Among horror film devotees, Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” (1973) is spoken of in tones of hushed reverence. The story of a policeman who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate a young girl’s disappearance, only to find an ancient fertility cult surviving there, it boasts an intelligent script by Anthony Schaffer (“Sleuth”) that turns many conventions of the genre on their head, and stars Edward Woodward–then a major British television star–and, in what many still consider his best performance, the legendary Christopher Lee, as the cult leader, Lord Summerisle. And like so many cult films, it suffered from the butchery of those who failed to comprehend its quality. The bewildered English production company, British Lion, cut it brutally before its original release and tossed it into circulation as the lower half of a double bill, and it was barely seen in the U.S. More recently it’s been restored, first with the addition of eight minutes of footage and then eight more. No wonder it’s sometimes been referred to as the “Citizen Kane” of horror films–although “The Magnificent Ambersons” might be more appropriate.
One can be absolutely certain that no such breathless admiration will ever attach itself to this misbegotten American remake, from the talented writer-director Neil LaBute–who has been showing his inclination to depart from his customary acerbic tales of human interrelationships and broaden his horizons, first with the underrated romance “Possession” (2002) and now with this unfortunate effort, which could hardly be underrated. He’s managed not only to feed his own obsession with gender abuse in his reworking of the story, but also to sap it of the elements that made Shaffer’s original so interesting. The result is the most risible backwoods thriller since M. Night Shyamalan traveled to “The Village.”
Nicolas Cage, who also produced, plays Edward Malus, a California highway patrolman tormented by the apparent death of a girl in a highway accident. (We’re shown the crash so many times in supposedly spooky flashback that we can memorize every shot.) Willow (Kate Beahan), an old girlfriend who’d abruptly abandoned him and now lives on an isolated island off the Washington coast, contacts him for help in locating her missing daughter, so he goes there, only to find a weird, closed-off pagan (and matriarchal) fertility cult headed by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn). All Malus’ efforts to find the child–or even find out if she ever existed, or was merely a figment of Willow’s imagination–are thwarted until the group’s real purpose for him is revealed in a big ritualistic finale spotlighting not only the unfortunate cop but also the titular structure of straw. And there’s a short epilogue to indicate that the grisly story continues.
In Shaffer’s original, the journey of Sergeant Howie, played by Woodward (who’s nodded to by LaBute when he names the missing girl Rowan Woodward) was genuinely unsettling; here that of Malus (apparently from the Latin for “evil,” though it’s never explained why) is merely repetitive, often crossing the line into silly. That’s because LaBute has miscalculated badly in his alterations to the narrative. A terrible mistake was moving the story from the fringes of the British Isles to the Pacific Northwest; one can only just accept the remnant of an old Druidic cult surviving in a remote Scottish island, but not off the coast of Washington. (A throwaway line by Burstyn referring to her Celtic ancestors doesn’t cut it.) Another was the decision to turn the group into a female-dominated one in which men play subservient roles. The emphasis on “the eternal feminine” may be fashionable in this “Da Vinci Code” age, but here it comes across as ludicrous.
But the most fatal change LaBute has wrought is to jettison the entire religious angle. The 1973 film portrayed its protagonist as a rigorous Calvinist, and pitted his priggish Christian religiosity against the free-wheeling paganism of Summerisle. As sketched here, Malus is just a troubled secularist, and so when he utters the famous cry of “Oh, God!” at the end, the resonance is non-existent. LaBute tries to make up for the excision with the back-story of the cop’s past (including that auto accident, which haunts him terribly–as was intended), but it’s not enough. The result is that this “Wicker Man” is like an empty scarecrow that frightens nobody–a virtual replay of the plot of the dumb 1988 thriller “Spellbinder” in which religious fanatics replace the earlier picture’s secret coven of witches.
The cast is mired in the resultant morass. Cage works overtime, using his entire repertoire of tics and grimaces, but he can’t make Malus seem like anything other than an inept boob, and Burstyn, sporting what look like ill-fitting false teeth, chews the scenery mercilessly. Beahan is rather dull, and Frances Conroy’s archness as the community physician grows old fast, but Molly Parker and Leelee Sobieski have fun as the group’s snooty schoolteacher and local sexpot, respectively, and Diane Delano garners some laughs as the butch proprietor of the cult’s boarding house. A variety of young girls amble in and out of camera range, looking like refugees from “Village of the Damned.”
“The Wicker Man” gets points for looking good: the locations are lovely, and Paul Sarossy’s cinematography has some elegance. It sounds, apart from the dialogue, fine too, with Angelo Badalamenti’s score creating a bit of tension. But overall it richly earns a line that Cage’s cop utters before the last reel revelations: “Something bad is about to happen.” To be sure the line would be a better example of truth in advertising if he spoke it at the very beginning of the picture, but perhaps it’s intended to refer specifically to the laugh-inducing final ritual, in which Cage has to lope about in a bear costume, a couple of girls are dressed like little bumblebees (children of the guy from “The Simpsons,” perhaps) and Burstyn’s face is painted different colors down the middle, like the character Frank Gorshin once played on “Star Trek.” It’s here that the movie really goes wacko, and it’s not a pleasant sight–though it is a funny one.