Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man
***½/**** Image B+ (Theatrical)/C (Extended) Sound C Extras A
starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland
screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
directed by Robin Hardy
by Walter Chaw Early in The Wicker Man, poor Sergeant Howie of the West Highland Police shows the picture of a missing lass to a gaggle of locals on remote Summerisle Island. As he turns away, having received no information of value, the camera crops his head off. Later, during a pagan May Day festival, Sergeant Howie nearly gets his head cut off again, this time by six swords forming an interlaced sun symbol. The loss of the head represents castration (Sergeant Howie is shown to be impotent from the start), one of literally dozens of symbols both overt and subtle employed in this unique and brilliant genre film.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is the consummate professional. A policeman and a Christian, he embodies both roles with a zeal approaching the fanatical. Sergeant Howie is a fool. When he's sent an anonymous letter with a picture of a missing girl and an appeal for help, honour-bound Howie hops into his puddle jumper and spirits himself away in late-April to Summerisle off the coast of Scotland. Oddly, no one in the remote island's insular community seems to have ever heard of the young girl and, oddly again, rigid Howie rejects the sexual advances of an early-Seventies Britt Ekland, the innkeeper's fecund daughter.
To his dawning horror, Sergeant Howie discovers that all of the inhabitants of Summerisle are involved in Druidism, a reciprocal religion: If you do something good for a god (usually in the form of ritual sacrifice), that god will return the favour. In the best scene of a film bursting with fantastic scenes, Howie interrogates the head of the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee):
It's important that each new generation born on Summerisle be made aware that here the old gods aren't dead.
And what of the true god? In whose glory churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?
He's dead, He can't complain. He had his chance and, in the modern parlance, He blew it.
The Wicker Man bristles with dialogue sequences such as this: exchanges that illustrate the near-sighted ardour of organized belief systems of any ilk. Sergeant Howie's religious myopia slows him in realizing that a slow harvest of Summerisle's apple crop has resulted in the imperilling of a virgin's life, and slows him further in understanding that his own missionary fervour has placed himself in danger.
Consummately scripted by twisty wordsmith Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) and performed with zest by Woodward and Lee, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man constructs an atmosphere of creeping dread that would feel entirely at home in a Val Lewton film. The picture is subversively disturbing, shocking first with its frank portrayal of pagan sexuality and Polish beauty Ekland's enthusiastically-displayed gifts, then undermining that lascivious interest with discomfiting superimpositions of fertility symbols (especially the hare) and an overease with death and rebirth. It is fascinating to trace the sources of many Christian rites and sayings in the film's unusually faithful reproduction of pagan ritual--references as unsettling as the implied cannibalism of communion and as whimsical as the root of the "frog in the throat" adage. By representing the familiar in the guise of a Bacchanalian unfamiliarity, Shaffer crafts a work of seditious anxiety that culminates in a finale easily as memorable as any in horror's estimable canon.
Part folk musical, part exploitation flick, part philosophical rumination, part generational paranoia, and part psychosexual horror, the exceptionally literary The Wicker Man is also unabashedly visceral, a combination of the head and the body that gives multiple meaning to its title. Originally released as a double-feature with Nicolas Roeg's likewise thorny Don't Look Now, The Wicker Man, while presenting titillation and gruesome murder, has the smarts and the onions to engage in scathing theological rhetoric--and isn't afraid to use them.
Anchor Bay has outdone themselves with their Limited Edition DVD release of The Wicker Man. Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that's beautiful, all the more so for the lack of an original negative (presumed to have been accidentally thrown out!), The Wicker Man exhibits a clarity of colour and image that belies its twenty-eight years. There are surprisingly few print scratches or other flaws, the film's roughest-going patches mostly limited to the prologue and sporadic third-act moments. The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is, as befitting the age of its source material, flat, though crystalline.
A two-disc set, the first features a 35-minute documentary, "The Wicker Man Enigma", containing highly insightful interviews with Woodward, Lee, Ingrid Pitt, director Robin Hardy, producer Richard Snell, writer Anthony Shaffer, editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, art director Seamus Flannery, assistant director Jake Wright, distributor John Simon, and outbid distributor Roger Corman. Created especially for this release, the documentary relates The Wicker Man's rocky start and even rockier distribution as well as countless on-set anecdotes, my favourite of which pertains to the biological fear-reaction of a goat and the resultant soaking received by poor Woodward.
Continuing with Anchor Bay's laudable track record of deeply detailed cast and crew biographies, Mark Wickum and Avie Hern contribute lengthy and illuminating pieces on Hardy, Shaffer, Woodward, and Lee that add immeasurably to the enjoyment of this classic film. A remastered trailer and horrendously bad TV spot plus fourteen radio ads (4 :60 ones, and 10 :30 ones) round out disc one.
The second platter includes the extended version of The Wicker Man, with eleven minutes of rare footage reinserted. The restored scenes (an extended prologue, a re-ordering of a seduction scene, and various minor changes) were all taken from the only known print of them, discovered mouldering in Roger Corman's vault. As a consequence, the missing footage is of extremely poor quality and, furthermore, does little to enhance the film, either thematically or practically. The elisions are interesting for scholars and fans, but probably of little value for the merely curious.
The real selling point for Anchor Bay's The Wicker Man Limited Edition DVD is the beautiful wooden box it comes in, which has been engraved with a totem and title as well as numbered out of 50,000. A true collector's item and a valued member of my collection, it's worth the purchase for the packaging alone. That The Wicker Man is one of the best horror movies ever made is gravy. Originally published: August 7, 2001.