Shadowvision: “THE WICKER MAN” (1973)Columns,Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
As this column has soldiered on throughout the year, I’ve turned my attention to more colorful titles for re-examination. After all, as great as it is to choose films that are suited for black-and-white, sometimes it’s a more fascinating venture to roll the dice. To that point, by removing color from a film so dependent on that element, the viewer has the opportunity to see the film in an entirely new light.
It’s this reason exactly why I’ve revisited THE WICKER MAN (1973), a festive cult classic so atmospherically reliant on its unique and surreal color palette, in black-and-white. After all, the subtle chills and the foreboding hints at its shocking end are often reliant on the various colorful flourishes in the art design. Most importantly, THE WICKER MAN has a very unique composition, crafted between the age of grandiose classics and quieter contemporary horror.
On the technical side of things, THE WICKER MAN is best approached with minor changes. Considering much of the film takes place outside or with incredibly soft lighting, there only needs to be small adjustments to the contrast. Likewise, your default brightness needs virtually no change, although standard definition televisions may need it increases slightly to compensate for the few night sequences.
As expected, the black-and-white version of THE WICKER MAN carries a much different experience. Visually, it feels much closer to its European horror brethren in black-and-white, as if it was a more jovial and less surreal version of Roman Polanski’s REPULSION. And in terms of the horror, THE WICKER MAN does feel a bit scarier, as the foreboding nature of Summerisle’s citizens is much more apparent, especially once your focus turns to their physical mannerisms as opposed to their vibrant garb.
While the difference is stark, that does not make it a better experience. THE WICKER MAN loses much from the monochrome presentation. Black-and-white rarely suits the tone, as the musical numbers and wordplay don’t quite carry the same peculiarity. The impressive art design feels less cohesive when robbed of color, instead coming across flat and unremarkable, which is frankly a shame. Above all, the cinematography from Harry Waxman is often far too bright to present any striking shadows, rendering much of the translation visually null.
Of course, those who know Waxman’s work knows the cinematographer had shot horror films in the past; perhaps it’s the nature of the film (which doesn’t reveal it’s explicit connection to the genre until the third act) that keeps the visuals so uncomplimentary to black-and-white. Yet this could also be attributed to first-time director Robin Hardy’s lack of technical experience, as the film visually consists of basic, static camerawork and several zoom shots mostly. And the score from Paul Giovanni is quite experimental in nature, which also doesn’t gel to the black-and-white experience.
If there’s any saving grace to THE WICKER MAN in black-and-white, it may be that it does somewhat enhance the performances. Edward Woodward seems as if he was ripped out of a ‘50s detective film, delivering his lines with stern confidence and self-righteousness. Alternately, Britt Ekland’s performance feels closer to a bubbly spin on the femme fatale, dropping clues and temptations all the way through to the frightening finale. And Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle feels closer to the zealots of classic horror, with his pagan rhetoric reflecting the jargon of past genre villains.
While there is an interesting new angle to THE WICKER MAN in black-and-white, it’s certainly too detrimental to the film to warrant a recommendation. THE WICKER MAN is too inherently tied to its art design and tone, much of which is lost or altered completely when viewed in monochrome.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: No.