Robin Hardy’s quintessential folk horror never looked finer
The Wicker Man kicks off with a simple mystery. It’s where the investigation leads that creates a truly lasting piece of cinema. A Scottish mainland police office, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), receives an anonymous note informing him of a missing girl named Rowan Morrison, on the nearby island of Summerisle. He journeys to the island, and finds the locals welcoming enough, but all claim to have no knowledge of any girl named Rowan. Howie, a devout Christian, is tested by the local embrace of Paganism, encountering open demonstrations of sexuality, nature worship, and other Pagan practices. He takes a stern and hostile approach to dealing with the island’s residents, notably the leader of the community, the eccentric Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) himself. His irritation rises as, at every turn, his investigation is met by denials, obstructions, contradictions and lies until he comes to the realization that the island’s harvests are failing and Rowan is likely not dead. Her disappearance might be tied to the upcoming May Day celebrations, and his time to find her might be running out.
Robin Hardy’s work is often held up as the quintessential example of folk horror, a distinct sub-genre, one superbly explored in Kier-La Janisse’s documentary on the subject, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. The Wicker Man succeeds as a horror film because it also brings in mystery/thriller elements. This is a detective at work after all. The film engages the audience and the clues are there as to where the plot is going. Why is there no fresh fruit or vegetables on an island known for its local produce? Why are there missing harvest photographs? It is also about a hunter becoming the hunted. In one scene, Officer Howie comes across a beetle tied to a nail, slowly winding itself closer to death. A perfect analogy for the film and a chilling portent for what is to come. It is a thoughtful film, not out and out horror, the real horror creeps in when you think about the journey and outcome of the protagonist. The machinations and manipulation on the part of the villagers being terrifying to comprehend.
The Wicker Man succeeds as a horror film because it also brings in mystery/thriller elements. This is a detective at work after all. The film engages the audience and the clues are there as to where the plot is going. Why is there no fresh fruit or vegetables on an island known for its local produce? Why are there missing harvest photographs? It is also about a hunter becoming the hunted. In one scene, Officer Howie comes across a beetle tied to a nail, slowly winding itself closer to death. A perfect analogy for the film and a chilling portent for what is to come. It is a thoughtful film, not out and out horror, the real horror creeps in when you think about the journey and outcome of the protagonist. The machinations and manipulation on the part of the villagers being terrifying to comprehend. The disturbing nature of the film creeps in through how Summerisle itself is a perversion. Not just in how its inhabitants turn their back on mainstream religion but also in its climate, being in an unusual, warmer gulf stream, allowing more tropical fruits to grow in defiance of geography. A Scottish Island peppered with palm trees is a strange thing indeed. Summerisle is familiar and yet unfamiliar, comforting but disconcerting, quaintly local but exotic. All these contradictions throw you off and leave you feeling uneasy throughout. There is a liberation in this community, not beholden to guilt or penance, the exact opposite of a devout follower of the Christian faith. It is this clash that drives the intrigue in the film forward. Our protagonist (and in a sense, hero) follows a strict moral code. He is chaste, pure and dedicated to his faith and profession. The reality is this is a Christian man blinded by his faith. That and his rigidity contribute to his downfall in the film. Howie’s adherence to his moral code and insistence on imposing it on others drives him to antagonize this foreign culture. He is a stickler for the rules, unbending and frankly dull, but elicits sympathy largely through the outstanding work of Edward Woodward. But also because you never forget that he is trying to find and rescue a lost child.
The choice of following a Pagan way of life it not inherently evil, nor is it obviously portrayed in that way during the film. It is only in the closing moments that the full terror of the islanders actions is unleashed and you are left with one of the most memorable final shots committed to film. At its core, The Wicker Man is a theological dissection. Religion, or perhaps more pertinently belief, being the motivation of all the characters. Howie is a devout Christian who deals in absolutes, blacks and whites, religious doctrine and the law. Be under no illusion that the film paints Christianity in a poor light. Though Paganism, while shown as a rebuke to that faith, is equally shown to illustrate the problems of blind faith in anything.
The Wicker Man release coincided with a time when folk music was at its peak in the UK, Paganism was fading more into obscurity and, as a Nation, people seemed to be clinging more strongly to religion in the face of massive cultural changes with the solidification of the European Union and the influxes that would bring. The culture clash resonates still, the film showing how the warring philosophies cannot coexist due to their lack of understanding and compatibility. Perhaps the closest comparative film in American culture is The Exorcist. Both deal with a crisis of faith, temptation and corruption, as well as the loss and abuse of a child. Granted there is no supernatural element at play here, but the journey and challenge to a man of God is a similar one.
The film itself is gorgeous. The verdant green of Scotland, beautiful aerial shots tinged with added cuts of orchards and crops. (Spliced footage from a trip of Hardy’s to South Africa). Various shots around the island have tropical plants added. It gives the film a vivid, dreamlike feel, but still has dark and twisted imagery in parts. Films such as Seven and A Field In England as well as TV shows like True Detective draw from the look and feel of the film. One of the more unusual things to draw inspiration from the film is a The League of Gentlemen, a darkly disturbing comedy that I also recommend. It may be easier to connect with the ambiance of the movie as a Brit: it’s common to visit a small village and feel like you’re being watched and seen as an outsider. The Wicker Man is probably the pinnacle of capturing this “not local” feeling. Compounding it all is the use of pagan/gospel and folk music. Some of the ditties are pretty catchy and haunting in their own right.
Edward Woodward (The Equalizer, Hot Fuzz) and Christopher Lee (its Christopher Lee, you know who that is) are critical to the film’s success. There is such conflict and resolve shown by Woodward in his portrayal of Howie and Lee just revels in his patriarchal role. Considering Lee has made over 250 pictures and considers The Wicker Man his best film, that must stand for something. Britt Ekland (weird dubbing and all) is the alluring landlord’s daughter and the personification of the temptations of the flesh sent to Howie’s door. Each villager and character only serves to greater add to the community you see and solidify the reality that this Island is out there somewhere off the coast of Scotland. Viewing the film now, it is perhaps easy to see a somewhat bizarre camp spectacle. Viewed in its original context it is an audacious and powerful work.
As with many cult classics, there are several versions of The Wicker Man floating around. It was cut down to B-picture length on initial release to run with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (another seminal British horror film) as well as to satisfy censors. Director Robin Hardy’s original print of the film was thought lost forever. However, in 1979, an original print was discovered in the possession of Roger Corman. This was used to reconstruct a Director’s Cut that was released on the film’s 30th Anniversary. These extra scenes flesh out the island and it’s characters and only add to the surreal nature of the film. Back in 2013 a “Final Cut” version approved by Hardy was released with extra footage (of varying quality) and a digital restoration. This version changes the introduction to the film, setting up the rigidity and dedication of Howie’s faith even more so, strengthening the perception of him as a “fool”, but perhaps crafting an even more sympathetic character in the process. This edition, coming from Lionsgate (via Studio Canal), is sourced from original, and second generation film stock, to give a 4K remastering of the Final Cut, in celebration of the film’s 50th Anniversary.
Overall, the result is very impressive. Detail is outstanding, showcasing the foliage, rural surrounds, and even the texture of fabrics (especially the May Day costumes and face masks). Colors are natural but robust, blacks are solid, and a good range of contrast support those vivid daytime scenes, as well as moments that unfold in the shadows of night. Some of the elements of the original final cut being clearly from a different quality stock still show through. In these moments the colors can drop slightly, along with a variance in grain, and a minor loss of resolution in some of these well-lit sequences. These poorer elements that add those additional scenes are a minimal part of the film and some of the sequences that stood out a lot in the original final cut, look a lot more aligned to the rest of the stock here. As an owner of the previous 3 releases of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, this is the best the film has ever looked.
This Lionsgate 4K-UHD release is a Best Buy exclusive, presented in a Steelbook featuring all new artwork from Richey Beckett. Also included are Blu-ray and digital copies of the film
- Revisiting the Locations of The Wicker Man: Exactly as it sounds. I have a trip to Scotland planned for next year and I will be stopping by
- The Wicker Man at 50: A featurette on the enduring popularity of the film
- Robin Hardy’s Script: The Lost Ending: Insights from Hardy’s family, using the original notes left behind, one some of the reasoning behind excised monologues form the film
- Britt Ekland Interview: Always a delight to hear from, the actress runs through some of her (familiar) memories from the shoot
- Behind-the-Scenes Gallery:
- Wicker Man Enigma: A short documentary (~30 min) about the efforts to get the project off the ground, the the problems in locking down distribution
- Burnt Offering: The Cult of The Wicker Man: British film critic Mark Kermode drives this documentary that dives into the film’s release, the various cuts for different markets, lasting legacy. It also includes interviews with key cast and crew members
- Interview with Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee (1979): A more substantive conversation, touching on the release of the film and social backdrop of the time. Also a highlight with Lee delving into some of th emany memories of his own career
4K & Blu-ray Features
- Worshipping The Wicker Man: A collection of interviews with a selection of film-makers and film aficionados, who recant how the film has influenced their own work, what they appreciate about the film, and some of their own personal interpretations of it
- The Music of The Wicker Man: One of the outstanding components of the film is the rhythmic score, that weaves together folk ballads and instrumental tracks. Here, the film’s musical director (Gary Carpenter) discusses aspects of its composition
- Interview with Robin Hardy (2013): Short, but effective in its coverage of the origins of the film and Hardy’s intent for the project
- Restoration Comparison: Legacy material, running under 2 minutes, that touches on the differing sources to put together the original ‘Final Cut’
The Bottom Line
The Wicker Man is a landmark of British cinema and the indisputable icon of folk horror. This new 4K transfer is a notable upgrade on previous releases, showcasing the beauty and brutality of the film, while a superb assortment of extras enhance appreciation for this cherished cult classic. If Lionsgate asks, “did I do it right?”, the answer is, “you did it beautifully!”
The Wicker Man, arrives on SteelBook 4K-Ultra HD on October 17th from Lionsgate, and is available via Best Buy.