| The Wicker Man


Neil Labute

USA, 2006


Review by Megan Weireter

Posted on 24 October 2011

Source Warner Home Video DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror VIII

As a huge fan of Robin Hardy’s original 1973 film, I was determined to never, ever pollute my eyes with Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. I don’t usually have such a kneejerk reaction to remakes before they’re released, but, come on—this was The Wicker Man, the great hypnotic, strange classic of British horror, and how it could possibly benefit from the studio treatment was beyond me. But I was underestimating the power of Nicholas Cage and the internet. After having watched that scene with Cage and the bees 50 times - you know the scene, and if you don’t, just search for “Nicholas Cage bees” on YouTube right now - my insatiable thirst for camp got the better of me. I was going to have to watch this thing, even if I went into it with no expectations other than maybe laughing a little. So, holding my nose, I finally dove in.

To be clear, I’m not completely opposed to remakes of films. If a director has a new, interesting take on an existing work of art, there’s no reason not to explore it. To demand relentless originality from all our art is unreasonable anyway, especially considering the way that art can beget art. For instance, Anthony Shaffer loosely based his screenplay for the original Wicker Man on a novel by David Pinner called Ritual—a thriller that would most likely be all but forgotten if not for the film it inspired. Even though almost the entirety of the novel’s plot was thrown out from the final version of the script, its premise of a small pagan enclave clashing with an authority figure from the dominant Christian culture was enough to move Shaffer to write the screenplay for one of my favorite horror movies ever.

LaBute loosely based his screenplay of his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man on, presumably, Shaffer’s original. But inspiration failed him. Oh, sure, the barest bones of the story are here—after receiving a mysterious letter, a police officer travels to an obscure island to search of a missing little girl, only to be greeted by uncooperative islanders who also happen to be pagans. Rather than dig out a kernel of significance from these trappings, though, LaBute sees only the surface plot details and pretty much deletes the meat of the story, which is that clash between Christianity and paganism. Instead, he turns The Wicker Man into an icky misogynist fable. And not only does he more or less replace the issue of faith with the issue of gender, he removes the ambiguity that made the original film so provocative in favor of a fight between the good guy and all the bad, bad women. The film realizes my worst fears: it’s a textbook case of dumbing it down.

The problems begin in the opening scenes, in which police officer Edward Malus is handing out speeding tickets on the California freeways when he suddenly witnesses a bizarre explosive accident, resulting in the deaths of a mother and her young daughter. From here until the end of the film, Malus’s frequent flashbacks and hallucinations of the accident stand in as substitutes for true characterization. Whereas the original film’s cop protagonist, Neil Howie, was consumed by his inborn righteous indignation, Malus is consumed by nothing other than these hallucinations. Malus isn’t unlikable as his predecessor is, but he’s too much of a generic Hollywood cop to be particularly likable either. He’s also not a Christian, or at least not a dogmatic Christian, and he’s obviously not a virgin either (I say “obviously” because almost anyone in the viewing audience is bound to be better at math than Malus himself is). The fact that this guy is upset by the accident is going to be practically the only thing we know about him for the entirety of the film.

In his vulnerable state of mind, Malus receives a letter from his ex-fiancée, who writes that she now has a daughter who has gone missing and needs his help to find her. The letter draws Malus to the small island of Summerisle, which, as in the original, is inhabited by pagans. What LaBute does from the outset that’s different, though, is downplay that paganism and instead focus on the fact that this Summerisle is a matriarchy from hell, in which the few men lurch in darkened corners while the women run the affairs of the island through the power of their bitchery. As soon as Malus arrives, the island’s women are immediately unfriendly and sinister—there’s no good-natured eccentricity or jolly music to detract from the obvious evil. Instead, I think there’s supposed to be tension building from the sheer nightmarishness of being a man surrounded by women deluded by power. Horrors! Especially considering that so many of the women have the nerve to be neither young nor attractive!

Which leads me to another element that LaBute chooses to excise from the original: sex. Anyone hoping for a re-creation of the original’s infamous scene with Brita Eklund is going to be deeply disappointed by the sexlessness of this film, and not just for the obvious reasons. The sexual frankness of the people of Summerisle in the original film seduces the audience along with the purity-obsessed protagonist. It makes them seem, oddly enough, more innocent, more amusing. The presence of sex in the original lends it a levity that’s crucial to the misdirection going on. Besides which, it’s just fun.

So by my count, what’s missing so far from this remake are the blowhard Christian moralist at the center, most of the pagan elements, the sex, and the ambiguity about the islanders’ intentions. And that’s not all: LaBute also cuts almost everything else to love about the original, including the dreamy pacing, the folksy soundtrack (which is also important to establish the islanders’ innocence from the outset), and the ominous whisper of a suggestion that the paganism might be ultimately meaningless anyway, at least in the eyes of the people in power.

What’s left? Well, LaBute adheres pretty closely to the plot of the original, but with all the meaning drained out of it, it just made me realize for the first time how little actually happens in either of these movies. In the original, I’d never even noticed it before, because everything there is fraught with so much meaning. But here, the first two-thirds were merely boring. And, of course, LaBute inserts all that gross anxiety about women in power, but that’s just annoying. Who will save us from this quagmire of a film?

The answer, of course, is Nicholas Cage. He is all that’s left: Cage has the unenviable task of single-handedly filling all the holes here with the power of himself. In the absence of anything else that’s very compelling, Cage actually becomes the movie. There’s no way on Earth that anyone would remember this film today if it weren’t for Cage’s performance as a boring guy whose only character trait of interest is that he’s prone to Nicholas Cage–esque breakdowns and temper tantrums; Edward Malus is so dull that his descent into Cage-dom, particularly in the final third, is a relief.

And here is where I must change my tune. All along, I’ve been unable to resist comparing the remake to the original. I don’t think anyone who loves the original film as much as I do would have been able help it, honestly. Every scene reminds me so painfully of how much better the earlier movie is. But watching Cage in action challenges me to take LaBute’s film on its own terms, and there’s something admirable about that. If the film is a failure on every other level, Cage is determined to make the most of the drivel that’s been written for him and go for broke just to keep us from being bored. His performance seems to say, “Oh, yes, you and I both know that this movie is deeply stupid. But gosh darn it, I am going to wear this bear suit and punch this young woman like my life depends on it, and hopefully that will cheer you up.” What can I say? It does.

Since the LaBute remake of The Wicker Man lacks all the complexity and nuance of the original, we’re forced to take it as a comedy if we are to make our way through at all. As just one example among many: When Neil Howie from the original film cries “Oh God! Oh my God!” as he finally understands his fate, it means something. He is literally calling upon God, the God whom he has trusted and prayed to so passionately the whole film, to save him—and in vain. Whatever preconceptions about religion viewers might bring to the film, there’s something stark and terrifying in this. But when Malus cries “Oh God! Not the bees!” in a similar scene in the remake, it doesn’t mean anything at all, other than that Malus is panicking, and doesn’t like bees. “I don’t believe in your gods!” screams Malus, but since he doesn’t believe in anything else either, it’s harder to care. That’s why it’s so crucial that there are all those silly CGI bees, and that this is Nicholas Cage, and not some other less committed actor, writhing so ridiculously in his agony. That’s why the karate kick he delivers to Leelee Sobieski is so important, and it’s why one can’t help but remember hysterical lines like “Step away from the bike!” Cage’s determination to save this movie or die trying is all that we have.

So while I can’t recommend actually watching LaBute’s The Wicker Man to anyone but true Cage completists, I can wholeheartedly recommend any and all YouTube videos that highlight Cage’s most over-the-top scenes. Trust me, the context doesn’t matter—go watch them now! And then, if you’d prefer a real scare, I’d recommend popping in a DVD of Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, just to clean out your brain.

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