Monday, 20 November 2006

The Wicker Man (1973)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 12th September 2006.

The Wicker ManOptimum Releasing are turning out some very classy DVDs these days, albeit of titles previously released in inferior forms by other companies. Their release of the 1973 'cult classic' The Wicker Man, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, is another excellent offering from the company.

Edward Woodward plays Howie, a devoutly religious, if extremely sanctimonious, police officer who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. He finds a strange, pastoral community led by the rather odd Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee) and goes on to discover what the packaging calls 'a secret society of wanton lust and pagan blasphemy'. Ultimately The Wicker Man tells the tale of how Howie has to deal with the repercussions of the clash between the local pagan culture and his own Christian beliefs.

I came to this film very late, having hunted it out just a few years ago after attending a fan Q&A event where actor Brad Dourif heavily promoted it as not just his favourite film, but an absolute 'must see'. On that first viewing I was somewhat disappointed, possibly because I'm such an admirer of Dourif that my expectations had been set too high, or possibly because the film appears very dated in terms of style and pacing and clearly lacks a large budget. It is also a film that's very hard to classify: it's a horror film without much 'obvious' horror, a thriller that doesn't follow the usual conventions of that genre. It is a film that is quintessentially British, and a film that realises genuinely frightening films don't have to resort to blood and guts - horror continually hinted at but not visually shown can make for a much more frightening experience than the likes of Saw or Hostel.

Revisiting the film earlier this week, it's not hard on a second viewing, to see why Mr Dourif, along with many others, regard this as a seriously underrated classic. It's unique, perfectly scripted and, thanks to its shocking denouement, likely to give viewers some nightmarish food for thought for several days after initial viewing!

Edward Woodward, who is best known as the actor who played the lead in the TV series Callan, turns in a performance that he regards as the best in a long, if not prolific, film and TV career, and it's hard to disagree with him. He is effectively the viewer's eyes and ears for the events that unfold, and the horror of what he discovers is all the more vivid for the way we feel his pain and anguish which positively screams at you during the final reel. On the DVD commentary track Christopher Lee describes The Wicker Man as his 'favourite film', and whilst this is a plaudit he invariably rolls out to describe any non-Hammer film he's appeared in, there's no doubt that his performance here, while brief, is excellent, and that the film is certainly far better than its 'supporting feature' UK release and luke-warm initial reviews might lead you to believe. Britt Ekland rounds out the cast, albeit with a controversial stand-in for some of her nude scenes and another actress' voice for scenes where she has to sing. All the cast get the chance to shine in a highly original tale, beautifully shot by first-time director Robin Hardy, albeit on an all-too-obvious-at-times limited budget.

The original 'shock ending' still has the power to surprise today, and it's not hard to see why the film's distributors were so nervous about it that they ended up distributing it as a 'B' support movie to another release, rather than the premium release originally envisaged.

The Wicker Man screencap

Warner Brothers originally released a very good two-disk DVD version of this film in 2002, featuring the 'hacked to pieces' theatrical cut, and the far superior 'Director's Cut' that went on limited release in America. This new release is essentially the same transfer, albeit with a few new extra's added to the original set. These new extra's are a 50 minute documentary, 'Burnt Offering', presented by critic Mark Kermode; home-movie type footage of the recording of the original audio commentary track; a new 8-page commemorative booklet and a new 'third disk' which turns out to be a CD soundtrack of the film's folksy music that plays such an important part in the film.

The picture transfer is generally excellent, but the additional 'directors cut' scenes stand out because they look like they've come from a VHS copy - the original negative for these scenes having apparently been 'lost'. That being said, the Director's Cut is the version to see, since the theatrical cut was artificially hacked to pieces to meet the timing requirements of British 'supporting feature' releases at the time of original release and misses out key scenes that, most noticeably, set up Edward Woodward's character and help give depth and meaning to the conflict that is at the heart of this story.

The audio commentary, 'moderated' by Mark Kermode and featuring the director and his two lead actors is interesting enough but suffers from being totally dominated by Christopher Lee. Not that Lee doesn't have interesting anecdotes to impart, but he gets extremely repetitive and rambling, repeating the same rather tired anecdotes of imagined slights towards his wife or how important his own missing scenes are, often at the expense of a far more interesting story from one of the other commentators that he's interrupted mid-flow and which then never gets concluded. As a result, it's a very frustrating listen and one can't help wishing Kermode had performed his role as moderator a little more effectively rather than let Lee bully his way through the whole thing.

A filmed version of parts of the commentary being recorded, which is new to this release, adds little to the original audio commentary, except to give some insight into the untidy environment in which these things are typically recorded.

The new 50 minute 'Burnt Offering' documentary, is presented, like the main feature, in anamorphic widescreen. It is an excellent look back at the film, featuring all the main cast and crew, and reveals how much of a troubled shoot this was (despite the 'rewriting of history' and general gushing that takes place on the audio commentary). Those taking part often contradict each other on the real facts of what took place and it's clear that old rivalries and bitterness still last to this day, particularly from the set designer and Britt Ekland.

The package also boasts a 25 minute American 'interview with Christopher Lee from 1973'. This actually turns out to be a TV show featuring a gushing critic and his two guests together - not just Lee, but also the film's director Robin Hardy. Unfortunately its most notable feature is the appalling picture quality (taken from a third-generation VHS copy which is very blurred and features a LOT of smearing). That being said, I found it interesting, if cringe-inducing, viewing, showing that Christopher Lee's pomposity and complete lack of any kind of sense of humour when it comes to discussing himself is NOT a recent phenomenon that one can just put down to his being very old. The programme has barely started before Lee is telling the sycophantic interviewer how he should be doing his job!

A movie this good, in a package this lavish, would get a high recommendation anyway regardless of its cost. But at a typical online price of £12.89 it's an absolute steal. If you've got the original release there's probably not enough new here to warrant a 'double-dip' upgrade and I prefer the original 2002 release's digi-pack design and presentation. That being said you might want to check your original copy as there are a LOT of internet reports of those original Warner Brothers disks turning 'milky' and becoming unplayable because of a pressing plant defect. For those who haven't yet caught up with this British classic and think they can cope with the quirky feel and distinctly old-fashioned pacing, this release has to count as a 'must purchase'.

The Wicker Man screencap

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