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The Wicker Man

review by Anthony D.


Studio: Anchor Bay

Running Time: 88 minutes

Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Eckland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento

Written by Anthony Shaffer

Directed by Robin Hardy

Retail Price: $19.95

Features: Documentary, Talent Bios, Radio Spots, TV Spot, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, English Dolby Surround, English Closed Captions, Chapter Search

"The time has come to keep your appointment with the wicker man."


Has Christopher Lee ever spoken a more chilling line in his vast career?

"The Wicker Man," who is he? What is he? Is he Lord Summerisle, who presides with an ancient religion over a small Scottish Village? Or, is he the virginal Police Sergeant Howie, who has been mysteriously summoned to this strange Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young schoolgirl? As written by the brilliant Anthony Shaffer ("Sleuth," "Death on the Nile") the identity of the title's creature is a well-kept secret until the very final frames of this extraordinary film, hailed by Cinefantastique magazine as "The 'Citizen Kane' of horror films."

Sergeant Howie receives an anonymous letter asking him to pursue a missing person's case on the island community of Summerisle. It would seem that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has disappeared without a trace. When Howie arrives at Summerisle, a town not unlike Bodega Bay in Hitchcock's "The Birds," the mystery takes an astonishing turn as not a single villager will admit to ever knowing Rowan Morrison; not even her own mother, Mae! Mae is the postmistress, and general store manager, whose daughter also denies the existence of having a sister named Rowan, however, the watercolor painting she is working on is of a March hare named, "Rowan."

But stranger events await Sergeant Howie when he checks into "The Green Man Inn," populated by an irregular crowd of regulars who can sing a salty chanty about "The Landlord's Daughter," as readily as downing a pint of ale. Here, the landlord's daughter is the sultry and sexy, Willow, who offers up canned goods for dinner, despite the fact that Summerisle is well-known for its fabulous fresh fruits and vegetables.

Willow also welcomes the charms of naive young men, as that evening progresses, and a sinister man appears outside of her window. This, we will come to learn, is the one and only Lord Summerisle, who has with him a young man ripe for Willow's brand of bedding. As a ribald song is sung by the tavern's denizens, Willow takes the boy on the journey to manhood, while Lord S. quotes poetry to a pair of snails. Admittedly, it is a scene that is not only creepy, but could be risible in the hands of a lesser actor than Christopher Lee, and this is the moment when I knew that "The Wicker Man" was a special film the first time I encountered it, many years ago. This strange, haunting scene with the bawdy ballad, combined with the lifeforce of Lee and all that had transpired up until that point, tells the viewer that "The Wicker Man" is not going to be a traditional horror film.

Sergeant Howie's investigation continues through the May Day rituals in all their rustic pagan glory. A visit to the schoolhouse finds the youngsters engaged in learning the phallic symbolism associated with May Day and all its fertility rituals. The pious Christian is distressed by the schoolmarm's undiluted, not to mention, unconventional lesson plans. The schoolmistress, as well as her young charges, insist that Rowan Morrison never existed, nor had she ever been a student in the classroom. An empty desk, turn up nothing but a beetle; sadistically tied up to a nail. Upon seeing the teacher's ledger of students, Howie surprisingly finds the name of Rowan Morrison. Found out, the teacher confesses that Rowan has passed on. She is not dead, according to the religion of the island, but Howie believes that her grave might indeed hold the answers to the mysteries he has encountered so far, but to exhume the body, Howie must first receive the permission of Lord Summerisle himself.

At a lush, verdant estate (hardly the type of castle one would expect to find on the Scottish Coast), Lord Summerisle warmly welcomes Sergeant Howie, although the latter is aghast but that the schoolmarm is on the grounds teaching "parthenogenesis" to nubile naked maidens. (Parthenogenesis is of course the pagan ritual which has its Christian counterpart in Immaculate Conception). Like the schoolmistress, the lord is hospitable but distant. He graciously consents to Howie's request to exhume the grave of Rowan Morrison, not a consecrated site, since that church has not been use for Christian purposes for many, many years. Within the grave, Howie makes a startling discovery: the body of a March hare! It would seem that Rowan Morrison is not dead after all. Howie's discovery is brushed off by the lord, who chides him with a warning that he'd best be leaving the island, so as not to be offended by the pagan rituals which will take place the next day, pagan rituals which will allow the crops of fruits and vegetables (all alien to Scottish territory) to grow and prosper.

Returning to The Green Man, Howie finds it difficult to sleep, as his neighbor Willow is singing a siren song, unlike us however, he is not able to see the seductive nude dance which accompanies her tune.

Early the next morning, Howie puts all the evidence he has unwittingly garnered together, and realizes that Rowan Morrison is being held prisoner somewhere on the island, and is to be sacrificed to the pagan gods at the end of the May Day festivities. Unable to leave the island, (his airplane has been tampered with), Howie takes action by knocking the festivities' Fool unconscious and assuming his masked identity. The parade is led through the streets of town by none other than Lord Summerisle in his hermaphroditic robes and wig. (Christopher Lee, by the way, does not make an attractive woman).

Upon reaching a cliffside, Rowan is discovered, as Howie suspected, chained outside of a cave. Valiantly, but ever too easily, Howie rescues the hapless maiden from her certain doom, only to realize that he has been bamboozled, once again.

In a fiery finale, unforgettable once seen, everyone finds their own answers to what they have been searching for: Lord Summerisle has his affirmation that the crops will be bountiful; Howie finds the answers to his prayers; as the sun sets on the dancing revelers.

What a film! I can hardly contain my absolute pleasure knowing that "The Wicker Man" has finally reached the digital format (in two distinct packages) for another generation to explore and discovery its mysteries as well as its mayhem. Strictly speaking, "The Wicker Man" is NOT a horror film, though horrible events take place, but owing to the contributions of Hammer Horror film regulars such as Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, has acquired a reputation for being a film which falls into the horror genre.

Let's focus now on the actual video presentation, which is pretty darned good, considering all that "The Wicker Man" has gone through. To reiterate the fact that "The Wicker Man" should not be thought of as merely another entry in the horror catalogue, director Robin Hardy begins by reversing the usual horror conceit of darkness versus light, for in "The Wicker Man," the darkness holds clues as well as answers, while the daylight is where the real "horrors" take place. Sergeant Howie finally puts all the pieces of the puzzle together in a darkened room, with only the aid of his flashlight. "The Wicker Man" looks very much like the 1973 film that it is: a little on the soft-focused side, with natural coloring throughout. As such, the detail which the DVD offers is very well done: fabric density, pastel flowers and nearly accurate fleshtones. Reds are definitely stable, and the greens are indeed quite lush, as Lord Summerisle's incredible estate is explored. The contrast level is right on the mark, and though the blacks are not always as deep as they could be, I really cannot fault the transfer.

As for the sound, I found some wondrous surprises within: for the first time, I could understand every single syllable of the nearly constant song score, "The Landlord's Daughter" is as bawdy and ribald song as you're likely to find in a Scottish pub. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 track is contained only on the Theatrical Version, and it is a quite an achievement, though never reference quality. This track does expand the music to a great advantage.

All of the Extra Features, including a valuable Easter Egg, are encoded onto the Theatrical Version. A truly nifty Theatrical Trailer leads off with the promise of telling a tale to chill the bone, over an electric guitar based score, the brief preview manages to hold the mystery of "The Wicker Man" back, concentrating entirely on the supposed missing person's case. The full frame TV Spot, in shoddy shape, benefits only from a sonorous voice promising a fable of the Ancient gods. Also included are four one-minute Radio Spots, as well as ten thirty second spots: these spots play up "The Wicker Man" as "the most controversial film of the decade." These are narrated by the same gentleman who narrated the TV Spot, but they also include thought-provoking dialogue from the film itself. The text Talent Bios are limited to Director Robin Hardy, Writer Anthony Shaffer, and Stars Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. As with the Bios on other Anchor Bay titles, these are very well-produced, and written bios.

Finally, in a public forum, I can share one of my all-time favorite films with a wider audience. I have consistently shared this movie with friends ever since I first obtained a videotape of it sometime ago. Like me, they were entranced by its beauty, riddled by its mystery and haunted, ultimately by its superior film making. A true cult film that manages to live up to its reputation, I am proud that I was one of the first in line to see "The Wicker Man" in theaters, and to now, be one of the first, though hopefully not the last, to heartily endorse the subsequent DVD release.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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