The Wicker Man: Limited Edition Kindling Wood Box DVD Set Review

Written by Gustav Weil

DVD released by Anchor Bay Entertainment

Directed by Robin Hardy
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Runtime - Theatrical Version 88 Mins - Extended Version 99 Mins
Theatrical Version rated R - Extended Version not rated

Starring:
Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie
Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor
Diane Cilento as Miss Rose
Ingrid Pitt as the librarian

Note: This review is primarily for the extended version, but I’ll try to add notes along the way where there are major differences between the two versions.

The Plot:

Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) of the Scottish West Highland Constabulary (i.e., he’s a copper) receives an anonymous letter from a resident of Summerisle, an island made famous for it’s apple crops, pleading with him to come inspect the matter of a missing child. A photo of the young girl, Rowan Morrison, is included. Sergeant Howie true to form, being a staunch by-the-book law enforcement agent and devout Christian moralist, dutifully sets off on his own to look into the claim. Howie arrives at the Summerisle harbor by seaplane (he’s a pilot too!) to find that none of the locals hangin’ with the harbormaster recognize the girl or have heard of her. (Note; This is where the theatrical version begins, with Howie flying to Summerisle, fully omitting the pre-credit sequence. We know nothing of the anonymous letter until he asks the locals about it. Furthermore, there are scenes in the extended version that clearly display that Howie is a devout Christian moralist. Again, in the theatrical version, this revelation is to come later) Howie is persistent and gets a lead out of one of the men, but it turns out to be a goose chase. Getting frustrated, and realizing he’ll be staying the night, as his investigation is going nowhere, he hits the Green Man Inn to rent a room. He finds a raucous crowd at the pub and inquires here about the missing girl, of which nobody knows of. Howie is then introduced to the innkeeper’s daughter, Willow, a hot little babe (nubile Britt Ekland) whom everybody starts singing a bawdy song about. After Howie’s senses get a good dose of immoral revelry, he freaks and shuts everyone up, threatening that anyone who stands in his way will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Everyone shakes for about a millisecond, then goes back to drinkin’. Howie has words with the innkeeper, Alder MacGregor, and notices a collection of annual harvest festival photos prominently displayed on the pub wall and also that last year’s is missing. Each one displays that years harvest babe, surrounded by buckets of that year’s crop. Howie asks Alder about the missing picture, and Alder says it’s been damaged. Howie orders dinner, and Willow serves him. She also begins hitting on him. But, Howie, having a fiancée back home and being so moral, doesn’t give in to Willow’s wiles. Big dummy — this is Britt Ekland! Anyway, that night Howie witnesses more of the moral decay of the locals, both while on a stroll and from the window of his room, in the form of moonlight orgies, and drive-through window style booty calls serviced by none other than Willow herself, who just so happens to be in the room next to Howie’s. Sorry Howie, you missed your chance.

(Note; In the theatrical version, there is no booty call as there is here. Instead, Howie is seen saying his bedtime prayers, and is interrupted by Willow’s seductive lullaby routine {which comes later in the extended version, as you will see}. Also, during this bedside prayer we get a flashback sequence that culls from the scenes previously mentioned that establish Howie as a devout Christian, thus making up for most of the omitted scenes in the beginning of the film. Also, in a scene that is not in the extended version at all, we see Willow come into Howie’s room the next morning to drop off some clean sheets and Howie wakes. Here Willow confronts Howie about not taking her up on her invitation the night before for some complimentary nookie. Howie explains that he has a fiancée back home, and doesn’t believe in nookie before marriage. Thus it is now established in the theatrical version that Howie is a devout Christian moralist, and the omitted pre-credit sequence is fully made up for plot-wise.)

Howie makes it through the night by praying, and gets up the next day to resume his investigation that takes him to various places, first of which is the school. Here he witnesses a bunch of young boys dancing around a maypole and some freak vogueing like a loon and singin’ an extremely hoaky song about people growing from trees, or the other way around — I forget. No kidding — this has to be seen to be believed. Howie of course is not pleased by this metaphorical celebration of reproductive systems, but heads to the classroom without making a scene. Here he witnesses the teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), teaching a room full of young girls about the significance of phallic symbols, such as the maypole. Howie freaks and tells Miss Rose that the proper authorities will be hearing about her immoral class topic. He then inquires the class as to Rowan again, of whom no one seems to know about. He demands to see the school registry. Miss Rose refuses, saying he would have to first get approval for such access from the Lord Summerisle. Howie manhandles her a bit and grabs the registry. Howie sees that Rowan is indeed a classmate, and all the little girls are a bunch of liars. Big surprise - I mean come on, they’re little girls. In confidence, Miss Rose finally breaks down and tells Howie that Rowan is dead and buried in what used to be the church graveyard. Howie stomps off to investigate, encounters some odd folk and customs, and decides to check on the death certificate at the records office, as well as make a few other stops along the way. This only provides more confusion for our sergeant, as there are no records of Rowan’s death, and more headache too, as the prim records office librarian (Hammer Glamour Queen Ingrid Pitt), refused to let Howie see the records at first without Lord Summerisle’s approval. (Note; There is a scene in here that has Howie bumping into the doctor, and he has a short discussion about Rowan’s death, or it may come before the record office actually. Whichever way it is, this scene is fully omitted in the theatrical version.)

Howie then inquires with the pharmacist, Mr. Lennox, who is also the local photographer, about the missing picture at the pub. Mr. Lennox says that no one has brought it in for repair, nor does he save the negatives. After all this, Howie suspects foul play and decides it’s finally time to pay a visit to this Lord Summerisle.

On his way to Summerisle’s manor, Howie witnesses a fertility dance with several nekkid young nymphs jumping over a fire, singing about how that’s gonna make ‘em have babies. Hmmm… okay. Novel concept, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s nice to watch them dance around though. (Note; The sad thing about this scene is that they’re filmed with a filter that fuzzes up the image, like a Penthouse spread. But then, if it weren’t for this Bob Gucionne style filming, we’d clearly see that the girls aren’t really nekkid at all, and are wearing skin tone colored body suits. I know, spoilers are a bitch.) Howie makes it to the manor, and meets Lord Summerisle (the legendary Christopher Lee), who proceeds to tell Howie about the Parthenogenic culture and beliefs of the residents of Summerisle.

Howie recognizes this to be paganism. Lord Summerisle takes the accusation in stride, neither denying or admitting it, and proceeds to tell Howie of Summerisle’s history, originating with Lord Summerisle’s grandfather originally settling there to revolutionize crop production with his unconventional methods. Gramps apparently made good, as Summerisle apples are now known and sought after from far and wide. Howie doesn’t buy any of this pagan crap though, and tells Summerisle he’d like to exhume Rowan’s body, to which Summerisle consents, citing that Summerisle is a peaceful community, and surely no foul play has been committed.

ADVISORY:

At this point, the spoilers are going to get really bad, so if you haven’t watched the movie yet, and plan to, I would strongly advise you to skip down to the technical aspects and final thoughts without continuing here.

Howie goes to the graveyard to get the gravedigger (actor Aubrey Morris, Alex’s P.R. Deltoid in A Clockwork Orange) to assist him in digging up Rowan’s grave. Once the grave is dug up, they find only a gutted hare in the coffin. Outraged, Howie heads back to the manor to confront Lord Summerisle. He finds Summerisle entertaining Miss Rose, and they both act like Howie’s revelation isn’t any big deal. Howie gets tough with them, threatening to leave and get more police so as to make a proper, full investigation (oh yeah, somewhere along the way we learned that there was no phone service on the island, so he has to fly back to the mainland to get his backup). He also threatens to bring charges against them for obstructing justice. Lord Summerisle tires of Howie’s dramatics, finally loses his innocent, carefree demeanor, and gets grave. He tells Howie to do what he must, but that he may want to get an early start, as the following day’s Mayday festivities may be too offensive to his moral character.

Before turning in for the night, Howie stops off at the now closed pharmacy. He forces his way in and snoops around. After a while, he finds what he’s been looking for; the negative of the missing harvest photo, which Mr. Lennox denied existing. Howie makes a print from this (he’s a developer too!) and makes the discovery that Rowan was the harvest babe that year, and that the crops had failed. He now suspects that she is still alive, and they’re planning on sacrificing her to renew the success of the crops. He heads back to the inn to catch some Zs before making it for the mainland. There, poor Willow once again tries to get Howie’s attention. Willow (and Brit Ekland’s body double) gets nekkid and bumps and grinds her way through a sensuous song and dance, bangin’ on Howie’s door. Yeah baby! This creature of desire is so hot for Howie, but he’s just havin’ none of it. Poor Willow.

The next morning, Howie goes to the public library and brushes up on his pagan rituals as an elderly, fuddy librarian looks upon him with disdain. (Note; In the theatrical version the film cuts from Howie leaving the pharmacy to a morning sun, and then to the library scene. As noted before, the Willow scene here in the extended version has already been shown before in the theatrical version, so the filmmakers probably felt no need to show Howie hitting the sack again. I personally felt the cut did make for a slightly confusing time continuum though. From here on out, the rest of both versions are primarily the same.) He then makes for the seaplane, but finds that it won’t start up. Damn! Howie freaks again. He suspects sabotage and accuses the harbormaster of obstructing justice, to which the harbormaster of course emphatically denies. Howie goes nuts and starts searching house to house, top to bottom for Rowan, without so much as a warrant. On his search he comes across all sorts of mischievous pagans, including the stumbled upon sight of the librarian taking a soapy bath. Full on Ingrid Pitt nekkidness — yeeeaaaahhh! While Howie is doin’ all this, the locals are gearing up for their Mayday parade. Howie gets worn out turning over the village, and heads back to the inn for a nap. While there, Willow tries to poison Howie in his sleep, but he’s just playin’ possum and escapes the trap. While the MacGregors were plotting against him, Howie overheard them talking about the festival and that Alder was going as Punch (the classic privileged fool clown). Howie later sneaks up and clocks Alder over the head, sending him to Lala Land long enough for Howie to jump into the Punch outfit so he can infiltrate the proceedings incognito.

Howie ends up joining the processional and is not discovered as the interloper that he is. They all make it to the scenic cliffs on the shore after much pomp and circumstance, pagan style of course. There, Howie finally sees Rowan, in the flesh, all dolled up for sacrifice. Now the rescue is on! Howie rushes to Rowan, tells her he’s her savior (more or less) and makes off with her through a hollow in the cliffs that Rowan says she knows how to maneuver. The pagans are after them, but they’re making great time! They make it to the exit, to daylight, to freedom… but the jig is up. Awaiting them there is Lord Summerisle and his babes; the teacher, the records office librarian, and that bartender’s little slut daughter (Damn, I wanna be a pagan lord!). Rowan runs to Lord Summerisle, who showers Rowan with praise for a job well done, and Howie realizes something just ain’t right. Lord Summerisle and the girls proceed to tell Howie just how screwed he is, that he meets all the criteria for a good sacrifice, that he’s pure (a virgin), is kingly (a cop), and came to the sacrificial grounds of his own free will. Poor Howie — he learned how these qualities were so important for pagan sacrifices through his research at the library, but did he catch on?

Noooo… so now he’s a goner. That’ll teach him to think things through next time. Oh, but there won’t be a next time, because the pagans proceed to lead Howie to, come on, think… that’s right — the wicker man! (Note; The one thing I just don’t get about this movie is that the title itself is a spoiler! And the poster art is just as bad. A movie such as The Wicker Man relies so much on the element of surprise that it perplexes me to no end why they would use that title and poster art. Well, anyway, back to the movie…) The wicker man is a huge hollow construction of wicker in the form of a man, used to confine animals and humans for sacrifice by fire. Yay! Howie recognizes the wicker man’s use from his research and freaks out big. The pagans lead him to the wicker man and throw his butt in. As Howie starts spewing Christian rhetoric at the pagans, trying to get them to realize they shouldn’t burn him up, some happy go lucky revelers start lighting the wicker man. That sucker goes up like a tinderbox and the sheep start braying, the geese start honking, the pigs start snorting, and the Christian starts howling out a sermon which only falls on deaf ears. Realizing this, Howie begins appealing to God for salvation, taking solace in His promises amidst the swirling inferno of pagan madness as it consumes him.

Video:

The best source material to be found for the film so far has been the original 1" analog telecine master tape and, while serviceable, it shows. Colors are fairly saturated, but contrast is poor, as bright scenes have a washed out look and dark scenes render backgrounds and shadows indeterminable at times. Watching the Extended Version, you will notice several changes in the image, due to the editing in of the 11 minutes of additional scenes and the augmentation of scenes where the tape wasn't in good enough shape to use. The source used in these instances was film, and so the image doesn't match that of the tape, but while noticeable, I didn't find it too distracting. During the changes, you'll notice that these scenes become slightly "browned", as the print has taken on an unavoidable tint due to it's age and handling, and that edge definition is certainly softer. You will also notice some film stock artifacts, such as specks and fibers, but it wasn't so bad that it got in the way of my enjoying the film.

Audio:

The Dolby Digital mono was very serviceable, with dialogue and music being very clear, and background noise not very noticeable at all, which is very important here, as the film has many quiet mood-setting scenes. There were two instances that I did noticed where dialogue maxxed out and was annoyingly distorted, but again, that was two syllables out of a whole movie, so I won't go postal over it. The theatrical version sports a 5.1 DD Surround mix, which provides slightly more fullness to the soundtrack. This really doesn't affect the story so much, as dialogue isn't very affected, and ambient sound isn't very prevalent, but one area where it does clearly add more is during the numerous songs in the film. If you become a fan, or already are, of the music, you will more than likely be playing the theatrical disc regularly after you've seen the additional scenes a few times.

Extras:

Of course, the big advantage to the LE, other than the kindling wood, is the 11 minutes of additional scenes on the extended version. Actually, that's the only advantage it has over the standard release. On the theatrical version, both on the standard release and here on the LE, we get a featurette called "The Wicker Man Enigma". This features soundbites culled from interviews with stars Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, director Robin Hardy, producer Peter Snell, writer Anthony Shaffer, editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, art director Seamus Flannery, assistant director Jake Wright, U.S. distributor John Simon, and filmmaker Roger Corman. Now don't get me wrong, they did a great job here, and it's all very informative and insightful, but I do have a beef with the atrocious trend of these often shallow, often directionless featurettes. It's a testament to the skill of the editing staff who put this piece together that it held my attention for the 35-minute duration. While the production does endlessly go back and forth from personality to personality, it follows a fairly linear investigation/revelation of the events of filming and production, and doesn't wholly fall prey to that hasty, hurried feel so prevalent in such featurettes. I'd say it's definitely worth a watch, and is mandatory viewing for fans of the film. To round out the extras, we get some rather extensive and very informative talent bios, a theatrical trailer, a t.v. spot, and several radio spots, and both versions are presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 t.v.s. Sadly, there is no commentary on either version, but as the talent bios were so informative, I was not too disappointed with this fact.

Conclusion:

Personally, I think The Wicker Man is a great film, and I think Anchor Bay did a fine job of getting it to us on DVD. As for the movie itself, not everybody likes this film, and you may very well not either. It is an incredibly subtle movie, and many people find it quite boring. However, many people, such as myself, like the subtlety of and the mood set by the film. If you like atmospheric movies, that take their time to germinate rather than throwing everything at you at once, then I’d recommend The Wicker Man to you. Also, while not being a Hammer film, it does have two Hammer legends in Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, and also has an eerie, slow-burning feeling of distress that is prevalent in some of Hammer’s films, such as The Witches. I would certainly recommend The Wicker Man to fans of Hammer, but just don’t expect gothicism and fangs. Finally, the movie has several ‘70s-ish Scottish folk music numbers in it that are just downright outlandish at times. The music was a big part of this production, and it teeters on being a full on musical, but fortunately, the songs don’t seem out of place at all, and are pertinent to the story. As dated and foreign to me as the songs are, I actually enjoy some of them a lot, especially the opening credits song. It, combined with images of the boggy shoreline and landscape of Scotland, sets a great tone for the movie. Give it a whirl.

Grades:

Movie: Grade
Video: Grade
Audio: Grade
Features: Grade
Overall: 4 Star Rating

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