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The Wicker Man

Famous as an English horror movie that only a lucky few have seen since its 1973 debut, The Wicker Man is less what you'd expect in a "horror movie" and more of a tightly wound mystery/suspense police procedural with some horrific components — chiefly the pagan-ritual set-piece that provides the film's title. Consider this likely the most haunting "mod gothic" clash of dogmatic fundamentalist faiths — inflexible Calvinism vs. pathologically skewed animism — you're likely to see.

Edward Woodward plays Police Sergeant Howie of the West Highland Constabulary. Self-righteously and gravely Christian, Howie arrives on a remote Scottish isle to investigate the reported disappearance of a young girl. Howie must solve the mystery, find the girl (or her body), and see to it that the culprits are brought to "conventional," meaning modern mainland, justice. But the expected clues to her fate fail to materialize. Indeed, as May Day's annual harvest ritual grows nearer, the locals seem bent on deliberately hindering his investigation. Howie becomes unsettled by the locals' ways, which include open sexuality, nature worship, magic rites, school children studying the "generative forces," and an ancient pagan religion touching every aspect of the island's otherwise modern society — all the way up to the its hereditary patriarch, the charismatic and genteel Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The deeper Howie delves into this culture and its people, and the more he investigates with relentless determination, the greater his abhorrence grows and tighter the figurative noose draws around the center of the mystery. "Do take a seat, Sergeant," Summerisle purrs to the policeman. "Shock is so much easier with the knees bent." The only people as shocked by the results of his investigation are those of us watching from the audience.

The Wicker Man's status is venerable even among "cult" films. This unnerving chiller rises above genre conventions to deliver its own kinds of cool dread and surprises. No surprise there — the screenplay was crafted by Anthony Shaffer, whose Sleuth had already proven him more than able to build a tight whodunit on clever twists and the cunning of malevolent gamesmanship. Robin Hardy's directing shows little flair, though it doesn't get in the way and you can pass it off as controlled finesse. His small budget and location shooting add to the unsettling authenticity of the goings-on. Also worth noting is Paul Giovanni's musical score, which bends English folk styles for disquieting effects.

Woodward is unforgettable as a police professional struggling to keep his ramrod composure even while fighting his own revulsion and repressed sexuality. Britt Eklund, as inviting as a fresh peach, takes a provocative turn as a landlord's sylphlike daughter willing to initiate Howie into her community's fleshier doctrines. Fans of Hammer films will recognize Ingrid Pitt in a small role. A significant part of The Wicker Man's mystique falls on the oddly bewigged head of Christopher Lee. You can't take your eyes off of him, and it's no wonder the villagers happily follow His Lordship. When Howie finally gets his answers — with no intervention from his Christian God despite his sincerest prayers — Lord Summerisle presides over the event like a genial vicar at an Easter Day picnic, though we're left pondering what's going to happen to him if the crops fail again next year.

Lee also produced The Wicker Man and maintained personal involvement with its distribution, an effort botched by a studio that didn't know what to do with such an aberration. Further marketing and distribution troubles arose with American distributors. Erroneously sold as "horror" to capitalize off Lee's presence, it befuddled genre fans who expected more of what they had grown used to, and delighted those few others who were able to cast aside expectations and conventions and see the work up there on the screen. Naturally, it died at the box office. Its legend has grown ever since and the British Film Institute has placed The Wicker Man on its list of the 100 best British movies.

(As for complaints that the film does not portray modern paganism in a faithful, non-stereotypical light, we duly acknowledge that you're right. But the other side doesn't come off too well either, you know.)

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The Wicker Man is now available from Anchor Bay in two DVD editions — the original 99-minute "director's cut" and the 88-minute version that hit American theaters during its initial run. Little substance is lost in the shorter version, though the longer cut does provide a fuller introduction to Howie's character and the ways of the islanders. Because the original print was mishandled, edited down, and even lost soon after it was completed — the footage added to the director's cut came from an adequate but obviously subpar videotape source — neither of these DVD versions is a definitive edition of the original film, but both are plenty good and they're the best we have until a full original master gets discovered in an attic somewhere. In any case, Anchor Bay gives us an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and a good print. Both versions include a few scenes taken from unusually grainy or dupey source masters, but otherwise the imagery is fine. The clear, clean audio choices are the original stereo mix (DD 2.0 surround) and an effective DD 5.1.

The extras feature a well-made featurette, The Wicker Man Enigma, with Lee, Woodward, Pitt, director Hardy, scenarist Shaffer, plus the producer, editor, art director, and others, including filmmaker Roger Corman. This 35-minute documentary probes the torturous history of the film's production and distribution, and explains why the original negative ended up buried forever in a new highway construction project. Promo materials include the theatrical trailer plus TV and radio spots.

There's also an Easter egg, a 25-minute New Orleans TV interview with Lee and Hardy discussing the film. It's a vintage static-camera, low-definition public cable affair, so it's pretty dry going, but it does give us Lee and Hardy at the time of The Wicker Man's original U.S. distribution. (The Region 2 version includes a terrific full-length audio commentary, recorded in late 2001, by Hardy, Lee, Woodward, and film scholar Mark Kermode.) Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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