The Wicker Man

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September 2, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s likely everyone already knows what’s to be said about this film. Considering it’s a remake of what is inarguably one of the finest horror features of all time there’s nowhere else to start other than by stating the expected: this film is not as good as the original. Of course there’s always the possibility of a clever twist or new structural element to make a remake stand out from its predecessor and knowing that none other than Neil LaBute was in charge here, there surely was some hope. Known better for his often wickedly nasty character studies in films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbours it’s hard to imagine just why he’d be heading up a production like this. If it were just for the money then why did he also write the new script? Granted that’s just more money but I couldn’t help but hope for some sort of fiendish twist in the tail that might make this one stand out from beneath the enormous shadow cast by the original. It didn’t help matters when videos surfaced on youtube that edited together some of the more hilarious parts of LaBute’s effort. They were hilarious out of context, but I’ve got to admit they’re still pretty funny even when properly inserted into the whole. Oh well, let’s see what we have here.

If you don’t know the story to The Wicker Man already then I advise you to immediately go out and rent the original film. You can thank me later and, yes, a money order will do just fine. Suffice it to say this remake is basically the same in shape, but totally inferior in the details. The geography has changed, shifting the action from a remote island off the coast of Scotland to a similarly remote island off the coast of Washington. On that island a child is missing and Nicholas Cage plays the police officer who has been sent to investigate. This time around Cage’s character is actually directly involved in the affair rather than simply being assigned there. Indeed, his investigation is basically off the record and a civilian affair although he still spends a lot of the film shouting at people about how he’s a cop. Actually he just generally spends a lot of time shouting. He caught wind of the child’s disappearance via a letter from his ex-fiancée who now lives on the island and says the child is his. That last plot point obviously directly contradicts Anthony Schaffer’s original but so be it. Cage finds himself on Summersisle, a privately owned island that earns its living through the production of organic produce, especially honey. It seems like a quaint hippy commune although LaBute adds a twist in that the entire community seems divided between genders. The women work and seem to be omnipresent while the men keep to themselves and apparently have no voice at all. It’s hard to tell if this new addition to the script is part of a larger comment on gender roles by the director. Honestly, if it weren’t for the scathing vision of men he offered in his feature debut (In the Company of Men) and the many criticisms he garners for misogyny, I suppose it would never have occurred to me to look for such an element. As if flying in the face of grander intellectual inquiry closer examination doesn’t seem to yield anything further on the topic. Actually Christopher Lee seems to sum it all up in this reply he gave to the question of a woman taking over his role in the remake:

“What do I think of it being played by a woman, when it was played by a man in 1972, as part of a Scottish pagan community, and now it’s played by a woman with the same name? What do I think of it? Nothing. There’s nothing to say.”

Lee is on the ball here. There’s nothing to say about the decision since it seems to suggest nothing other than a minor change in details. Beyond these slight alterations and a preponderance on bees (they have a queen, you know) the film is nothing more than a pale shadow of the superb original.

It’s difficult to pinpoint quite what’s so wrong here although obviously familiarity with an original always makes it a challenge to see the new version fresh. Still, the matriarchal, Luddite colony found here just doesn’t gel like the quaint, uneasy but still vaguely normal town of its predecessor. The film is also dogged by pointless and invariably trite presaging of events, most notably an intro that sees Cage witness a horrific road accident only to find out later that no bodies were recovered and the car wasn’t even registered. Visions of that accident haunt his sleeping and waking hours and, of course, bees start to appear there too. Oh, did I mention that Cage’s character is allergic to bee stings? Well he is and I suppose if I wanted to kill more time I could start drawing up some sort of gender-reading based on bees as representatives of the matriarchal world and their stings representing a penetration, sexual or otherwise, of the male. It’s not worth it though because the film plays out the same as the original anyway and honestly, even if this was what LaBute intended, it’s still kind of drab and pointless. The final major alteration to the story comes with the famous finale which, this time around, refrains from pitting Christian against pagan, instead leaving Cage to mouth off against the godless psychos from a more neutral perspective. Also, in the theatrical edition of the film (which I did not see), another scene is pegged on at the end showing the island’s women on the prowl for the next Nicholas Cage. This ill-advised sequence is removed from the director’s cut but unfortunately most everything else before it remains in place.

The truth of it is that The Wicker Man isn’t really a bad film when taken completely in isolation. If it weren’t for the existence of a pitch-perfect original than this might just stand as a mediocre horror exercise. Unfortunately all its flaws are exacerbated by its secondary status. As events start escalating LaBute’s film can’t help but take on shades of the ridiculous as it tries to build up excitement. The youtube compilations focused on these scenes for comedy and made the film look like it was just full of scenes of Nicholas Cage shouting randomly before socking some poor woman in the jaw. That’s not the full truth because it’s really only the last twenty minutes of the film that are full of this. Of course it’s not simply that Cage punches women that makes it funny. The real comedy is that he outright slugs them and that they are sent careening backwards through pieces of breakaway furniture as if suddenly transported to The Wild West. Elsewhere we’re treated to a scene where a cage is placed on Cage’s head and filled with bees. Cage, as if forgetting that the bees would be added later with CGI, decides it best to narrate this entire scene with priceless lines like, “Not the bees! Arghh, they’re in my eyes, they’re in my eyes!” Yes Nick, we know they’re in your eyes. We’re watching the final version of the film with all the special effects completed.

It’s easy to get a few cheap laughs from this film but generally speaking LaBute’s version is more mediocre than risible. The majority of its time simply plods along as any mediocre horror feature might. It has none of the atmosphere of the original which makes warming to it an impossibility. In this sense it reminds me of the recent remake of The Omen which also seems perfectly all right on its own but of course has to be compared to an exceptional original. If it’s a pleasant change to see a horror film that doesn’t take place entirely in the dark it also doesn’t amount to much since there’s really nothing horrible or scary here. It’s all a question of atmosphere and this film simply doesn’t have one. Even with its best scenes, such as a confrontation at the community school, the near hysteric pitch never comes off quite right. It would seem that Cage can’t play things straight like Edward Woodward did back in ’73. If the remake of The Omen wasn’t hysteric enough to match the original then I guess this one succeeds too well at histrionics.

If it achieves anything I suppose it preserves the original from any more ill-advised remake attempts (for a while, at least). Of course this incarnation isn’t quite like Van Sant’s Psycho where the obvious goal was to show up the pointlessness of remaking it. LaBute does change things but unfortunately none of them seem to add anything new and generally just work to remind me that I’d prefer to watch the original again rather then give this film another run. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d released this under a different title. Perhaps, “In the Company of Women & Bees”. I’d go to the cinema to see that. Wouldn’t you?

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