Some movies are classics to us personally because the effect they had on us at the time lingers year later. The 1973 film The Wicker Man is, for many, a classic by this definition. The majority of the film is goofy; it’s like we are traipsing along a path in the woods, merrily collecting flowers — until we step right in a bear trap.
The Wicker Man is now a remake starring Nicolas Cage. It has been carefully re-scripted and re-directed, by Neil Labute, of The Company of Men and The Shape of Things : he knows from horrific endings, and how men and women can sometimes victimize each other, and those must have been why the project appealed to him. But competence wasn’t what was needed: that would be the lurid and hallucinogenic, a sense that a director like Ken Russell or Terry Gilliam might have provided. The Brothers Grimm is looking better by comparison.
Cage plays Edward Malus, a cop investigating the disappearance of a little girl. He is seeking personal redemption; he failed to save a similarly-aged, red-sweatered, blonde-pigtailed girl from a car wreck. We are told that not only were the bodies from the crash never identified, they were never found. Were they ever there?
A private supply plane drops Malus off on the private island of Summersile, where the girl was last seen. He discovers a gaggle of women wearing handmade clothes, whose self-sufficient farming economy seems inexplicably based on honey and mead production. The commune claims never to have heard of the missing girl, Rowan; but evidence begins to mount that they are all lying through their teeth. The few men, always speechless, are caught lugging around a twitching, dripping, menacing bag of – well, something, anyway.
What worked so well in the original is that the villagers were weird, but benign: just a bunch of hippies dancing around a maypole and speaking in iambic pentameter. When the trap is sprung, we never saw it coming. But LaBute’s version labors to infuse everything with menace, so what eventually happens seems drearily inevitable.
The film’s second mistake was just plain stupid. The power of the original Wicker Man derived from the fact that the cop, played by Edward Woodward, was a Calvinist. The 2,000-year-old hostility between the female and the male, the pagan and the Christian, fomented a yeasty subtext; the ways of the islanders were a challenge to the faith of a rigid man, and the plot was not just a test of his detecting skills, but of his belief in Jesus Christ. The film was rife with sexual hysteria, and the pleasures of Britt Ekland dancing around naked. But if Cage’s character is interested in sleeping with the islanders, or is afraid to, he doesn’t show it. His speeches are about the law and "normal" society – not nearly as suggestive as Woodward’s increasingly desperate protestations. Woodward’s final, shouted line of dialogue in the original has multiple meanings, and has haunted the dreams of viewers for decades.
Neil LaBute knew The Wicker Man was in many ways sacred, but he never discovered that it was the sacred that made it so. And the stricture of a PG-13 rating pulls his fangs. The film is just another skeleton tossed on the remains of the glut of horror remakes we’ve been getting. In another five years, Hollywood is going to run through all the classic horror, and will have to start re-making the remakes.
The Wicker Man is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.