Written by: John White on February 4th, 2006
Original Video Release Date: United Kingdom, 1973
Director: Robin Hardy
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cliento, Ingrid Pitt, Britt Eckland
DVD released: April 22, 2002
Approximate running time: 99/84 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Sound: Dolby Digital mono/5.1 on shorter cut
DVD Release: Warner Home video
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: £19.99
Sergeant Howie is an extremely religious policeman who is ridiculed by his junior officers for his beliefs and his “chaste” engagement to his fiancée. When he receives a letter about the disappearance of a young child on the island of Summerisle he travels there. Once on the island he meets a conspiracy of silence and comes to understand that the island’s people are, in his words, “heathens”. Frustrated that the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle, condones and leads these practises he becomes convinced that darker rituals may account for the child’s disappearance. He insinuates himself into their May Day parade and learns the truth about the child and the letter he received.
Lots of reviews say that the Wicker Man is not a horror film. They point to its dramatic heritage, its lack of gore and the absence of supernatural themes. This is, quite frankly, nonsense and part of how hypocritical fans get about horror films. If anything gets a good critical reputation as being both good drama and scary it immediately becomes something other than horror as if horror is a bad thing! Horror films can be about things inside the scope of Man as well as outside of Man and the important point about more realistic horrors is that they retain elements of the fantastic. In the Wicker Man’s case, the idea that a whole island could be happy to sacrifice human beings is fantastic even if it is presented in a pseudo-documentary style at times.
The Wicker Man’s success as a film is down to three main factors. The first is the acting which is excellent bar a few examples of poor pacing in the relationship between Woodward and Lee. The second is the production of the film which is beautifully imagined with the May Day rituals, the scenery, and the eventual Wicker man of the title. The final and most important is the screenplay from Anthony Shaffer which plays with the idea of religious fervour comparing the zealot behaviour of Sergeant Howie with the quietly assured faith of the island. The screenplay gives Lee his best speeches in movies and his character is fully rounded as not a cult leader but a man who is trying anything to change the luck of the island.
The Wicker Man has gained such a strong reputation that it seems impossible to criticise it. Excellent films must have excellent direction, mustn’t they? Don’t such films have great scores? Personally I am not convinced on these two points with the Wicker Man. I think Hardy’s direction is unimaginative, especially in the prosaic movements of the camera and the conservative use of editing – the film is a little stodgy in places and can lack sweep or magic. Hardy also seems to be in awe of Lee to such a point that Woodward’s performance suffers in their shared scenes. In their first discussions Lee has great lines and exasperates Woodward quickly but the discussion continues with Woodward’s reactions not really in the same key – given how appalled he is at first why would he keep listening for so long? Hardy is less than subtle in using symbols – the eye on the boat is shown three times and the empty place where Rowan’s harvest festival picture should be is shown in three shots, two next to one another. This bluntness rather undermines the elegance of the screenplay. As for the music, the songs are dubious folk music which only works in the Britt Ekland beating the wall sequence.
The Wicker Man is one of the best British horror films and contains one of Lee’s best performances. However it is not an all-time great and the direction is not on the same level as the fine script.
The Warner Home video DVD release comes in a two disc set. The first disc has the shorter cut of the film presented in 5.1 with numerous extras including a documentary on the film and its chequered history. There is an interview with Lee and Hardy, trailers and TV/Radio spots. The print is very good transferred with minimal grain.
The second disc involves the longer director’s cut of the film which gives more background to Woodward’s character and lengthens other key scenes. The cut is a composite of material from the better preserved shorter cut and a slightly worn Telecine transfer. The difference between the prints is marked but the director’s cut is the more appropriate way to watch the film. This cut of the movie has a moderated commentary with Mark Kermode discussing the film with Lee, Woodward and Hardy. The commentary is very enjoyable with Woodward and Lee being entertaining whilst Hardy is a little full of himself.
This release is bettered by the later R2 collector’s edition with extra goodies included with all of the above including the soundtrack. A very fine film indeed and this release will meet your needs unless you are an obsessive fan or a collector of dubious folk music!