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Thoroughly discouraged by the new Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake, Savant is repeating, with revisions where appropriate, his 2001 review of Anchor Bay's DVD of the 1973 original, which now seems more of a masterpiece than it ever did. It's also more than a little strange realizing that I uploaded the original review six days before 9/11, when the world was a different place.
Created by top talent with the specific idea 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.
Cinefantastique magazine devoted an entire issue to The Wicker Man in 1978, telling the tale of a classic horror film 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 was practically forgotten. Roger Corman's New World Company was outbid for 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 LA in the early 80s and still has a fuzzy VHS taken from it. The Wicker Man made its DVD debut in 2001. Anchor Bay issued two separate disc packages. A flawless but short theatrical cut was on one version accompanied by an informative documentary and an Easter egg television interview with Christopher Lee. A special edition boxed (or wickered) set added a version where the cut scenes were fuzzily reintegrated into the show 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 fiancee and suffering the contempt of the staff in his police station, repressed louts whose sniggering attitude towards sex is offered as typical in our Christian societies.
The classic horror film usually has its violence and sex bursting forth from within the middle of complacent and stuffy conventional society. There's usually some implied critcism of society, if not a celebration of the chaos, which can make a clever horror show into something more satisfyingly subversive. The Wicker Man puts free-sex advocates on the defensive by showing what a society literally based on and worshipping sex might be like. Sergeant Howie is as noble as any Knight of the Round Table, yet defenseless against the wiles of foes who do not share his interpretation 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 is the Maypole ritual song that describes carnal sex as a joyful part of a cycle that includes the earth and a tree. Pagan symbols like Maypoles suddenly recover their original hardcore meaning as the 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
Now restored to their springtime brilliance, the visuals of The Wicker Man have greatly improved (in the theatrical cut) the overall look of the show. After thirty years of blah movies, Robin Hardy's direction and blocking now look fresh and inventive.
Savant isn't going to discuss the plot any more than he already has. It's a highly original variation on Anthony Shaffer's puzzle-and-trap crowd pleasers. But the concept of The Wicker Man has provided something of 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 theme with which to resolve the film. Perhaps this isn't bad, and just the expert grilling the film deals out to our Judeo-Christian foundation is enough. 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? tenets and Lord Summerisle contemptuously touts the beauty of natural Pagan faith. Since this was all happening somewhere in the middle of the 'Is God dead?' controversy, it seems strange that Summerisle should proclaim Howie's God to be dead ... as a better case could be made for the Celtic Pagan dieties being far longer dead, more 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 portrayed Christianity threatened by an older, even crueller faith, one far more 'conservative' even if it appears on the outside to be 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 diametric opposition to their foes. The coven is so closely knit that defectors can be quietly eliminated, and who ever heard of a vampire betraying vampire-dom? But the Pagans of Summerisle are simply an alternative to Christianity and not feeding from it or trying to wipe it out.
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. A thousand people on the island and no dissenters? Not one rebellious kid with a soap-carved Jesus hidden behind his fertility handbook, looking for the chance to blow the whistle to Sergeant Howie? Besides their fondness for the occasional human sacrifice, the Pagans seem to be decent folk. It would seem contrary to the 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, it seems really graceless to harp on this issue. This is one of the better horror films ever made, original in concept and an outsider to most of the historical trends.
Anchor Bay reissue disc of The Wicker Man, timed to coincide with the Nicholas Cage remake, is a great opportunity to find out what all the hoopla was about. But readers should be aware that it is the shorter abridged version, which lacks the critical mainland precredit sequence that sets up Sgt. Howie and establishes our attitude toward him before he lands on Summerisle. It also has some very good material that helps explain Lord Summerisle's direct role in the community, such as a weird scene where Lord Summerisle bring an adolescent to be 'tutored' by Britt Eklund's town prostitute.
The disc's extras are identical to the earlier short release. An efficient and professional documentary is to the point and uses prime sources (Corman, Shaffer, etc.) to tell the movie's woeful production tale, but see the film first as it gives away everything, spoiler-wise. All in all, the long version would be preferred; perhaps an intact printing element will be found one day. As the fancier old Limited Edition with the long cut is now completely OOP and pulling down high prices on Ebay, this cut will have to do.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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, he 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 here. 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 crimes. Various curses bring forth monsters or vile diseases. Since this aspect of the movies is usually
underdeveloped or a subtext, it makes great viewing looking for additional clues. .
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 anyway ... that people
are essentially primitive.
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