Color, 1973, 98/88 mins. / Directed by Robin Hardy / Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Lindsay Kemp / Music by Paul Giovanni / Cinematography by Harry Waxman / Produced by Peter Snell / Written by Anthony Shaffer

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $19.98/$39.99) / Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1/2.0 Mono

Largely ignored in the final rush of Hammer horror films pouring out of England, The Wicker Man either confounded or impressed most first time viewers but became lost in a tangle of bad distribution, careless editing, and public indifference. Its reputation began to grow over the years until the film was finally regarded by many cultists as a classic, particularly after the full 102 minute cut surfaced in some theaters and on home video during the early 1980s. A horror film more in intention and theme than in execution, The Wicker Man is a haunting, thoughtful exploration of faith and humanity vs. nature, cased deceptively in an entertaining narrative which also functions perfectly on its own terms as grueling thriller.

Sergeant Howie (The Equalizer's Edward Woodward), a sternly conservative Christian policeman in Scotland, decides to visit the nearby island of Summerisle after receiving a mysterious note indicating the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison. Upon his arrival Howie is confounded by the locals' claims that Rowan never existed, though various clues at the schoolhouse and among the community lead him to suspect otherwise. The pagan community shocks his staunch sensibilities with such rituals as maypole dancing, naked fire god worship, and celebrations of animal reincarnation, while the local leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), proves to be an intelligent but uncooperative force to test his spirit indeed, while the innkeeper's comely daughter (Britt Ekland) offers a more sexual challenge. Howie comes to suspect that the missing girl may have suffered a not so pleasant fate, but his investigation takes him in a direction he could have never anticipated.

Best known for writing such tricky puzzles as Frenzy, Sleuth, and the underrated Absolution, Anthony Shaffer gets a rare possessory credit for this film, and indeed the dense narrative with a venomous sting fits in comfortably with his other work. Technical execution in other areas is excellent as well, however, from director Robin Hardy's confident pacing to the haunting score by Paul Giovanni, consisting of intentionally cloying folk music which becomes more lewd and sinister as the film progresses. Though a few of the performers like Lee and Ingrid Pitt are familiar faces from Hammer, the tone here is quite different -- indeed, it's unlike any other horror film, British or otherwise. The use of humor, eroticism, and animal imagery (most memorably frogs and snails) actually adds to the sense of unease, which is skillfully crafted in visual terms by using sunlight as a means to obstruct rather than illuminate.

Numerous accounts have already been written about the variant editions of The Wicker Man circulating over the years, so simply put, the Anchor Bay limited edition includes the theatrical 88 minute cut which most viewers first encountered and which was widely released as a budget title from Republic on VHS. Earlier videotape editions from Media and a more colorful, solid transfer from Magnum contained the restored 102 minute cut, which contains a more linear opening sequence establishing Howie's religious conviction (represented in the shorter cut through brief, jagged flashbacks). The 88 minute cut also reshuffles numerous scenes and eliminates others; the most damning alternations include the elimination of the song "Gently Johnny" and the placement of Ekland's legendary nude dance far too early in the film. Similar to their extended edition of Army of Darkness, Anchor Bay has edited together the crystal clear, vibrant theatrical transfer where available with the restored sequences from a one inch video master, though inexplicably it looks more ragged, washed out, and pixellated here than on the Magnum tape. An explanatory card at the beginning of the extended cut explains the situation, and the effort that went into presenting both versions for comparison is worthwhile even if it will probably leave some first time viewers a little confused. The theatrical cut (which is also available as a separate single disc release) boasts a reasonable 5.1 audio remix, though rear channel separation is negligible at best throughout most of the film. Music and sound effects are largely confined to the front speakers, while dialogue remains anchored in the center. The extended cut (which runs 98 minutes instead of 102 for some reason but appears to be complete) is presented in mono. Considering its video history, the shorter version will probably be more of a revelation for horror fans considering two out of three tape editions were already uncut; either way, the opportunity to compare them back to back is fascinating indeed.

The theatrical disc contains several extras, most notably "The Wicker Man Enigma," a solid half hour documentary containing interviews with such principals as Lee, Woodward, Pitt, Hardy, Shaffer, and many more. The story behind the film's various versions and what materials are precisely still in existence still isn't quite answered clearly, though most notably one is left to ponder what extra scenes could have been contained in that unseen, even longer original negative that turned into highway fodder. Other extras include the rapidly edited theatrical trailer (which succeeds in blowing the ending for the film, so approach with caution!), a TV spot, and a smattering of radio spots, as well as a nifty Easter egg, all accessible from the fiery animated menus. The limited edition of 50,000 copies (which is actually far more than the entire disc runs of most titles) is housed in a wooden case containing two postcards with separate chapter listing and poster reproductions, while the discs are housed in a two-disc jewel case which can be tricky to pry out of the plastic housing inside the box.

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