DIRECTOR Robin Hardy WRITER Anthony Shaffer STARS Edward Woodward; Christopher Lee; Diane Cilento BLU-RAY 14 October
Robin Hardy’s quite brilliant film has undergone a strange transformation in its 40 years. Originally hacked, cut and shown as the B-feature on a double bill with Don’t Look Now (and what a night at the movies that must have been), it has developed from a largely forgotten and misunderstood movie to the justifiable cult classic it is today. Tinkered with, loved and restored over time, it is now presented here in a final cut by the director. This superb release fully chronicles the history, but regardless of its journey through the landscape of cinema one thing has always remained true: The Wicker Man is a troubling and terrifying work of art.
It shouldn’t really work. It doesn’t have the Grand Guignol of The Exorcist or the sexual violence of Straw Dogs, both released in the same year, and its plot, with God-fearing policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl and discovering a happy, pagan clan living there, is open to ridicule. It’s comedic in places, in others verging on camp. But the first ace is having a deep, intelligent script by noted playwright Anthony Shaffer, who creates a fine sense of mood and unease as Woodward delves deeper into the secrets of the island and its inhabitants. We start to realise that something is dreadfully wrong, but by the time we (and Howie) discover what it is, it’s way too late to back out.
Shaffer’s screenplay also pulls arguably career-best performances from Woodward as the straight-laced Howie and from Christopher Lee, who portrays the enigmatic Lord Summerisle with all the charm and style you’d expect. A key scene in which Summerisle rejoices in his hedonistic religion to deeply traditional Christian Howie is wonderfully played; Lee has often said this is the best film he ever made and it’s hard to argue, as he tests Howie’s faith and belief in his own sanity over and over again. And it’s Howie’s belief in the law, both spiritual and ethical, that is the key to the success of The Wicker Man. Temptation is placed before him: a naked Britt Ekland dancing and teasing him to fever pitch through a door reveals much about the young and virginal policeman, and the dismissive attitude to the missing child by the islanders pushes his patience and faith in his fellow man. Throughout, Hardy skilfully manipulates the audience, going from simple investigation to psychedelic paranoia, until the fate of Howie is finally revealed. And when it becomes clear the policeman has been brought to the island by design, the sinister Wicker Man is brought into play.
To a modern audience viewing for the first time, The Wicker Man may look dated (although it’s almost a documentary feel with the camerawork, which is now very much in vogue) but its power to shock and surprise is still intact and the themes of belief and honesty still ring true today. And while the film is certainly much more than its final climatic scene, it’s an ending that holds so much power that it’s difficult to recover from. The true horror of the film comes from Summerisle and his tribe’s attitude to death and murder, an act that must happen to appease the higher power which grants them their lifestyle, while Howie continues, even to his last breath, to rejoice in his own God. The sound of him succumbing to the smoke as he bellows “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is one not to be forgotten quickly. Truly, they do not make them like this any more.
This Blu-ray release from StudioCanal can be called definitive, and befits the legacy of the movie. Of most interest to existing fans will be Hardy’s ‘final’ cut, which restores 15 minutes of lost footage previously owned by exploitation master Roger Corman. While it fleshes out Woodward’s character a little more, it doesn’t really add anything wondrous to the proceedings, and in truth (particularly in one instance) ruins the subtlety of a reveal in the original cut. You’ll have no trouble spotting what’s new, the footage is taken from an old negative and isn’t as crisp, but it’s good to have it, and StudioCanal have provided the original UK theatrical cut if you prefer. Both look and sound wonderful in high-definition, and a third disc with Paul Giovanni’s complete score is a welcome addition. A long and extensive documentary presented by Mark Kermode gives you all the facts you need, and there are commentaries, interviews with all the key players, a look at the restoration, trailers, and much more, all beautifully presented. It’s not a cheap purchase, but if you need to debate why you should buy this then your love of cinema may be in question. Simply put, The Wicker Man is the best British horror film ever made.