I think this is one of the 10 worst films I've ever seen," the new head of British Lion Films told actor Christopher Lee in 1973, in explaining why the studio was re-editing Lee's new film The Wicker Man and releasing it without advertising support. The statement was clearly an exaggeration, born out of the ego conflicts that typically follow an executive-level film-studio shakeup, but The Wicker Man nearly disappeared as a result, in spite of popular and critical acclaim. Nearly three decades later, a new DVD package restores most of the missing footage, shows how The Wicker Man was mismarketed as a horror film, and tracks the studio errors that nearly destroyed it altogether. Edward Woodward stars as a prim Scottish policeman who receives an anonymous letter about a missing girl, and travels to the small private island of Summerisle to investigate. Summerisle's inhabitants initially claim the child never existed, but Woodward's implacable prying gradually leads him to believe she was murdered in a pagan sacrificial ritual. The evidence of the islanders' ancient belief system are all around him; most of the film consists of him doggedly following a string of clues while bristling with righteous disgust over fertility rites, bawdy traditional songs and dances, and the urbane "heathen" proclamations of Summerisle's hereditary lord (Lee). Though sometimes considered a horror film because of its graphic and somewhat exploitative content (and doubtless because of Lee's presence), and at other times lauded as a cult classic because of its unforgettable ending, erotic imagery, and general unavailability to the public, The Wicker Man actually plays out as a fairly lighthearted mystery until the encroaching dread of Woodward's situation finally overwhelms the humor. First-time director Robin Hardy (The Fantasist) makes some predictable mistakes by peppering the film with odd angles, tight close-ups, sudden zooms, and repetitious music, but the efficient script (by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer), along with Lee and Woodward's almost comically iconic performances, keep the film moving smoothly past the rough spots. Much like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which was made by the same production company at the same time, and suffered some of the same distribution problems, The Wicker Man ultimately succeeds on the strength of its powerful imagery, its increasingly chilling tone, and its final, sudden shock. The DVD release comes in two flavors: the studio-cropped, theatrical-release single-disc version, and the two-DVD set, which includes an entire extra disc for the extended version. Though it's still missing some footage, the new cut puts the scenes back in their original order, adding 12 minutes of grainy but key footage restored from a single surviving print of Hardy's intended edit. Ironically (though not surprisingly), British Lion's efforts to bury The Wicker Man ultimately brought this minor but memorable film greater fame than the studio intended, though probably not more than it deserves.
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