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Anchor Bay presents
The Wicker Man: LE (1973)

Lord Summerisle: What my grandfather started out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way: to reverence the music, the drama, the rituals of the old gods; to love nature and to fear it, and rely on it and to appease it when necessary. He brought me up....
Sgt. Howie: He brought you up to be a pagan!
Lord Summerisle: A heathen, conceivably...but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.

- Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: August 20, 2001

Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee
Other Stars: Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt
Director: Robin Hardy

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: R for (ubiquitous nudity, adult themes)
Run Time: 01h:28/39m:00s
Release Date: August 21, 2001
UPC: 013131165296
Genre: mystery


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- AA-B+ A+

DVD Review

I am not a fan of B movies. I am not a fan of chthonic genres. What I am is one who is known to have nightmares just from what I read when editing other reviews on this site. Yet, I convinced dOc's editor (and my little brother) to send me The Wicker Man to review. Why? This is not your basic 1970s' British horror film, as it is often erroneously categorized. While true that it is rife with many of the trappings of the era's low-budget productions, it is the only one that has ever captured me and, I'm quite certain, the only that ever will. Besides, I'm a sucker for just about anything shot against Scotland's ancient landscape.

Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary is a pious man, a devout Christian who takes the Gospel as - well, gospel. His fellow officers joke behind his back, tease that his girlfriend might still be a virgin even after the two marry. But the sergeant is a focused and serious officer of the law, so when he receives an anonymous letter postmarked from Summerisle stating that a young girl's gone missing, he takes it upon himself to find her.

Howie pilots a police seaplane from the Scots mainland to the remote domain of Lord Summerisle, an island famed for its organic bounty in a region of the world better known for its bleak, infertile landscape. He encounters an insulated microcosm (anyone who's ever had the pleasure of touring small Highland communities understands what this is like), long removed from mainland society. With the mysterious letter and a photograph of Rowan Morrison in hand, the good sergeant makes his way around the island, but the responses and reactions of Summerisle's inhabitants only obfuscate his investigation. It is not long before he discovers that the islanders' concept of religion differs wildly from his own; theirs is a revitalized interpretation of the "old religion," one closer to nature and its elements. In solving the mystery of the missing girl, our virtuous protagonist must also come to terms with questions of morality and faith that fold in on him like a Celtic knot.

"Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent."
- Lord Summerisle

Edward Woodward stars as the unbending sergeant whose monolithic faith blinds him as he ventures his dangerous path. He cannot begin to grasp that the things he considers undeniable may be of no concern—or consequence—to others. Howie is so repulsed by the behavior of the islanders that he cannot comprehend their acts as "religious"; the word has only one definition to him, and what he sees is not it. Woodward's performance is pivotal here; his self-righteous indignation and ultimate horror is palpable and readily communicated to the viewer. Christopher Lee, who came early to the project and hoped it might lift him from his typecasting, is properly gracious, capricious and menacing—not quite the stretch he imagined. His billing is likely the cause for this film's mistaken reputation as a "British horror flick." Personally, I enjoy Postmistress May Morrison (Irene Sunters) and her daughter Myrtle (Jennifer Martin) most of all the peripheral characters; no doubt, the beguiling Britt Ekland, as Willow MacGregor, is favored by others—I suss more for her loveliness than her thespian technique. Her fans will likely be disappointed to learn that much of her notorious "thump dance" was actually replaced by a body double; nonetheless, Ekland is assuredly topless in several scenes. Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt are cheerfully ambiguous, as is the supporting ensemble overall, many of whom were location natives.

What makes this film an insidious classic is the careful process of writer Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Hitchcock's Frenzy, Sommersby), a master of the reveal, the unexpected. Tantalizing clues build a quiet suspense, but are often as not red herrings that lead us—and the good sergeant—astray, in the best style of Agatha Christie. Shaffer, with director Robin Hardy, painstakingly researched the rituals of the ancient religions, specifically the Beltane rites pertaining to fertility, and the story excels for this. In my first few years of grade school, we celebrated May Day, dressed in "peasant costumes" and danced around the Maypole. There are remnants of these old cultures still today, with pageants and processions—and parades—all rooted in pagan traditions. The filmmakers seek our "tribal memory" and watch us vacillate between what we know, and what we knew.

One of the facets that separates The Wicker Man from others in a broad reach of the "darker" genres is its bright and merry disposition. There are no dark passageways, ponderous shadows, or chiaroscuro emanating from archaic candelabra; most of the film is shot in guileless daylight, featuring verdant lawns, blooming orchards and sunny gardens. The initial views of the island were shot in picturesque Plockton, Ross-shire, conveying a fertile oasis in the otherwise coarse and fallow geography of the Western Isles. The skill displayed in creating an atmosphere of mystery in the same frames that convey an innocent joy in primitive erotic rituals, which need the light of day to be effective, is stunning. Both Shaffer and Hardy are to be credited with crafting this success.

If the story had descended into the black arts or Satanism, I'd have moved on a long time ago. It is nothing of the kind. The Wicker Man is a fairly literate tale that sets Celtic elementalism vs. Christian fundamentalism, with a web of mystery weaving and unraveling until the very end. And when you get there, you'll want to watch again to see how you got there....

You won't be disappointed.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: I have to commend the folks who conceived this package. Providing both the 88-minute theatrical version on its own, and then remarkably splicing the 11+ minutes of extended footage (extant only on video tape) into that version on a second disc for a more definitive presentation, makes a perfect salutation to this deserving cult classic. (I believe purists are arguing there is yet another 10 minutes or so lost somewhere, but the documentary included does not convince me of this.)

That said, there's no question that the theatrical version is of finer quality, as one may expect, for the most part crisper with less grain, although a certain softness does appear in certain scenes throughout the feature. One especially notes this in the outdoor night shots, absolutely in the first which, purposefully, runs at a slower rate (but dropping down to the 3-4 bps range). The black levels suffer in these instances as well. I'm certain this statement is heresy to purists, but this version of the film easily stands alone; while the edited scenes add support, they are not crucial to the flow. Already familiar with the story, I watched this first, for the better image and audio and then savored the extended version afterwards.

The extended version is not as satisfying—there is indeed a trade-off in both image and audio quality (see more below) in the more complete offering. Understandably, the video inserts are degraded in tone, color and clarity, an unavoidable circumstance. And while I applaud Anchor Bay for the effort, I must note that the transfer of the entire feature seems to lower its overall quality to support the additional footage.

Both versions are, however, free of major dust and scratches, with no detectable artifacts as a result of the digital processing. Although the 2 presentations differ widely, my grade reflects Anchor Bay's overall effort, and the decisions made in this unique situation.

Note: The limited edition contains both discs; the standard edition is the theatrical release and all the supplements, sans wooden box.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The shorter version carries a 5.1 track that satisfies perfectly. Woodward and Lee, both with resonating voices, carry their power through the front soundstage, supported by ambient sound where appropriate in the surrounds. Ekland's knocking echoes across the channels while Paul Giovanni's score seems evenly split throughout. A 2.0 track is present, but I recommend saving this for the second disc, where it is the only option.

The most disappointing, albeit necessary trade-off on the longer version is the 2.0 audio, dictated by the addition of the video footage. Still, dialogue is distinct at all times and ambient sound, while less discernable, is still present. What loses the most vitality is the score, and then specifically the hauntingly simple Celtic songs scattered throughout. Already suffering from a squeamishly 1970s'-era sound, in this flatter version they come off more like absurd nursery rhymes than their ancient cousins.

Again, given the unique circumstance, my grade is based on the efforts made from the possibilities available.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL/single
Layers Switch: 13m:51s

Extra Extras:
  1. Radio spots/Stills Gallery
  2. Television Interview
Extras Review: It goes without saying that the packaging is extraordinary: A sturdy pine wood box, with 3/8'' flat sides and 1/4" edges, complete with corner mitres—a substantial detail—as well as metal hinges and locking clasp. And that's not all: the logotype and silhouette of The Wicker Man are burn-crafted on the lid, with the logotype also burned into the spines. Nothing short of sensational, period. A clear, double-disc jewel case rests inside, nested in vacuum-form plastic to hold it securely in place.* I encourage the concept team to submit this everywhere they can; this is award-winning design, inside and out. Bravo!

The box includes card inserts, a different one for each version of the film. I prefer the layout of the one assigned the theatrical feature, which presents the original poster; much more striking and a better representation of the film's content. The chapter stops are on the reverse, with the 88-minute disc having 26; the longer version, 28.

On disc, Anchor Bay has a few delights as well. Each DVD boasts its own menu design; not usually a fan of elaborate, noisy interfaces, in this case, by comparison, I actually do prefer the dynamic presentation on the theatrical disc, which again echoes the content without necessarily spoiling it for newcomers. It also features a longer audio loop than usual, making for a much less annoying experience, should one pause long there. The full-motion, interactive screens on the extended version are less appealing visually, and serve a bit more as a spoiler. This latter also has a much-appreciated, longer audio loop. While the 99-minute disc holds only the feature, the 88-minute disc contains the film's supplements. A different song plays in the "extras" menu set.

A 2001 documentary (34m:31s), The Wicker Man Enigma, is composed of interview segments with producer Peter Snell, director Hardy, writer Shaffer, editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, actors Lee, Woodward and Pitt, among others, as well as a few words with Roger Corman. Together, they unveil a detailed, insider's view of the project, from concept and research, through filming, to the politics before, during and after production. I particularly enjoyed Shaffer's discussion of his writing process. It is an interesting archive, perhaps mostly as a historic record of the industry in Britain at the time; fans, of course, will find the behind-the-scenes revelations priceless. Anyone who finds this film lacking in special effects needs to think twice about the subtle devices disclosed in this documentary, such as putting ice in the actors mouths and hot fans under their chins so their breath wouldn't cloud in the "springtime" air.

There is an anamorphic, widescreen theatrical trailer in excellent shape that, like most, shows too much, but stops short of crucial information. A full-screen TV spot with typically sensationalized voiceover ("A film of unclean deeds and unholy places....") is included, which has not been restored in any way. Anchor Bay adds a variety of radio ads (four 60-second and ten 30-second spots) that contain irrefutable spoilers, so newcomers should steer clear. Each spot plays to the display of a different still, so this section serves as a bonus photo gallery as well.

An extensive bio section covers Hardy, Shaffer, Woodward, and Lee, each ending with a filmography. As they all includes quotes, I must again warn about spoilers, specifically in the Woodward section.

And just when fans think they have all they'll ever need, Anchor Bay slips in an easter-egg (easily revealed; if I found it, believe me, anyone can): a 25-minute (24m:47s) entry from a 1970s' television chat series called Critic's Choice, ("with the mid-South's leading film critic, Sterling Smith"). Smith announces that this is the "second half of a two-part interview" that began the previous week with Lee, who is here joined by Robin Hardy in promoting the film. While the video is in marginal condition, the audio is well preserved. The hunt pays off.

All supplements, including the bonus above, are enhanced for your 16x9 viewing pleasure.

With all the key figures (save Ekland) enthusiastically participating in the documentary, I am truly surprised a commentary was not produced for this popular title. Everyone involved in the original project has nothing but high praise for the effort; Lee, himself, proclaims this as his best performance. Why not participate further in this meritorious treatment? While not one to consider commentaries to be the best imaginable supplement, I do believe the cult status of this title begs for one; but I'm satisfied with what I learned from the materials provided.

*Limited edition only

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments

Included in the British Film Institute's top 100 films of all time, Anthony Shaffer's Celtic tale is a meticulously orchestrated mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Weak marketing and the curse of a low-budget production had relegated this intriguing project to relative obscurity. Finally, this propitious and inspired release from Anchor Bay should suffice to appease The Wicker Man, once and for all.

 


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