Robin Hardy's adaptation of Anthony Schaffer's novel, The Wicker Man, is an odd film. It doesn't play by traditional horror movie rules, though there's no contesting the fact that its roots are firmly entrenched in the genre. It's as much an explanation of the merits of one's faith and moral code as it is a fright fest, with some unusual musical numbers thrown in to further distance itself from the Hammer films that were popular in England and abroad around the same time that the picture was made.
The story follows a police officer named Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward of The Equalizer) who is sent to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to try to sort out the details surrounding the case of a missing girl named Rowan. Howie arrives and begins his investigation as any detective would, by asking around and talking to the locals who populate the small communal town to see if anyone knows anything useful. Of course, no one will talk and they deny any knowledge of the girl in the first place. The longer Howie is on the island, the more he starts to notice their unusual traditions. The locals are apt to wear odd masks and they tend to break into song and dance for reasons he doesn't quite understand.
Things get even stranger when Howie notices some of the locals participating in some rather unorthodox sex something that offends his strict Christian sensibilities. Howie is a man of faith and he considers himself to be of high moral standing so seeing people dancing naked around a fire pit in what can only be described as an archaic pagan ritual is not something he's keen on being exposed to, though there's no denying his attraction to a local girl named Willow (Britt Ekland). When Howie finally meets up with Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the leader of the commune, he starts to slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and eventually he finds out that Rowan isn't dead at all, even if there is a grave for her in the town cemetery.
There's a lot more to the story than a simple plot synopsis will allow for without heading swiftly into spoiler territory so let it suffice to say that it's during the last fifteen minutes or so that The Wicker Man ceases functioning as a strange mystery and becomes a full on horror film. The ending, despite the absence of any gore or really heavy effects set pieces, is one of the most disturbing this reviewer has ever seen and it perfectly captures a man's total breakdown with realism and intensity. It's interesting to see how Howie clings to his faith throughout the film, using it to look down his nose at the locals and to see just how much good it does him when it all hits the fan. The movie does a great job of pitting Howie's Christian beliefs against the old ways of the pagan islanders and while the movie isn't saying that one way is necessarily better than the other it certainly does portray Howie's strict adherence as completely futile when it's all said and done.
The cast does a fine job with the script, which Shaffer adapted from his own novel, with Woodward fitting the stereotypical 'high and mighty' character perfectly and contrasting very nicely against Lee's Summerisle, a man with a completely different moral code. Britt Ekland is completely entrancing as Willow, and she's great as the seductress who plays such a key role in Howie's eventual downfall. Hardy's pacing of the film is a little unusual and it starts quite slowly, but again, it only serves to make the finale all the more potent. The cinematography does a great job of capturing the isolation of the island as well as the natural beauty of the area, playing up the more simple aspects of the town and its inhabitants.
A common complaint that is levied against the film is that the music is unnecessary and unintentionally funny, rendering the horrific elements impotent. While it's obvious a matter of personal preference as to how one feels about this, the fact of the matter is that by the time the movie ends, it makes sense that this material is included. If it's off putting at first, it's completely ominous later on and even during the more playful bits these scenes really help build the completely eerie atmosphere that explodes so well in the film's finale.
A Few Notes About The Extended Version:
The original negative is lost, so the extended version presented on this DVD has been reconstructed using the restored theatrical version (which runs eleven minutes less than the extended version) with the alternate scenes taken from an old video master – this results in a noticeable difference in quality during playback whenever one of the extended scenes arrives. That being said, it is a far superior version than the American theatrical cut of the film. The main difference between the two versions is that the extended cut starts with a scene where we get to learn a little bit about Howie's character before he heads to the island. There's also a scene where Summerisle reads a poem and another where he brings a teenage boy to visit Willow. There has been some re-arranging of a few scenes such as Willow's important pivotal dance scene, which is also noticeably longer here than in the theatrical cut. These scenes might not sound like much but they do flesh things out and make for a much stronger picture. The extended version flows better, it makes more sense, and with a better build up it makes for a scarier movie.
Both the American theatrical cut of The Wicker Man and the extended cut contained on the second disc are presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen. Neither version looks perfect but the extended cut is definitely in worse shape (though seeing as it's essentially a composite built from a few different sources this is at least understandable). These transfers appear to be identical to the 2001 'wooden box' edition that Anchor Bay put out. The theatrical version is a little grainy but otherwise it looks quite decent despite the odd scratch here and there and some mild compression artifacts noticeable in the blacks. The extended cut, because of the inserts, varies in quality a fair bit with the bits taken from the theatrical cut looking much better than the extensions that have been added, which were taken from a video master.
The theatrical cut of the movie is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, in English with optional English closed captioning whereas the extended cut of the film comes with only a Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack, also with optional English closed captioning.
The 5.1 track on the theatrical cut isn't overly aggressive but it does fill in the back of the soundscape nicely during a few key moments and the added channel separation does help to build some atmosphere that is lacking with the 2.0 track. As far as the mono mix on the extended cut goes, it's simple but effective. There are a couple of spots where you might notice to odd bit of really mild hiss but otherwise things sound fine. Regardless of which mix and which version you choose, there aren't any problems understanding the dialogue and the levels are properly balanced throughout.
The extras on the first disc are exactly the same as those we've seen on previous Anchor Bay release but for those who haven't had a chance to check those discs out yet, here's the run down...
The Wicker Man Enigma, directed by David Gregory, is an excellent documentary that examines the bizarre history behind the film over thirty-five minutes. Interviews with Hardy, Lee, Pitt and Woodward are here as are bits with producer Peter Snell and the film's late screenwriter, Anthony Shaffer. Roger Corman shows up here, talking about how he wanted to distribute the film originally but lost out, and through the interviews and photos that make up this documentary we're treated to an interesting and informative look at how the project came together and what went wrong along the way. It's also interesting to see some of the locations by way of some modern footage, as it's surprising how little has changed in the areas that this film was shot since the production finished up. If you want details as to why the two versions of the movie exist and how the extended cut was put together, that's covered here too.
Rounding out the extra features is the British trailer for the film, a television spot, a few radio advertisements and text biographies for the principal cast members and for Robin Hardy. A reasonably easy to find Easter Egg unveils an amusing clip in which Hardy and Lee show up on a talk show to talk up the U.S. theatrical release of the movie.
New to this release (meaning that it was not included on the previous two-disc 'wooden box' release), and the only supplement at all on the second disc save for menus and chapter selection, is a commentary track featuring Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy alongside moderator Mark Kermode. This discussion is, in short, quite fascinating as the participants get to go into a lot of detail and share their experiences on the project. Lee and Woodward talk about their roles as well as how they feel about the picture in retrospect while Hardy covers distribution problems and the general history of the movie. All three participants are obviously quite enamored with the movie and Kermode does a great job of keeping them on track and talking resulting in a very full commentary that covers pretty much everything you'd want to know about the film.
Those who already own the previous two-disc release from Anchor Bay will have to weigh the merits of the new commentary track to decide if it's worth the double-dip or not, as this release is otherwise identical. Those who have yet to pick up The Wicker Man, however, are in for a treat as they can now get both version of the film at an affordable price point with some excellent extra features. Forget the recent remake with Cage, the extended cut of the movie contained on this release is the way that the story should be told. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.