The 1973 cult sensation, “The Wicker Man”, is nearly impossible to describe without confusing the hell out of people. Mislabeled “the Citizen Kane of horror,” by Cinefantastique, “The Wicker Man” is not really a horror film at all, but a dark religious thriller with a creepy edge and a song in its heart. Starring Edward Woodward (Breaker Morant, The Equalizer), Christopher Lee and other Hammer horror film regulars, the film wittily mixes the starkest possible religious conflict with enchanting 70’s era folk music, creating the first comparative religions quasi-musical thriller.
The creation of mystery dramatist Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy) and first-time director Robin Hardy, “The Wicker Man” is a film the refuses to die. It was nearly scuttled by studio politics, it’s original negative was accidentally discarded and the film was subsequently dumped onto the bottom half of a double bill for its U.S. release. But critical acclaim and efforts of Christopher Lee and other saved the film – to a degree. In the years since, it’s influence has been subtle, but definite. It’s developed a rabid enough following to rate its fanzine, “Nuada.” It’s even possible it helped sparked the neopagan/Wiccan revival of the eighties and nineties, and possibly even the Burning Man festival of masochists.
Nevertheless, “The Wicker Man” has been all but impossible to see for some time. Now, it’s been reincarnated in a flawed but still essential new 2 DVD boxed set containing both the truncated American theatrical release and a cobbled together “extended” version. The results are a boon for film geeks the world over, but also extremely frustrating.
“The Wicker Man” is the tale Sgt. Neil Howie, a devout, priggish policeman who travels to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl, only to find himself the lone Christian on an island were the “old gods” – the ancient Celtic deities – have been reinstated. Set during May Day festivities, the film pits the increasingly shocked “Christian copper” against the unflappable residents of Sumerisle – who insist on obstructing his investigation and living as if four-thousand years of monotheism were but a distant memory. Among the residents of Sumerisle are Christopher Lee as the proudly pagan, musically inclined Lord Sumerisle, Diane Cilento as an apparently prim schoolteacher who encourages her schoolgirls to venerate “the male generative organ,” and a notably naked Britt Ekland as the local high priestess of all things sexual.
While the film may be complex, the story behind it is downright Byzantine. With frank sexuality and controversial subject matter, properly promoted, “The Wicker Man” could have been a successful cause celebre. Instead, when producer Peter Snell of British Lion was removed by a change in regime at the production company, the film was slashed from Robin Hardy’s original 102 draft down to 88 minutes, with several important scenes either removed or rearranged. It was then released as the second feature with another film disliked by the new studio regime, Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.”
Believing that “The Wicker Man” was likely to be the best film of his entire career, Christopher Lee later got hold of a complete print which had been sent to B-movie king Roger Corman and spearheaded a restoration and revival of the film. And then things really get complicated.
As I recall it (though no one else seems to remember) Lee and company produced a version that was 95 minutes — seven minutes shorter than the original cut — excising an opening sequence set on the Scottish mainland but preserving the film’s integrity. Later, that version disappeared and the original 102 minute surfaced on home video. As time passed, the 88-minute bastardization became the only available version. Eventually, even that version became hard to find. (The whole story may be told in the book, Inside “The Wicker Man” by Allan Brown, but I don’t know because it’s currently unavailable in the U.S.)
The Return of “The Wicker Man” ^ Now, Michigan distributor Anchor Bay is releasing “The Wicker Man” on DVD, including both the shortened American release and a special “extended” version in a wooden boxed set (a single DVD including only the short version and videocassettes of both cuts sold separately are also available). While the set fills an important void, there’s no end to the murkiness in sight because none of the versions included are fully satisfying or quite complete. That may be inevitable because of the film’s checkered history, but it’s still a disappointment.
The boxed set includes two discs. Disc one features the original shortened American release in excellent 5.1 StereoSurround Sound, plus a documentary and other supplementary material. The second disc contains a cobbled together “extended” version, which combines footage from the original release cut together with the scenes from decaying prints to make something like a complete version. The result is that there’s a marked difference in picture quality during the restored material. That’s inevitable, but it gets worse. Presumably because the loss of the negative also includes the original soundtracks, the sound on the extended version is in poor quality monaural. But let’s get back to the good news….
Bowdlerized as it is, the material on disc one’s is almost all I’d hoped for. The 88-minute theatrical release is included here much as it was when I first saw it in 1976. This version subtly cheapens the story and undermines the characters, but, on the other hand, it’s extremely watchable and still a great movie (the ever savvy Roger Corman consulted on the re-cut). Technically, the picture quality is reasonably strong throughout, but the real treat of this DVD is the chance to hear late composer Paul Giovanni’s wonderful music in ear-filling stereo. Sadly, this version excludes one the film’s best songs (and one of its most interesting and erotic sequences), the haunting “Gently Johnny” – a tale of a “jingalo” (gigolo) and his lover.
The supplementary material on disc 1 is a hoot. Best is “”The Wicker Man” Enigma,” a solid documentary that uses entertaining and thoughtful interviews with most of the key players to nicely summarize the story of the film’s creation, near loss and eventual resurrection. It’s not exhaustive, but is a decent, simplified map to the knotty terrain of Wickermania. (Note: The documentary summarizes the entire story and should not be watched in the presence of the uninitiated!)
Also included on Disc I are lengthy text bios on the principles, a couple of trailers, some misleading ultra-sensationalist local radio ads. These are lot of fun both for their florid language (“Ah, the sweet smell of burning flesh!”) and for their shameless sensationalism on behalf of an arthouse release. One add is essentially a reading of a tabloid story which claimed that Britt Ekland’s then-boyfriend, putative rocker Rod Stewart, was trying to suppress the film because of its nude scene. Another ad makes some hay of the fact that writer Anthony Shaffer had research help from his more famous identical twin brother, Peter Shaffer. Another ad goes even further and implies that Peter, author of Equus and later Amadeus, co-wrote the film.
And then we find one heck of an “Easter Egg” (you get there by clicking on the large Wicker Man icon): Half of a two-part interview with Christopher Lee and director Robin Hardy conducted by Baton Rouge TV personality Sterling Smith – a host who combines the derriere-smooching, long-winded pretension of Inside the Actors Studio’s uber-sycophant James Lipton, with the utter lack of preparation of Martin Short’s Jimminy Glick-. “The Wicker Man” may not be the Citizen Kane of horror, but this interview truly redefines terror!
After that, the “Extended Version” Disc II is just incredibly problematic. On the one hand, it’s the only available, reasonably complete version of “The Wicker Man”, and for that, it’s well worth having. For me, though, this version is a little joyless. Some of that no doubt comes from the poor quality of the sound, which may be inevitable for technical reasons. (I might have favored using the stereo tracks where they were available. The contrast with the mono sound would have been distracting, but then so are the changes in picture quality. At least, it might have been nice to have the option available.)
But there’s more to than that. One plus to the differences in picture quality is that it’s easy to see where the changes were made and, sometimes, why those changes were made. The uncomfortable fact is that those who favored cutting the film weren’t utterly wrong. As even director Robin Hardy agrees, some cuts were called for. This longer draft of the film feels a bit overly somber next to the brisk-but-bowdlerized American release. Though it’s been more than half a lifetime since I’ve seen the 95-minute draft, for me it’s still the perfect “Goldilocks” cut. The 88-minute release is too short and this 99 minute “extended” version is, well, extended. My suggestion for those of you new to “The Wicker Man” is to watch the short vision first, then check out the extended version if you’re so inclined and think about what might have been….
Incidentally, there are some other minor problems with distributor Anchor Bay’s packaging. This may sound like harping, but at $40.00, the unvarnished wood box, and the tacky plastic holder in lieu of a jewel box is a little sad. No booklet is included. Instead, two postcards list the chapters (though not the extra features) on the two DVDs. Also, my discs had some scratches, which caused one disc to “freeze” briefly a couple of times. Since my copy was free, I’m not complaining, but you won’t be so lucky!
So, this boxed set is not definitive. On the other hand, a truly great and genuinely unique movie is back with us…. As I finish writing this and as “normalcy” slowly returns in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, “The Wicker Man” is weirdly, catastrophically more relevant than it was when I first started writing this review.
At its heart, “The Wicker Man” is a brutally fair depiction of a miniature scale holy war. We see definite pluses and minuses to both sides but, in the end, the battle between Christianity and paganism turns out to be a wash. Sgt. Howie’s heroic brand of Christianity may be humorless and priggish, but he’s got compassion on his side – and the residents of Sumerisle might appear to be merely benign, oversexed, tree-humping Wiccans, but they’re not. In “The Wicker Man”, overly literal interpretations of religious beliefs – any religious beliefs – lead only to repression and, possibly, destruction.
I think I’ll send my copy to Jerry Falwell. Maybe he’ll send it on to Glenn Danzig.
“The Wicker Man” Boxed Set *** ½ ^ “The Wicker Man” (original film) *****