Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
MovieWith dark endurance, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s cult classic The Wicker Man refuses to lie down and die. Its production a riot of mishap, misdirection and misunderstanding, the distinctly unusual and devoutly eccentric tale of a pious detective led to his sacrificial doom for the fruitful sake of a pagan people on a remote Scottish island, has justly become one of the most renowned cult classic films of all time. With personality clashes on location, chance and risk governing the shoot, gargantuan ineptitude on the part of bemused distributors and such ill-fortune awaiting its release that one could only assume that it was the subject of a curse, the film has weathered many a storm and gone on to attain the kudos and criticial acclaim of what is very possibly the best and cleverest, and most disturbing British horror film ever made.
Picture“Broad Beans in their natural state are not turquoise, are they?.”
“Some things in their natural state have the most vivid colours.”
There are three versions of the film presented in this package. They are not seamlessly branched.
By far the best looking of the three is the Final Cut, which is found on Disc 1 This transfer and that for the UK Theatrical Cut are both encoded in 1080p, and come via AVC, whilst the Director’s is MPEG-2 and very noticeably inferior. They all come, as you will no doubt appreciate, from very variable sources indeed.
Firstly, and crucially, the film still lurches about in quality from scene to scene. This is unavoidable, but those who had hoped for miracles from a hi-def restoration and transfer are going to be disappointed to find that the image remains so variable. The bad bits, which are numerous, are still bad – though I would say that they look marginally better than before, having finer contrast and slightly superior detail – but the good bits are now definitely more improved and can, at times, border on looking like the hi-def image you had hoped for. Where this is at its most obvious is in the close-ups, which I was frequently quite impressed with. Good character faces reveal texture and detail that has previously been masked. Woodward and Lee and Pitt, as well as the craggiest of the locals benefit the most. Eckland and Cilento can tend to look a little softer, hazier and more dream-like, but there are still times – in the pub for Willow, and in the school for Miss Rose – when even they gain more finite appeal. However, once everyone gets outside on the cliffs, things gain greater relief. Nothing spectacular, but an improvement, just the same. Signs above shops – May Morrison’s Post Office, for example – and the swinging sign for The Green Man, and the stone walls, window-frames and elements of the ruined churchyard and the interior of Summerisle’s castle are more faithfully resolved. Landscapes passing beneath the seaplane can change from shot to shot but, on the whole, look far better than ever before. Some exteriors gain from greater detail and definition, although some parts – the Maypole and the blossoming fields still lack any sort of proper integrity.
The transfer does come alive quite often. It offers better colours than we’ve seen before, with costumes, especially during the May Day procession, and the meadows, the grounds of Summerisle’s castle and the flags, armour and paintings that adorn its interior, standing out with greater saturation and more vibrancy. The flames of the torched Wicker Man are a touch deeper, the burning sunset a shade more burnished and the whole frame benefitting from tighter, more naturalistic contrast during these pivotal moments of intensity. The schooner that Howie boards in his search for Rowan has brighter paintwork and stands prouder from the sun-dappled water as it basks in the bay. The array of sweets in May Morrison’s shop looks very colourful indeed. Clothing, pennants and ribbons, plus that icky sliver of livid viscera on the grave now possess a bolder sheen. Skin-tones are also much improved, with the swarthier faces of the locals adding some variety to the paler complexions of some the Nordic stars. Lee and Woodward look very realistic and natural. There is a lot more to be seen of Woodward, and the dirt, scuffs and scrapes on his uniform. Detail is also greater in the hare that Howie flings across the room, and inside Rowan’s desk with its trapped bug going round in circles. The text and illustrations in the books that Howie reads on paganism are also very clearly and cleanly etched, as are the names in the school register, and the book jackets on the shelves behind.
Well, the incessantly variable nature of the material makes for contrast and black levels that are continually shifting about. Shadows can be either diluted or they can be thick and strong. The sequence in which Howie and Aubrey Morris’ gardener/gravedigger unearth the coffin boasts some fine, deep black shadows and contrast that allows their faces and eyes and clothes to shine convincingly through the murk. The chase through the cave is also more strongly depicted. But for every good shot of fine dark swathes, there will be one that is grey mottled and vaguely noisy, and there are copious instances of fluctuation gadding-about.
Many shots and entire scenes soften-up considerably and lose distinction, becoming poor even by VHS standards. Well, this is how it was always going to be, I’m afraid. The Restoration Comparison takes pains to show us how much better these elements look now, with huge scratches having been removed and contrast and brightness levels adjusted. Yes, they do look much better ... but they still don’t look very good. But this is part and parcel of The Wicker Man and, by and large, this offers up a distinct improvement.
I had no problems with edge enhancement, or banding. There was some slight noise and a little bit of aliasing. But, given the issues with the source material, I would still say that the benefits of this transfer far outweigh the deficits.
The Theatrical Cut is also AVC and from what I’ve seen of it – and I’ll be honest, I have little interest in this version of the film so I haven’t studied it much beyond sticking it on to make sure that it was there – it looks pretty much as detailed and as colourful as the Final Cut (in fact, the shots of the Maypole being crowned actually look clearer and sharper) … so there is no mistaking that both these versions trounce the Director’s Cut which is MPEG-2 and looks very poor in comparison. Sorry, but it does. It looks SD and pretty lousy even at that. As with the Final Cut, there are shots that suddenly vary in quality – colour, clarity and contrast – and this can be quite jarring if you don’t know the material well enough already. Personally, I had no major problems with any of this because I expected it … but I would still obviously have liked each version to look crisp and detailed and lovingly restored.
No matter how much people understand of the film's troubled history and the detective and restorative work undertaken to transfer it to Blu, there will be those who simply won't accept this sort of quality. But be that as it may .... The Wicker Man Final Cut gets a very respectable, but realistic 7 out of 10.
Sound“You’ll never love another … although she’s not the kind of girl to take home to your mother!”
The Final Cut carries a 2-channel LPCM mono track.
The sensational dialogue comes over well without any surging directionality or dynamism. You want to pay attention to the exchanges between Woodward and Lee. Both men have fantastic voices. Woodward spent many years doing rep in Scotland and his accent is very convincing. When he bursts into the Summerisle parlour and hurls the hare’s body on the rug – “I found that … in Rowan Morrison’s grave!” - you can clearly glean the stark animosity in his voice. In contrast, Lee’s noble voice fills the track with urbane vitality and charismatic warmth. And remember which one is the good guy and which one is the bad guy. Howie’s frantic appeals of “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” when he first sees the Wicker Man still have the power to shock with their sudden conviction. The animal wailing and his screaming from inside are equally horrible to hear … but this is cleverly contrasted with the islanders singing Summer Is A-Cumen In.
Effects such as the clubbing away of the “handlestick”, the forcing open of doors, the clattering of feet upon cobblestones and the eerie chop-chop of Oak in his hobby-horse work well. This latter element genuinely seems to get some movement and some distance to it, adding to our sense of jeopardy and mischief on behalf of poor Sgt. Howie as he is run ragged round the town. The sound of the seaplane is also decently layered into the mix, as is the use of the bullhorn and the voices of the islanders shouting across from the harbor. The axe cutting into the beer barrel and the sound of the surf surging up on to the rocks is pretty effective, even if hardly sweeping across the front-stage towards you with any power.
The music is also very well conveyed. Paul Giovanni liked to be close-miked, so we hear the fingers on the fret board, the squeaking of strings, the natural thumping of the wood and the organic sound of the bassoon etc. Some may find this amateurish, but this is his chosen style and it works brilliantly at placing you within the environment. Willow’s Song and dance routine is a little variable. The gentle thumping of the wall is, indeed, gentle … but when things, ahem, hot up, the intensity certainly gains vigour and audible substance. Hubbub in The Green Man is quite well presented, as is the babbling of the school-kids who come rushing back into class and run between Sgt. Howie and Miss Rose, and the crowd's bantering as they prepare for the procession.
Overall, this is as good as you could expect The Wicker Man to sound. It was never going to set to world ablaze, if you’ll pardon the pun, and its audio mix, as audacious as the soundtrack actually is, is still quite low-key and genteel. But it still weaves that haunting spell, all right.
All three versions carry LPCM 2.0 mono audio tracks.
ExtrasI am reviewing the PR discs, of which only two have been supplied. I can, however, discuss the soundtrack CD because I already have it, myself.
The Blu-ray release contains 3 discs. Disc 1 has the Final Cut and various special features. Disc 2 has the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut, plus the commentary.
Several new features adorn this lavish package.
Burnt Offering: The Cult of The Wicker Man is a tremendous 48-minute retrospective documentary that brings in the makers of the film – director Robin Hardy, writer Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, author David Pinner who penned the novel Ritual which was the rough inspiration for the film, art director Seamus Flannery, actors Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Eckland, critic and writer Mark Kermode and some historical professor. This is fabulous stuff that, like me, you may wish went on for much longer. There is a lot of ground covered, from the basis of the original story and concept and its foundation in Pagan rites and the historical accounts of the Wicker Men seen by Julius Caesar, to the inclement weather and the ongoing controversies regarding Eckland’s body and voice doubling. Contributors are frank and honest about the problems they encountered and people like Lee and Woodward are unflagging in their praise for the film and their anger over how it was treated. As with every account of the making of the film – Allan Brown’s book and the treatise on the film and its music that accompanies the soundtrack, and virtually every written article, review and documentary that I have ever come across – there are many varied versions of events. Memories are clouded in some cases. Memories are harder, sharper and more acidic in others. Opinions are divided more than they are in-cahoots. And it is this colourful riot of reminiscence, admiration, vitriol, scorn and bloodymindedness that makes any discussion of how it all came together, and then came adrift, and then came together again so absolutely riveting and educational and downright entertaining.
All films have their ups and downs, their supporters and their dissenters in the ranks. But none more so than The Wicker Man.
The Commentary Track flows over the top of the Director’s Cut version of the film, and has been heard before. It is, of course, a gem.
Mark Kermode valiantly attempts to unravel the various cuts and the reasons, as far as they can be ascertained, as to how and why they came about, but when he has the learned, enthusiastic and considerably erudite and talkative trio of Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy to contend with, he has his work cut out for him and ends-up left in the lurch for a lot of the time. Much of this material is discussed in the big documentary over on the other disc, but this is still one of those chat-tracks that is nigh-on essential. Whether you are as a devout a fan of the film as I am, or merely have a casual interest in the background to one of the greatest cult movies of all time, this is endlessly fascinating. The group cover a huge array of topics, every aspect of the making of the film, and they also manage to stay on-track with the ongoing narrative and remain pretty scene-specific. Anecdotes aplenty, trivia on a level that goes beyond the call of duty, detail and minutia to be savoured and devoured. With this group talking about this particular film there is absolutely no way that the commentary couldn’t be of the highest possible caliber. Endlessly repeatable and magnificent.
A curious addition to this disc is a fifteen-minute video snippet of this commentary being made. It takes the form of the first quarter of an hour, rather than a compendium of highlights and, to be honest … I don’t get the point of it. Either do the whole thing this way, or give us a potted selection of interesting moments from across the board. It is great to see these people, of course, but I would have preferred the option of sitting and simply watching them on-camera discussing the film for the entire duration.
We have also got a 16-minute Interview with Robin Hardy that attempts to provide some background context for the story and he goes into the casting of the film and, naturally, the controversies surrounding the Willow’s Song routine.
Very interesting is the featurette The Music of The Wicker Man. This lasts for 16 minutes and allows associate musical director Gary Carpenter to recite how the late Paul Giovanni set about constructing the amazing score and the songs for the film. The feature also delves into how the score was butchered and lost and then subsequently rose, phoenix-like from its own ashes to gain a fabulous and complete release in the digital realm, courtesy of the detective work of Jonny Trunk and David Fanshawe.
Various filmmakers, such as Eli Roth, Ben Wheatley, James Watkins and critic Larushka Ivan-Zadeh air their opinions on this classic and its influential nature in Worshipping The Wicker Man, which runs for 22 minutes.
Less interesting, though still worth a look is an Interview with Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy from 1979 when the pair travelled around the States actively promoting the film. The interviewer is certainly a fan of the film so this doesn’t come across as embarrassing or sycophantic, but its vintage nature and style is somewhat cloying.
In the Restoration Comparison, we get a montage of footage from various points in the film that have been cleaned-up and had some terrible damage repaired. You might think that many of these scenes in question still look pretty ropy even in the finished transfer, but I can assure you that they once looked far worse. This feature only last a few moments.
There are also a couple of Theatrical Trailers for the film, including one for this restored Final Cut.
A fantastic addition to this overall package is the inclusion of the film’s Original Soundtrack. Now, at the time of writing, I am assuming that this is the complete score that was triumphantly released back in 2002 as taken from the original masters. If it is, then this is a very definite treat and a half. The quality is excellent and the packaging sublime. The songs are classics of folk oddity, bawdy carousing and supreme sensual overload.
This is a great overall package, though I would still highly recommend getting hold of a copy of Allan Brown’s awesome book Inside The Wicker Man – How Not To Make A Cult Classic.
VerdictAbsolutely essential, The Wicker Man is, without any doubt at all, one of the greatest British films ever made. The legendary status it still carries, the controversies it still courts, the haunting imagery and super-shock climax that ensure its classic endurance as a bonafide masterpiece of the macabre, and the endlessly fascinating detail that provide a richness and a texture that only grows with each viewing provide it with a stature and a gravitas that simply cannot be repeated.
The music. The performances. The culture-clash of Christianity and Paganism. The ferocious battle of wills that Sgt. Howie engages in, and the fiendish game that the entirety of Summerisle plays with him. The stark beauty of the photography. The rampant glory of Britt Eckland’s teasing dance. All of this, and much, much more make The Wicker Man a ceaselessly rewarding treat. Christopher Lee gives everything to his greatest role. The host of locals add incredible colour and realism. Paul Giovanni’s indelible songs hark back to a race memory that makes us feel as intimately connected as much as they make us squirm. The oddness and the queer and queasy unsettling atmosphere becomes both cloying and strangely comforting, our familiarity with it making us sort of accomplices in the sacrificial deed. Sgt. Howie, as much as we, ourselves, find him difficult to deal with, is one of the supreme heroes of the genre. Inspirational. Unstoppable. And, ultimately, a martyr.
It has been a long time coming to Blu, but Robin Hardy’s seminal film now gains what has been optimistically entitled its Final Cut. With a host of excellent supplements, as well two other incarnations of the film, this package is pretty much all a fan could wish for. We know there’s more footage out there, but this is The Wicker Man as we know, fear and adore it. The video quality is variable throughout, but you knew this going in … and there is no denying that this is the best that it has appeared so far.
Britt’s ever-sensual dance; Christopher Lee leading a pagan procession in a long black wig; Ingrid Pitt languishing in a bathtub; a flame-fingered “handlestick”; a hobby-horse playing cat-and-mouse with a bewildered copper; and Edward Woodward’s shrieking reaction to meeting the Wicker Man – these are immortal images and themes from the best that British Horror Cinema has ever had to offer.
The Rolls Royce of cult classics.
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