Judge Paul Corupe wonders what would happen if he took The Wicker Man to Burning Man.
Our review of The Wicker Man, published September 3rd, 2001, is also available.
"Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man."—Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)
Notorious for constantly re-releasing their small but impressive library of cult favorites, Anchor Bay is at it once again, sparking up a new, two disc set of the classic '70s British thriller The Wicker Man to coincide with the awful 2006 Hollywood remake. The film's theatrical and (preferred) extended cut, previously only paired on Anchor Bay's limited edition wooden box set, have finally been reunited in a new edition that actually trumps that earlier collector's item with the inclusion of a brand new commentary.
Facts of the Case
Arriving at a small Scottish isle to investigate the case of a missing girl, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward, The Equalizer), can't get the locals to answer his questions or co-operate in any way. A devoutly religious, by-the-book police officer, Howie is furthermore shocked when he discovers that the secluded residents still cling to a pagan existence of free love and the worship of nature, as preached by the mysterious Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein). Howie is convinced that the girl has only been hidden away until the May Day parade so that she can be sacrificed to ensure healthy crops for the rest of the year. Increasingly perturbed, Howie must resist succumbing to the isle's many forbidden pleasures—including the innkeeper's comely daughter Willow (Britt Ekland, The Man with the Golden Gun)—to unravel Summerisle's insidious plans.
Far and away one of the most original thrillers of the 1970s, The Wicker Man has gone from almost complete obscurity in its own day—thanks to repeated distribution SNAFUs—to become one of the most infamous cult films ever made. With the definitive, but decidedly "fan only," wooden DVD box set out of print for some time now, Anchor Bay has finally served up an inclusive edition of the film for a more general audience.
Much has been written about the film's surprising and unique effectiveness. Sleuth scribe Anthony Shaffer's taut script unfolds like a conventional whodunit, generously dropping clues for both Sergeant Howie and the viewer about the whereabouts of the missing girl. Once the obscene pagan rites start to encroach on Howie's strictly-held beliefs, however, the The Wicker Man's central mystery gives way to a sense of palpable dread, as the frantic police officer begins tearing through the isle's houses in a desperate attempt to locate the girl. Ramping up the tension during a grotesque May Day parade that features the town's inhabitants dressed in heathenish animal costumes, The Wicker Man finally culminates in an ingenious plot twist that makes for one of the most unforgettable scenes ever committed to celluloid.
Setting the scene with distinctive imagery of sex intertwined with nature, impish humor, and a rousing soundtrack of folk music, first-time director Robin Hardy somehow manages to hold it all together, working in tandem with Shaffer's script to coyly rope the viewer into an elaborately crafted mystery. What really makes the approach unique, however, is that unlike many occult thrillers that popped up over the 1970s, the conspiring villagers are never portrayed as evil-the filmmakers have simply recreated a real pagan village as it might actually exist and function, instead drawing chilling moments from the resulting culture clash in a way that has been but abandoned by modern horror films and thrillers.
Fuelling the flames of cult interest over the years are the performances of Woodward and Lee, who turn in some of the best work of their respective careers. The complete opposite of the free and apparently happy islanders, Woodward deftly manages to make the uptight, unfriendly police officer a figure for audiences to strongly identify with, while Lee's portrayal of the duplicitous Lord of the isle stews in a barely restrained menace that brilliantly plays against his earlier roles, giving the former Hammer star one of his most memorable roles.
Reviled and subsequently re-cut by new British Lion studio executives who took over after the film had wrapped production, this set presents both the butchered theatrical release of The Wicker Man along with a restored director's cut that incorporates more than 11 minutes of additional footage, including a pre-credit sequence that establishes Howie's religious values, Willow sexually initiating a young teenager under the watchful eye of Lord Summerisle, and extend shots of Willow's enticing nude dance meant to arouse Howie on the eve of the parade. Both 1.85:1 transfers have been recycled from AB's earlier wood box, so the image and sound quality are identical, with excellent sound, sharp colors and no video artifacts. As before, the restored portions of the director's cut are taken from a tape source, so they're rather soft and far less colorful than the rest of the film-the shift in quality is immediately noticeable.
In terms of extras, the excellent, 30-minute "The Wicker Man Enigma" documentary has also been resurrected here, boasting interviews with all the principal players including Hardy, Shaffer, Woodward and Lee, as well as producer Peter Snell and planned distributor Roger Corman, who reveal in fascinating detail the convoluted and sometimes unbelievable story of how the film was made, buried (literally!), and ultimately found its audience. Much of their insights are further supported by a brand new commentary on the extend edition with Lee, Woodward, and Hardy, as moderated by Mark Kermode. The one aspect that sets this release above its wooden box set counterpart, this track is extremely thorough, expounding greatly on the information presented in the documentary. All the participants have a lot to say, and it really does make for a fascinating listen. Finally, we have some text bios, plus a handful of trailers and radio spots.
The addition of one commentary track is probably not enough to make anyone but the most die-hard The Wicker Man fan upgrade from the previously-released wooden bo, but anyone who has been holding off on this particular title can do no better than this two-disc set, which can definitely be considered definitive—at least until Anchor Bay's next re-release, anyways.
"You're all raving mad!"
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward
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