THE WICKER MAN is one of those films with a long history of distribution headaches. The film was severely edited on its initial U.K. release, and Warner Brothers in the States gave it a neglected, limited theatrical run in 1974. In the late 1970s, a small U.S. company re-released it in an expanded form, and this version later turned up on television (with the obvious cuts) and on home video. Previously released on DVD as a limited edition wood box set containing both the theatrical and "extended version" on two separate discs (Anchor Bay had also issued the theatrical version several times as a single disc), and then as a collector's edition to coincide with the failed recent Hollywood remake, THE WICKER MAN now arrives stateside on Blu-ray in “The Final Cut” incarnation.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward, BLOODSUCKERS) travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate an anonymous letter that he received. The letter claims that a young girl named Rowan Morrison from the island is missing, but when Howie arrives, the islanders deny knowledge of ever sending this letter, or even knowing the girl. Contrary to his stern Christianity, Howie encounters a community that is Pagan in philosophy, indulging in open sexuality, demoralizing folk songs, ritualistic dances, and other heathen beliefs (such as reincarnation and the worshipping of nature). Any signs of Christianity are now long forgotten and now decayed, and the somber Howie finds himself a complete outsider from the cheerful, yet peculiar islanders. Becoming increasingly repulsed by their outlandish behavior, it is clear that he is being lied to and he suspects that the girl is being held prisoner somewhere on the island. Soon, his meddling gets him tangled up in the island's yearly Mayday celebration where he hopes to get to the bottom of things.
A lot has been said about THE WICKER MAN over the years, and it simply remains one of the best horror films (and best British films) ever made. Anthony Shaffer's (FRENZY) screenplay is simple yet unique and literate in every way, dealing with clashing religions in methods never before explored on the big screen. Filmed entirely on beautiful Scottish locales, the images that the film exhibits linger in the viewer's head, and the jarring ending is utterly disturbing and unmatched. American composer Paul Giovanni's folk songs (performed by himself and various cast members) are definitely an integral ingredient to the story and doesn't turn it into a "horror musical," but rather an agreeable medium given the lifestyle that these islanders lead.
Edward Woodward (who later found stateside success as the star of the 1980s CBS series, "The Equalizer") is magnificent in the demanding role of Sergeant Howie. Loyally Christian to the most extreme (he's awaiting his wedding day to make love), Howie contradicts the islanders in every way, making for a tense conflict of cultures and beliefs, and it's hard to picture anybody but Woodward in the role. Christopher Lee is superb as Lord Summerisle, responsible for orchestrating the island and its practices. The people of Summerisle are charming and robust on the outside, but quite mysterious (and possibly mad) in reality. Lee still considers this the best film that he's ever been involved with and he's probably right. The cast is rounded out by great character actors (Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Aubrey Morris, etc.) as the eccentric inhabitants of the island.
Lionsgate presents the 94-minute “Final Cut” of THE WICKER MAN on Blu-ray in 1080p High Definition, preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film has never looked better, with the film elements being cleaned up a great deal resulting in no visible blemishes. The detail is outstanding and colors are luxurious; any grain on hand looks natural and contrasts are also excellent. Some restored scenes have been inserted from a Harvard Film Archive 35mm print and these scenes are visibly inferior; much softer and grainier than the rest of the transfer, with painfully muted colors (though a lot of work was obviously done on the print source to make it at least presentable). The audio is in an English DTS-HD Master Audio mono track which is excellent, rendering both dialogue and music extremely clear. Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH and Spanish.
As far as content is concerned, the Final Cut is similar to the British theatrical version in that it excises the opening scenes centered on the characterization of Sergeant Howie before he leaves for the island, as well as some bits of business during the running time (found in the extended version). This Final Cut runs about six minutes longer than the British theatrical version (with scenes not in the extended version; I know it’s confusing) also restoring key scenes including Lord Summerisle escorting a teenage boy to be initiated into manhood at the hands of the landlord's beautiful daughter Willow (Ekland), Lord Summerisle reading poetry below Willow’s window and a scene where Willow greets Howie in his room the next morning (after doing a nude temptation dance in the opposite room) where he confesses his “no sex before marriage” policy. Those who want the extended and British theatrical versions in addition to the Final Cut should hang on to the 2006 Anchor Bay two-DVD version (now out of print), or if you have Region B playback capabilities, get the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray released last year by StudioCanal in the UK (though their presentation of the extended cut is still in standard definition).
Sadly but not surprisingly, Lionsgate’s Blu-ray doesn’t port over any of the great extras from the previous Anchor Bay DVD (the UK StudioCanal Blu-ray does) including the audio commentary (with Hardy, Lee and Woodward, the latter who has since passed away), the 35-minute making-of documentary, and a local American TV appearance by Hardy and Lee promoting the film on a talk show in 1979. We do get three new HD featurettes, all originally produced for the UK Blu-ray. “Worshiping the Wicker Man” (23:36) has modern directors James Watkins (THE WOMAN IN BLACK), Ben Wheatley, Eli Roth, film critic Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, film editor Chris Tilly and music and film critic Frances Morgan. The participants discuss their views on the film, their favorite scenes and how THE WICKER MAN has had an effect on them. “The Music of The Wicker Man” (16:02) has Gary Carpenter (the film’s associate musical director) revealing that due to the film’s low budget, they used students as musicians record the soundtrack, and that those same musicians appear in the film playing their appropriate instruments on screen. Jonny Trunk (founder of the independent label Trunk Records) discusses releasing the soundtrack on LP in the 1990s, and subsequently issuing it on CD. The “Interview with Robin Hardy” has the director discussing the genesis of the film, the theme of “the game” within the plot, the cast, Ekland’s nude dance and the longevity of the film. A trailer (a newly created one for the recent theatrical re-release), a restoration comparison and trailers for other Lionsgate titles round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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