosemary's Baby or the vampires in The Fearless Vampire Killers, 'evil' groups that prevail over good because of their singularity of purpose and conspiratorial solidarity. Who ever heard of a vampire betraying vampire-dom? The Pagans of Summerisle aren't trying to wipe out Christianity or feed from it like parasites. They are simply an alternative.
Summerisle is also something of a free society. Its citizens are just like the Scots on the mainland, only they eat pornographic sweets and hang umbilical cords on sapling trees. The island has a thousand people, but no dissenters? Not one rebellious kid with a soap-carved Jesus hidden behind his fertility handbook, waiting for the chance to blow the whistle to Sergeant Howie? Besides their fondness for the occasional human sacrifice, the Pagans seem to be friendly folk. It would seem contrary to their free-spirit concept, if they've been killing anyone and everyone who strays from the Barley and Seed faith. The whole alternate-faith threat that forms the backbone of The Wicker Man falls apart if Summerisle is just another dictatorial conspiracy fantasy. 3
Since few movies even attempt the intellectual puzzle found here, harping on this issue doesn't feel fair. This is one of the better horror films ever made, original in concept and an outsider to most of the historical trends.
Anchor Bay's 2-Disc second reissue of The Wicker Man is a first reissue of their pricey set from 2001, the one that came in a wooden box. The first disc is the shorter abridged version shown theatrically in the United States. The second disc is called 'extended features,' although it contains the recommended original version of the movie described above.
The improvements start right at the beginning. A new pre-credit sequence on the mainland introduces Sgt. Howie and establishes our attitude toward him before he investigates the Rowan Morrison disappearance. Important new material elaborates on Lord Summerisle's role in the community, such as a weird scene where the nobleman brings an adolescent to be 'tutored' by Britt Eklund's town prostitute. "The Landlord's Daughter." A couple of shifted scenes have been returned to their proper place in the continuity. Britt Eklund's erotic dance now occurs much later, when we're more prepared for it. The long version focuses our attention on Paul Giovanni's convincingly weird pagan folk music. A snail crawling in the moonlight is juxtaposed with a suggestive tune about losing one's virginity, creating a strange aura of 'social horror.'
The extras on the first disc are identical to the earlier short release. An efficient and professional documentary uses prime sources (Corman, Shaffer, etc.) to tell the movie's woeful production tale. See the film first as the docu gives away everything, spoiler-wise.
I'm informed that the longer transfer on the second disc has a commentary that did not appear on the original R1 2-disc edition. It's with director Robin Hardy and actors Edward Woodward & Christopher Lee, and is moderated by Mark Kermode. Chris Lee completists will want to know about this.
Again, the reason for recommending this latest disc so soon after Anchor Bay's first 2006 dip is that the long version is so much better. Perhaps an intact printing element will be found one day, to fully restore this deserving classic. At least curious viewers will no longer have to pay high Ebay prices to see the preferred longer cut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wicker Man (2-Disc Set) rates:
Sound: Excellent (Dolby 5.1 and 2.0)
Supplements: Trailers, TV spots, documentary, Christopher Lee TV interview (Hidden on Extras menu), commentary with Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, moderated by Mark Kermode.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2001 (December 9, 2006)
1. One of Savant's more bizarre jobs on 1941 was to go to the library and find a stack of drinking songs for Lee to sing as Colonel Kleinschmidt, the Nazi sub officer. So in between practicing his German lines, Lee belted out Bavarian numbers right and left. I think Spielberg did all of this just to keep Lee happy and busy; no songs were filmed.
2. Savant's thinking of The Mummy and The Stranglers of Bombay in this context. A common plot hook for many a chiller is to have arrogant scientists steal, interrupt or defile the religious practices of other cultures, and pay a supernatural price for their crime. Various curses bring forth monsters or vile diseases. These concerns are usually addressed only in an underdeveloped subtext.
3. Of course, dissenters have described our churches as dictatorial conspiracies for years too ... this thing just goes in circles. Spinning off in another tangent, The Wicker Man is remindful of fantasies where the modern world and its technology are challenged by 'ancient' Pagan societies that are barbaric to the max, yet wield formidable science and magic powers to oppress people or wage war. I'm primarily thinking of the Atlantis movies, like Atlantis the Lost Continent, Giant of Metropolis, Atragon etc., where the primitives hold Pagan rites yet carry ray guns. This idea comes completely from Raymond Durgnat's must-read book Films and Feelings. Perhaps The Wicker Man's basic equation is similar. Just as the hidden meaning of the Atlantis films seems to be that technology and weapons make us less and not more civilized, Shaffer's ploy may be to equate the Pagan and Christian faiths as barbaric but somehow necessary: People are essentially primitive.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001, 2006 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.