The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy's 1973 directorial debut The Wicker Man stunned audiences upon release with it's bizarre blend of mystery and horror.
The film follows a police sergeant (Edward Woodward) searching for a missing girl on a remote Scottish island Summerisle. Not only does the policeman get no help from the locals who refuse to recognize the missing girl as one of their own, his devout conservative Christian beliefs are challenged by the collective paganism of the creepy townspeople.
Leading the island people in their superstitious customs is Lord Summerisle played by Christopher Lee, also making things as difficult as possible for Sgt. Howie in his quest.
Part of the film's originality is the juxtaposition between the beautifully colourful Scottish landscape and the disturbing sense of dread lurking in the corners of nearly every frame.
Another unusual aspect of the film is having the townsfolk often burst into song during the movie. These range from the bawdy pub song "The Landlord's Daughter" to the simmering sexuality of "Willow's Song" and the lyrically dark "Maypole", rendered even more disturbing being sung by a group of children and one adult male. The incidental music heard in the film is an appropriate mix of celtic and folk themes performed on traditional instruments by the group Magnet (aka Lodestone).
After the final unnerving scene has faded, viewers are left with equal measures of shock and disbelief. In the years since the film's debut, audiences continue to be unsettled by the dramatic and downbeat finale.
The Wicker Man has had many home video releases over the years, none as impressive from a pure packaging point of view as Anchor Bay's 2001 limited edition of 50,000 wooden box. The case has it's front artwork and title logo dramatically branded into the grain of the wood while inside is a two DVD set featuring the original 88 minute theatrical cut of the movie along with an extended 99 minute version and an excellant 35 minute documentary "The Wicker Man Enigma" about the making of the film. "The Wicker Man Enigma" includes interviews with many of the actors and film makers reminiscing about the movie and has some great then-and-now images of some of the Scottish locations. There's also quite a bit of talk about the missing film reels which, legend has it, were thrown away by the studio to be used as landfill under the newly paved M3 motorway. These reels contained the original film negative and outtake performances. Some of this "lost" footage makes up the 99 minute extended cut which was eventually found in Roger Corman's archives. Corman had been sent a long version of the film in the 70's in a distribution offer for the United States that didn't pan out.
Anchor Bay's release also has the U.S. theatrical trailer, a TV spot and fourteen vintage radio spots. There's also a hidden Easter Egg revealing a 25 minute clip from a 1978 appearance by Hardy and Lee on a U.S. TV talk show Critics Choice discussing the making and promotion of the film, although in very low VHS quality.
Five years later in 2006, Anchor Bay re-released the 2 disc set with a brand new commentary track on the extended version from director Hardy, actors Woodward and Lee moderated by Mark Kermode. Of course this edition is without the out-of-print wooden box but the bright gold and yellow slipcover is pretty eye-catching itself.
In 2008 Anchor Bay again re-released the film (slightly re-titled as Wicker Man ) with a garish slipcover tying it to their then current Cult Fiction line (other titles in the series included Kidnapped, Class Of 1984 and Road Games ) but this version consists only of the first disc of the previous releases.
The single disc version from Lionsgate has identical content as the Anchor Bay release with just a different cover.
Finally in 2013, British company Studio Canal released a near-definitive 2 blu-ray, 1 DVD edition, also available as a smart looking steelbook exclusively from Zavvi.com . This release is absolutely packed with content making it essential for the many fans of the film. Bonus features on this release include the 48 minute documentary "Burnt Offering: The Cult Of The Wicker Man" offering a good overview of the making of the film but really coming alive when discussing the controversial cuts made to the movie. Hosted by British film critic Mark Kermode, "Burnt Offering" boasts new interviews with many of the particiapants from the "Wicker Man Enigma" documentary plus a few new voices as well. "Worshiping The Wicker Man: Famous Fans" is a 23 minute piece featuring some contemporary directors (James Watkins The Woman In Black, Eli Roth Hostel) and a selection of British film critics.
The 15 minute "The Music Of The Wicker Man" has musical supervisor Gary Carpenter talking about recording the score and Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records explaining how in 1998 he came to release the original music heard in the film on a limited edition of 1,000 copies coloured vinyl. The "Restoration Comparison" is a 2 min collection of clips with side-by-side examples of the work done on repairing the condition of the film. Two theatrical trailers (one from the 2013 re-release) are also included. Then there is a fun 16 minute segment showing Hardy, Woodward and Lee recording parts of their commentary track for the DVD release. Finally there is a 16 minute interview with director Robin Hardy talking about making the movie, disguising fall in Scotland as spring and filming Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt's nude scenes.
The main draw of course is the "final cut" version of the film. The controversy of the various versions and "missing footage" may be more interesting than the additional scenes themselves. The extra eleven minutes seen in the extended cut for example have fans and detractors alike. Does the restored beginning showing Sgt Howie being mocked by his co-workes add understanding to his plight or does starting the film with his landing on Summerisle (as the theatrical version does) increase the sense of isolation he feels among the townsfolk?
Here are some of the basic differences seen at the first half or so between the three versions of the film: the 88 minute original theatrical cut begins with Sgt Howie flying his plane to Summerilse (he lands at approximately 3:28 in the film). After dinner on his first night there, he witnesses various couples fornicating outside. We then see flashbacks of him in Scotland giving a reading in church. Later that evening, Willow attempts to seduce him from her room next to his above the local tavern.
In the 100 minute director's cut, we begin with Howie landing his plane in Scotland, singing and giving a reading in church. A postman delivers a letter about a missing girl on Summerilse to a pair of police officers who are joking about Howie. At about the 6 minute point, we get the footage from the theatrical cut of Howie flying to the island, he lands at approx 8:35. Again, after dinner Howie witnesses the outdoors orgy but here this is followed by a scene of Christopher Lee presenting a teenage (or pre-teenage) boy to Willow while Howie watches from his window. While Willow is upstairs turning the boy into a man, the song "Gently Johnny" is performed by musicians in the downstairs pub and Lee watches snails procreate.
Soon after the picture quality drops considerably when Howie is at the missing girl's grave site and also when Howie is seen questioning the local doctor about the girl's death (this appears after the "frog" scene). Finally "Willow's Song" occurs on Howie's second night on the island.
The 94 minute "final cut" begins with Howie singing and reading in church. At the 4:51 min mark, Howie lands at Summerisle. After dinner, he sees the outside sex games and Lee presents the boy to Willow.
Another area where major differences occur are the infamous "Willow's Song" scene mentioned above, where Britt Eklands' character sings a siren song through the wall trying to entice Howie to spend the night with her. As Willow dances in the nude, a sweating Howie battles with the temptation so close by. In the theatrical cut of the film this scene begins at 19:03 (I'm starting the scene at the first shot of the back of Willow's hand hitting the wall behind her as she lies in bed and begins to sing, although the musicians in the pub have already started playing the tune). Following this scene, is a brief interaction between Willow and a clearly frustrated Howie from the next morning where she is bringing him his morning tea.
In the extended cut, the seduction begins all the way at 58:29 in the film and the song is a bit longer. There are a couple of extra lines of lyrics and an additional shot of Willow stroking a curtain pull. After this scene, the film switches to a shot of children walking in single file on a sidewalk while Howie is at the library.
By the final cut, "Willow's Song" now appears at 53:12 in the film after flashbacks of Howie giving the reading in church back on the mainland. It ends, as the theatrical version did, with Willow the next morning bringing him his tea.
In January 2014 The Wicker Man received it's North American debut on blu-ray in a single disc edition. This release presents only the 94 minute "final cut" along with most of the extras from the UK edition unfortunately omitting the essential 48 minute "Burnt Offering" documentary.
Decades after it's original release The Wicker Man continues to engage viewers searching through the various edits for more information to add to their already considerable appreciation. The film is so important and unconventional it practically demands diligent studying.
And will for decades to come.
Robert Lawson 2014.