Directed by Robin Hardy
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
There’s nothing like a bad remake to help make the film on which it’s based look a whole lot better. Case in point: the 1973 version of The Wicker Man. After hearing about this film for several years, I finally had the opportunity to check it out on DVD a few days before viewing Neil LaBute’s 2006 redux (review here), which stars Nicolas Cage. While I did enjoy the original, it seemed rather dated and over-rated — until, that is, I suffered through the over-wrought and over-explained adaptation, after which I gained a new appreciation for what had come before. But enough about the Nic and Neil misfire; we’re here to discuss the real McCoy.
Right off the bat, it should be mentioned that the DVD being reviewed is really nothing new. It’s the same 88-minute cut previously released by Anchor Bay, extras included. There is an extended edition with 11 more minutes floating around out there as well, but with a price in excess of $100 for a used copy, most of us will probably have to be satisfied with what we can get here. According to Ingrid Pitt in the “Enigma” featurette, we’re not missing all that much anyway aside from a bit of additional exposition, a couple of reshuffled scenes, more folk singing, and some seriously sensuous snails; but it still would be nice to make that determination for ourselves … if anyone at Anchor Bay is listening.
The film opens with a sweeping panorama of the Scottish coast and countryside as seen from a small seaplane piloted by a lone man. Once he lands, we learn that he is a police officer from the mainland, Sergeant Howie (Woodward), who is on a mission to locate a missing child following receipt of a letter from an anonymous someone on the remote, privately owned island of Summerisle. Right away it’s obvious that the residents don’t appreciate an outsider meddling in their affairs. Howie is stonewalled at every turn, but his character is such that he will not be deterred from his duty of saving a young girl in peril. He checks into the local inn, where he is subjected to a bawdy song and dance routine about the landlord’s lusty daughter, Willow (Ekland). It is here that the audience first gets a taste of what’s to come: a battle of wills between a pagan cult led by Lord Summerisle (the incomparable Christopher Lee) and the deeply religious Sergeant Howie, whose rigid, repressive Christian background has rendered him incapable of even slightly tolerating, much less accepting, the hedonistic lifestyle he encounters on the island. He is appalled by the sight of an outdoor orgy later that evening — a naked woman embracing a tombstone provides one of the film’s most vivid images — and manages to resist Willow’s attempt to entice him sexually through his bedroom wall via a seduction dance certain to fuel the arousal of adolescent boys the world over. Oh, Britt, we love the way you smack those walls and that ass (even if it does belong to a body double, as we learn in “Enigma”).
The next day brings even more shocks for Howie. He visits the community school, where the boys are winding a maypole and the girls are discussing its phallic implications. He passes around a photo of Rowan Morrison, the missing girl, but all the students disavow any knowledge of her. Spotting a vacant desk, he demands a look at the classroom roster and sees her name. The teacher, Miss Rose (Cilento), takes him outside and confesses that yes, Rowan was indeed one of her students, but she had “returned to life forces in another form,” as the group refers to the concept of death. He then visits the island’s cemetery, where he finds Rowan’s grave along with one of the more interesting epitaphs I’ve ever seen: Protected by the Ejaculation of Serpents. We’re also treated to yet another bizarre visual during the course of Howie’s investigation, a woman nursing an infant while holding an egg in the palm of her outstretched left arm. You’ve gotta love those wild and crazy pagans!
Howie’s search finally leads him to Lord Summerisle’s castle, which of course presents more opportunity for naked dancing and singing along with an explanation of the islanders’ customs and beliefs. They make their living off the land, worship the old Druid type gods rather than the singular Christian “God,” and believe their harvests are tied to the offerings they provide to the deities, particularly the God of the Sun and the Goddess of the Orchards. Howie is naturally outraged at this blasphemy, and the end result of the meeting is that he is granted permission to exhume Rowan’s body. To say much more about the plot beyond this point would be to spoil the fun of the reveal for anyone who hasn’t yet seen this classic film, but mention must be made of Woodward’s outstanding performance. He embodies the priggish, self-righteous zealot who could never begin to understand this brand of paganism and its foundations, even at the risk of humiliation and the loss of his own life.
It’s always a tricky proposition reviewing a much beloved film like The Wicker Man so many years after its initial release, especially one that came out during the free-wheeling, experimental late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Things that were considered outrageous and radical in their day can seem silly and almost quaint when viewed through current sensibilities. Take, for instance, the numerous musical numbers. They tended to carry me out of the moment and caused some snickering among the group I watched the DVD with, but fortunately they are concentrated in the first two thirds of the film, thereby leaving the suspense and dread of the final third mostly untainted. The Wicker Man definitely has that shot in the 70’s look to it, and yes, Lee’s latter scenes as a dolled-up cross between Marilyn Manson and Cher may be a bit over-the-top by today’s standards, but the fervor with which he threw himself into the role and his glowing praise for the film some 30+ years after the fact stand the test of time and help validate The Wicker Man‘s status as a horror classic. And what of that “horror” label? Is it accurate? I’d say unhesitatingly yes. Genre filmmakers of any generation would do well to even come close to replicating the cold-blooded actions of the islanders and the terror inflicted on Sergeant Howie. And let us not forget the faceless foreboding of the sinister titular character. If that’s not horror, I don’t know what is.
That sentiment is borne out in the “Enigma” featurette, in which screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, director Hardy, and Lee all use the “h” word when describing The Wicker Man, albeit a tad condescendingly when they explain their desire to create a more “intellectual” type horror film than what was the norm coming out of places like Hammer. But that’s a minor quibble when considering the body of work Shaffer and Lee in particular have contributed to the genre. “Enigma” contains a compilation of interviews with the three previously mentioned gentlemen, Edward Woodward, Ingrid Pitt, and producer Peter Snell as well as the film’s editor, art director, assistant director, and distributor. Roger Corman also appears to explain how he was initially slated to handle the U.S. distribution but lost out at the last minute due to a series of events relating to studio politics when British Lion was purchased by EMI. Adding to the film’s struggles was the unfortunate mishap of the negative being thrown away by someone at the Shepperton studio. By a stroke of luck it was discovered that Corman ended up with the only copy of the full-length film, and that is the basis for the “long version” that can be found floating around the Internet at the ridiculously inflated price noted above.
More choice tidbits to be gleaned from the interviews include the wealth of research into pagan rituals undertaken by Shaffer, the underlying theme of hunter as hunted, and a little gossip about the three leading ladies’ personalities with regard to how they behaved after filming some scenes hardly dressed for the chilly weather in which they found themselves. Rounding out the extras are the trailer, some TV and radio spots, and bios on the principal cast and crew members.
At its heart The Wicker Man is a timeless morality tale that delves into the nature of sacrifice and has never been more relevant than today, which is all the more reason to be disappointed in the lackluster Hollywood remake that recast Howie as a vanilla, non-religious man, thereby missing the opportunity for some truly pointed social commentary. But who needs a remake anyway when the original is readily available? If nothing else, it should serve as a potent reminder that blindly following any credo is likely to leave one ending up looking the fool and next in line for a date with The Wicker Man.
“The Wicker Man Enigma” featurette
3 1/2 out of 5