About a half-century ago, the incomparable Christopher Lee had grown somewhat tired of the Hammer horror roles that helped make his career. Lee sought something different for his next project and collaborated with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer on a story steeped in the old religion of the British Isles — one about which Lee was so passionate that he did it for free and even spent his own money on a promotional tour. That film was the eventual horror landmark The Wicker Man, which will turn 50 years old in 2023 and has received a new deluxe box set from Imprint — featuring three versions of the film packaged in a wonderful-looking box that is, without a doubt, the film’s definitive home-video edition.
Sgt. Neil Howie (a terrific Edward Woodward) is sent to investigate a missing girl in the remote British Isle of Summerisle, where Howie’s more traditional British beliefs clash with the pagan beliefs of Summerisle’s inhabitants. Christopher Lee stars as Lord Summerisle, the enigmatic head of the island who may or may not have ulterior motives in leading the pagan people in their worship of the old gods. As the plot progresses, Sgt Howie finds not only his faith, but his very concept of the world, in direct conflict with the islanders. The drama builds to a memorable ending that’s truly horrifying on an existential level, particularly when the truth behind Lord Summerisle’s motivations is revealed. Lee and his collaborators set out to make a more literate, thoughtful, horror film, and they succeeded.
I’m glad to have these new Imprint editions in my library. Watching as an adult in 2022, many of the creepy aspects of the film that would seem unnerving in 1973 are not threatening, and it is honestly hilarious to watch the uptight Sgt Howie berate the fairly innocuous and private citizens of Summerisle about how they are terrible heathens. But even these parts of the film offer fascinating commentary on Britain’s spirituality, rare for its time. What starts as silly, prudish judgment from Howie eventually starts to feel tragic — namely in the definitive horror moment that concludes Howie’s story. (Himself a fierce advocate of the film, Woodward has called it one of his favourites and said it has the best final shot of any film made; I’m hard-pressed to disagree.)
There are three high-definition cuts available in Imprint’s set: the Theatrical Version, the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut. The great thing about The Wicker Man is that it only clocks in around 90 minutes, anyway, so watching multiple cuts isn’t as time-consuming a task as, say, Blade Runner. The Final Cut here was discovered and restored in 2013, and is the best available version of director Robin Hardy’s film. There is also a positively embarrassing amount of audio commentaries from film critics and historians, two of them new to this release. Also included are five new bonus video features (as well as legacy features from previous releases), including video essays and interviews. To boot, the film’s soundtrack is included on disc as well. If the pagan gods delivered this edition, they’d probably convert a few more people.