The Wicker Man
Though I have long known about The Wicker Man, from its genre-favorite star Christopher Lee to the impressive fan following it has acquired, I must somewhat ashamedly admit the screening of this new DVD from Anchor Bay was my first viewing of the nearly 30-year-old production. Even though such genre journals like the prolific Cinefantastique prominently featured and thoroughly analyzed this 1973 yarn, I somehow managed to remain uninformed about this British production. So, as I prepared for my initial viewing, I quickly found I was not prepared at all for what unfolded before me.
After the reported disappearance of a young girl, Police Sergeant Howie is dispatched to a pastoral Scottish island to investigate. Immediately upon his arrival, he senses his efforts will be met with resistance by the peculiar island inhabitants. Yet as he struggles to gain information from the very tight-lipped islanders, he is literally overwhelmed by the community’s bent for pagan rituals. And while his investigation to determine what happened to the missing girl proves fruitless (the entire island denies knowing of her - including the girl’s mother), Howie ultimately infiltrates a mysterious procession which leads him to the darkest ritual of all, answering many of his questions while posing threat to his own life.
From the opening title sequence, featuring beautiful aerial photography of the island accompanied by soothing Scottish folk music, I found myself immediately struggling to determine what tone this film might take and where it might lead me. And, as the story unabashedly reveals itself, especially the candid depiction of the community’s demonstrative celebrations of sexual prowess and promiscuity, I became further mystified regarding what was going on here - this was like no other quasi-gothic thriller I had ever seen. That, of course, is what makes The Wicker Man the success that it is. From the get-go, the filmmakers skillfully draw us into Sergeant Howie's predicament. And, while genre enthusiasts like myself find some comfort upon the initial entrance of veteran actor Christopher Lee (fondly recalling his legendary work in the Hammer films), he too provides awkward surprise as his role of Lord Summerisle develops into the same sort of contorted character as the rest of the islanders. And so the film goes, leading us through a herky-jerky procession of bizarre rituals that leave us in disbelief for the duration.
As it was, I required two viewings to fully internalize the intent of the film and to recognize the mastery exercised in bringing it to the screen. This is an unsettling film which ingeniously incorporates an unflinching delivery of forbidden subject matter (especially in 1973) without relying upon standard horror scares or explicit gore to achieve its purpose. This film is unsettling in it’s straightforward style made all the more effective given its intelligent approach.
I must note at this point that this disc features the U.S. theatrical Version of the film and not the newly restored Director’s Cut that features eleven minutes of previously missing content. Die-hard enthusiasts insist the missing footage is tantamount to a more sensible and satisfying viewing. Unfortunately, the extended version is only available in Anchor Bay’s special edition two-disc boxed set. I’m disappointed not to find the extended version available in a single-disc package.
Regardless which version is being viewed, fans of The Wicker Man have applauded Anchor Bay Entertainment for bringing their beloved classic to glorious life in this new anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer (framed at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio). Previously having had to endure inferior VHS presentations, this transfer is quite striking, featuring an impressive image sourced from “original vault materials.” The color saturation is well rendered, offering deep landscapes and realistic flesh tones throughout. Black levels are relatively consistent and provide nice shadowing though they do slip into murkiness on a couple of isolated occasions. Expect to see a low level of grain throughout the presentation - an element of the production itself, not a fault of the transfer, which adds an intentional texture to the image.
Well known for their efforts to provide top-notch audio accompaniment to their discs, Anchor Bay again does well by offering a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While this effort doesn’t deliver the sort of realism and directional effects we’ve all come to expect of the medium (especially considering the source audio material) the mix nonetheless results in a more spacious aural field that adequately surrounds the viewer and aptly compliments the image.
Anchor Bay also steps up to deliver some interesting extras on this disc, beginning with the new documentary, The Wicker Man Enigma. This is a rather engaging retrospective of the film that, through its interviews with cast and crew, provides an informative look at the creation, post-production, distribution, and ultimate resurrection of this new-age classic. In addition, there is a theatrical trailer, TV spots, radio spots, and talent bios to be found on the disc. Comparatively speaking, this isn’t the sort of bonus material assemblage that would inarguably delight fans though it is quite pleasing to find even this much material for this decades-old film.
So, after having been finally initiated by The Wicker Man, I would also stand alongside long-time fans who proclaim this picture to be a masterpiece of modern horror and suspense. It’s a very strange ride, of that there’s no denying, but it’s a journey that will challenge your senses, your beliefs, and your resolve as you, too, become an unwitting visitor to deceptively peaceful yet deeply foreboding land of Summerisle.