The Film

One of the pillars of the “folk horror” subgenre, The Wicker Man is an extraordinary film and needs little introduction to horror aficionados. The story follows Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. A devout, repressed Christian, Howie is shocked to be confronted with the pagan beliefs and rituals of the island inhabitants, led by the enigmatic aristocrat Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in one of his best roles). As he delves deeper into the mystery, Howie suspects that the girl will be sacrificed in an attempt to ensure the successful harvest of the island’s apple orchards. 

The genesis of The Wicker Man lay in a meeting between British playwright and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, Peter Snell, the managing director of British Lion, and Christopher Lee, and the desire expressed by all to make a picture together. The first attempt to write a film failed, with Shaffer unable to develop a screenplay based on a novel called Ritual, though music composer Paul Giovanni noted in an interview that the book was bad and mostly unrelated to what eventually became The Wicker Man. The project lurched back to life in 1972 when Shaffer and writer/director Robin Hardy hashed out the entire plot of the movie, based on an aspiration to move the horror genre away from the God/Devil axis of Christianity used in so many pictures of the time. 

Shaffer took the finished screenplay to Peter Snell, who presented it to the British Lion board, who agreed to produce it if the budget was kept low. Schaffer polished the screenplay and Robin Hardy signed on to direct his first theatrical film. Hardy had a background in documentary films for Canada’s National Film Board, and television work including shows for the Esso World Theatre and, notably, an anthology series called The Frozen Moment which examined rituals and ancient dances and dramas across the globe. 

As background for The Wicker Man, Hardy researched paganism in England for four months. To fit the narrative, as a setting Schaffer chose a Hebridean island that was warmed by the Gulf Stream and so was capable of growing warm climate crops. He called the island Summerisle, which incidentally is a real island that is north of the island where part of the film was shot. Like its fictional counterpart, the real world Summerisle at one time was known for growing apples. The island location was in reality composed of 25 locations that were mostly on the Scottish mainland, scattered across almost 200 miles. The use of real locations and authentic architecture give The Wicker Man a singular, tangible atmospheric texture. 

The pagan religion in The Wicker Man is a syncretism, a drawing together of various strands of actual pagan practice from Britain and Western Europe across various time frames. The frog absorbing the pain of a child’s sore throat, pregnant women touching the buds of a tree to make it fruitful, the burning fingers of the “Hand of God” as a sleeping spell, and the hare as a symbol of rebirth and the transmuted soul. These pagan beliefs and more are scattered throughout the film. The titular structure was first reported historically by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, when he wrote about the sacrifice of Roman prisoners of war. The pagan beliefs in The Wicker Man are essentially ages-old earth worship. “I have learned to love nature and to appease it, if necessary,” king and priest Lord Summerisle tells Howie. 

A much-studied film, The Wicker Man has been the subject of many treatises on its religious and mythical subtexts. There is precious little I can add to this, except to note that with this viewing I was struck by how the movie is commenting on how all religions are social constructs, designed for control – of nature and of people.  

Featuring one of the most famous twist endings in cinema, The Wicker Man is essential for anyone even remotely interested in genre movies, and is one of the most intelligent, fascinating, and complexly layered movies in all horror cinema. Thankfully, Imprint have delivered an edition worthy of the film’s reputation. 

A note on versions:

The first completed version of The Wicker Man ran about 102 minutes. Managing director of British Lion, Michael Deeley, didn’t like the movie and sent the 102-minute version to Roger Corman for his ideas on how to make it more appealing to the American market. Based on Corman’s report, Deeley cut the film to about 87 minutes. Among other deletions, this shorter cut removed establishing scenes from the mainland and the “Gently Johnny” sequence. This is the version released in the UK in 1973 as the second half of a double bill with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In 2013, StudioCanal restored the “Final Cut” version, based on a 92-minute print found in the Harvard Film Archive. Imprint’s release includes all three cuts. 

The Set

Imprint’s set includes the following discs:

  • Disc One: The Final Cut (93 mins.)
  • Disc Two: UK Theatrical Cut (88 mins.) and The Director’s Cut (101 mins.)
  • Disc Three: Bonus Disc
  • Disc Four: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD  

Discs one and two are in their own separate keepcases. Discs three and four are together in a third keepcase. The Final Cut and the UK Theatrical Cut are presented in high definition 1080p. The Director’s Cut is in high-definition with some additional footage in standard-definition. 

For this review I only screened the Final Cut in its entirety. The picture quality on this version is overall stellar, with a few brief drops in picture quality that stem from the source materials. Once you see the restoration comparison featurette on disc one, you can see that the original film materials for these sequences were in fairly horrible shape pre-restoration. Aside from these moments this is a crisp and satisfying transfer. 

The Extras

Imprint’s set shines in its compilation of new and old extras that give indispensable background and context to The Wicker Man

*Denotes a brand new extra.

Disc One: The Final Cut

  • Audio commentary by BFI film historians Vic Pratt and Will Fowler
  • Burnt Offering: The Cult of the Wicker Man (50 mins.) — Film critic Mark Kermode hosts this documentary that examines the legacy of The Wicker Man. Many of the original cast members are interviewed, including Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, and Ingrid Pitt, plus creators Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy. 
  • Worshipping The Wicker Man (23 mins.) — Features interviews with several filmmakers like James Watkins, Ben Wheatley, and Eli Roth about their admiration for the movie. 
  • The Music of The Wicker Man (16 mins.) — An interview with Gary Carpenter, the Associate Musical Director on the film, about how he got involved in the project and the process of recording the musical score. 
  • Interview with director Robin Hardy (17 mins.) — Hardy chats about his relationship with Shaffer, and the importance of the writer’s love of games (he wrote Sleuth) to the creation of The Wicker Man
  • Critic’s Choice 1979  interview with director Robin Hardy and actor Christopher Lee (25 mins.) — A vintage interview by Stirling Smith. The picture quality is horrible on this piece, but it’s a wonderful period discussion, with Lee at his erudite best. 
  • The Restoration Comparison (2 mins.) — A brief visual illustration of the film before and after it was restored. 
  • The Final Cut Trailer; Theatrical Trailer; and U.S. Theatrical Trailer

Disc Two: UK Theatrical Cut (HD) and The Director’s Cut (HD/SD)

  • Audio commentary by film critic/historian Kim Newman & author Sean Hogan on The Theatrical Cut

Disc Three: Bonus Disc 

  • The Director’s Cut in Standard Definition with optional audio commentary by actors Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and director Robin Hardy — Mark Kermode moderates this terrific, essential audio commentary. 
  • Making the Director’s Cut audio commentary (16 mins.) — Footage shot in London in 2001 of Lee, Hardy, Woodward, and Kermode recording the commentary. 
  • The Wicker Man Q&A (11 mins.) — A Q&A about the film with Robin Hardy from 2013. 
  • Folk musicians discuss The Wicker Man (2 mins.) —  A slight discussion with Stephen Cracknell from The Memory Band and Mike Lindsay from Tunng. 
  • Ex-S: The Wicker Man (30 mins.) — A documentary produced by the BBC in 1998, featuring Woodward, Lee, Hardy, Pitt, and more. 
  • The Wicker Man Enigma (34 mins.) — A 2001 documentary that also includes Anthony Shaffer and Peter Snell. 
  • Willow’s Song & The Liberation of Eve – The Wicker Man: Sexual Revolution, Counterculture, and Satanic Feminism* (23 mins.) — A fascinating and informative video essay by Kat Ellinger covering the occult and pagan contexts underlying The Wicker Man
  • Forged Folklore: The Fakery of The Wicker Man* (12 mins.) — A video essay by Dr. Adam Scovell. 
  • David Huckvale on the Music of the Wicker Man* (34 mins.) — Author Huckvale discusses Paul Giovanni’s score and how it suggests paganism and sinister colourings. 
  • David Huckvale on The Golden Bough* (15 mins.) — Huckvale talks about the religious symbolism of The Wicker Man
  • Robert Reed on The Wicker Man* (3 mins.) — UK composer and musician Reed talks briefly about the impact of the film’s music on his own work. 
  • The Willow Song (5 mins.) — Promo video for a cover of the Paul Giovanni song by Robert Reed featuring Angharad Brinn. A gorgeously sung version. 
  • TV Spot and Radio Spots. 

Bottom Line

Imprint’s Wicker Man set is a lavish and extraordinary presentation of a genre classic, and is an essential purchase for anyone interested in this landmark film.