I`ll start this review by saying that I already understand, in advance, that attempting to review The Wicker Man is either an extremely brave undertaking, or a fool-hardy one. However this is a film that I feel very passionately about and while it is considered one of the greatest British “Horror” films ever made, it is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. So, here we go.
The Wicker Mans story on the surface appears to be a simple police procedural, a small town policeman is dispatched to a Scottish island going by the name of “Summerisle” to investigate the disappearance of a small girl called Rowan. Once he arrives however, non of the locals seem to recall the name of the girl or strangely, fail to recognise the photo of her. Stranger still, as we begin to understand, are the practices that take place there.
I never like to delve too deeply into the story of a film whenever I describe it, especially when it comes to films that have an element of mystery to them. The Wicker Man is best left as vague as possible, similar to our protagonist Sergeant Howie (in a phenomenal performance by Edward Woodward) it is best left to throw yourself in at the deep end and to enter the film knowing as little as possible.
A major problem that a lot of horror films suffer from is a lack of atmosphere, when many people discuss horror films one of the strongest elements that help create a great one is nailing atmosphere, a sense of dread or unfamiliarity that can intimidate or horrify an audience. Atmosphere is what The Wicker Man does best, as soon as Howie lands at Summerisle he is greeted by a despondency from the locals, instead of welcoming him, they immediately question him “Are you lost?” (you almost expect it to be followed up by “You ain`t from around here are you?” *Cue Deliverance banjo player*). Joking aside once Howie begins investigating the town you immediately feel like this is a man out of his depth and something is awry, with all of the villagers either questioning Howie back or being completely unhelpful with their responses to his investigaiton.
Just like our protagonist we begin to feel uncomfortable and isolated in this town and begin to wonder just what exactly is going on, as we experience the unusual activities of the locals with Howie, we begin to question almost everything we see “Why are there orgies in public fields, why are young men presented to the local barkeeps daughter as some sort of offering? Why has everyone got a weird animal role-play outfit? and finally, just what exactly is the fate of that poor beetle inside Rowans desk!?!”. All these questions are answered (apart from the beetle) in a particularly creepy fashion throughout the film. As Howie continues his investigation we feel this increasing amount of dread surrounding him which is almost impossible to explain without experiencing it. This reminds me of a very story that surrounds The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does not actually feature that much violence or bloodshed, however Tobe Hooper was asked by the classification board to cut the film because these was an atmosphere of “dread”. This is something that when Hooper revisited the film, realised it is something he simply could not edit around. Hooper must of taken inspiration from this film (released one year before it) as there is extremely little violence in The Wicker Man, but a fantastic sense of an atmosphere of unfamiliarity and claustrophobic horror.
Along with atmosphere The Wicker man also has some very compelling religious themes, more often than not horror films tend to exploit the theme of religion as a cheap way to shock audiences as it is a common fear that people have (because, you know, 31.5% of the worlds population alone are Christians). However 1973 brought along The Exorcist and The Wicker man two films that show how to handle this theme correctly and how powerful it can be when the characters attached to it are empathetic.
Howie our protagonist is a catholic man, a devout catholic man in fact, he is engaged and soon to be married and planning to lose his virginity on his wedding day. (something his colleague and the local postman gossip about, although only in the Directors cut, however more on that later). He is a man who upholds his belief system throughout the entire film and while this is an admirable trait for Howie it also makes him incredibly rigid and unwilling to accept a belief system different to his own. Howie winces at the thought of free sex being practiced around the village and even manages to reject sleeping with the barkeeps daughter (played by the beautiful Britt Ekland) despite performing a ritual to try and convince him otherwise. This intersection of belief systems is the center point of the film and what makes the finale so powerful. We believe in Howies crusade because he wants to locate Rowan and morally is carrying out the right action but equally when Howie finally meets Lord Summerisle he arguably makes a case for his practices too. In a brilliant scene Howie witnesses women jumping over fire in a ritual so the Old Gods can impregnate them, he immediately dimisses the idea as ridiculous remarking “have these children never heard of Jesus?”, to which Summerisle replies “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost”. Its an example of the really great dialogue peppered throughout the film and the fascinating inter-faith discussions it raises.
Speaking of Lord Summerisle it would be unfair of me to review this film without talking about the performances contained within it.
As previously mentioned Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Howie who gives a really great performance, he manages to capture Howies confusion and resentment toward The people of Summerisles practices and also provides a stoic, unflinching, immovable catholic force that attempts to halt them, his final scenes in the film are extremely powerful and his initial reaction to the horror that is happening in the final scenes are felt with real gravitas.
In a role that Christopher Lee always cited (note “cited” sad to be writing about Lee in that tense now) as one of his favorites is Lord Summerisle, the cult leader of the island. Lee really gives as good as he gets off Woodward and sells the character as an intelligent and sophisticated man, Lees incredibely tall 6 foot 5 frame really emphasises this and seems to dominate Woodward, which perfectly reflects his dominance over the island.
The supporting cast are all very good, another notable casting decision is Britt Ekland, she plays Willow and has taken up the position of “Aphrodite” as Lord Summerisle dons her. Ekland was notably miserable during filming and hated where the location of filming took place, especially the hotel she stayed at, she was quoted as calling it “The bleakest place on earth” of which the filmmakers have since apologized to the residents of the Scottish islands where it was filmed. Her performance is quite transfixing as a luring sexually promiscuous young lady who in one notable scene dances naked, interestingly Ekland requested to only be shot from the waist up for her nude scene (she was pregnant at the time) and absolutely hated the butt double they used for her, furthermore her dialogue scenes were also dubbed over in post production by a different actress, which, as you can imagine from what she had already experienced, she was not happy about.
The film is beautifully captured by Henry Waxman, the cinematographer of the film, with the opening shot of summerisle being shot on the coat of Africa. (It was winter in Scotland so there was absolutely no blossom on the trees, which was awfully frustrating for production crew as the island within the film is famous for its climate and abundance of fruit and its errr called, well, SUMMERisle). The isolation of the small town is captured wonderfully, Robin Hardy (A novice director at this point, having directed nothing before and not much else after) chooses to make use of tighter frames, keeping characters in focus and keeping the camera fixed on them, This also emphasizes the isolation that Howie faces, with the camera only using wider more epic shots in the films opening, establishing scenes and horrifying climax. Both Robin Hardy and cinematographer Harry Waxman did not get on during filming, this was in part due to Hardy wanting to choose his own Director of photography. Hardy was not allowed as the studio wanted Waxman because he was an extremely experienced DOP and could help film post production special effects scenes, if they were required. This led to the two men regularly disagreeing throughout filming, it is ironic how the friction between the two actually helped create such a masterful final product.
One of the final elements of the film that works so strongly is the films soundtrack, it is both haunting, creepy and extremely catchy! tracks like “maypole” which make a memorable appearance in the film really set a bizarre mood and really help elevate the film in creating a heritage to the land of Summerisle, the music establishes that these rituals and traditions of the island have been on-going for many years and are even used to indoctrinate the youth of the island into the Pagan culture.
Finally I`d like to discuss the different cuts of the Wicker man and the home video editions that are available for it.
As it stands there are three cuts of The Wicker Man that are widely available to purchase these are the Theatrical Cut, The Directors Cut and The Final Cut. The Theatrical Cut is the shortest and runs at just 87 minutes, this is by far the worst and trims or excludes some scenes which should really be included in the film. I wouldn’t recommend watching the theatrical cut as it really butchers a classic. The final two cuts are the strongest, The directors cut runs at 102 minutes and The Final Cut runs at 94 minutes, with 8 minutes between the two, there really isn’t one that is particularly better than the other. For first time viewers I would definitely recommend the Final cut as your jumping off point, it gets rid of some scenes which are arguably unnecessary and also has been beautifully restored in High definition by Studiocanal. Finally the film fanatic inside me would say watch the directors cut after viewing The final cut, as it just adds a few more scenes to a fantastic film that nerds like me revel in.
I wanted to also take some time to cover what is included on the Blu-ray release as some reviews leave this out and I think its important to cover all the extra features and collectibles you get in some home video releases.
I own the film on two different Blu-rays, I have the standard 3 disc final cut Blu-ray and I also have the steelbook collectors edition Blu-ray. For the record the steelbook is absolutely gorgeous, you can buy it off Zavvi and the artwork on the front looks really exceptional, HOWEVER this particular edition bizarrely does not include all the extras of the standard Blu-ray final cut edition. I don’t know why this is but it leaves out really cool inclusions like the beautiful soundtrack and the other cuts of the film, so I would say go for the standard edition if you can pick it up, unless you are a collector like me and you want to own both.
Here is where you can order them online (for some reason the non-steelbook edition off Zavvi is double what is available off amazon):