War of the Remake: The Wicker M(e)n


“He’s dead. Can’t complain.
Had his chance and in modern parlance — blew it!”

By now, nearly everyone has seen the (numerous) clips from Neil LaBute’s 2006 version of The Wicker Man that float around the internet, featuring all of its batshit-crazy moments courtesy of Nicolas Cage. It’s not uncommon to see the particularly egregious scene of good ol’ Nic crying out “Not the bees!” and you’d be right to assume that all the pigs in the world couldn’t match the levels of ham in his performance.

It seems worthwhile then to place these highlight-clips in context, especially if a) you’ve not seen the remake in its entirety, or b) never seen the original and don’t know how far from any sense of reason Cage’s performance has strayed. So, assuming you’ve seen neither, allow me to elaborate:

THE ORIGINAL

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man from 1973 is a mystifying gem of a movie: a strange, surreal mystery film that manages to invoke the defiant conflict between man and God, all set in a small village teeming with sexed-up pagans who interrupt the action with a song or two from time to time.

It’s most definitely a product of its time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a certain lurid frenzy to the action that is unique to the films of the 70s, and you can throw in an enigmatic history to the film, having been quite the troubled production. Rumours abound about the film, with varying degrees of response from those involved, and then even more speculation in response to the responses.

For instance, read up on the film and you learn that Christopher Lee worked for no salary, that Britt Ekland’s voice was overdubbed, that animals were actually killed in the monumental closing scene, that the studio barely wanted to make the film, and that much of it ended up in a landfill underneath England’s M3 motorway. Read further still, and you discover contradictions to those rumours and many fresh rumours on top of those to continue. It’s that kind of wonderful, mysterious film.

The plot deals with a very (very) devoutly Christian police officer, Neil Howie (played by the fantastically named Edward Woodward), as he sets off to the island community of Summerisle in pursuit of a missing child, one Rowan Morrison. When he arrives, he’s immediately confronted by the loose morals of the villagers and how flagrantly they disregard the Christian morals that nominally run the country.

In addition to this, the villagers aren’t exactly forthcoming with help in the search for Rowan. At first, they deny such a girl has lived there, and then change their story to say that she has already died, before finally suggesting that perhaps she’s still alive. But given that they’re a community of pagans who have suffered some depleted harvests recently, and that the time to offer a human sacrifice is looming on the horizon, this last suggestion is particularly troubling. Howie sets out to find/save Rowan before the villagers can sacrifice her.

His investigation eventually brings him to Lord Summerisle, the patriarch and ruler of the island, played with ultimate badassery by Christopher Lee. Summerisle and Howie have several conversations about the place of religion in their lives, with Howie blatantly regarding the island and all its inhabitants as heathens, and Summerisle calmly adhering to the view that their pagan lifestyle is much better suited to their needs. Howie’s Christian morality is tested when Willow, the local slut (a title that is proudly borne in Summerisle) tries to entice him into sleeping with her, and the conflicts of his faith and temptations come to the fore, adding in more tension in his search for Rowan.

The film culminates with the May Day parade, and Howie, aware of how quickly time is running out, frantically losing his mind in his effort to find Rowan. He disguises himself as Punch (the fool) and infiltrates the parade, and eventually sees Rowan being held in a cave on a cliff by the sea. He races to rescue her, and the two head through the caves to escape…only to be met on the other side by Summerisle and his three aides.

In the awesome conclusion of the film – which still packs a punch on repeat viewings – Summerisle reveals that Howie has been lured to the island by the pagans as the ideal sacrifice – a man who came willingly (searching for Rowan), a virgin (he was waiting until marriage as per his beliefs), and a King (Punch is named “king for a day” as part of the parade). They then lead him to the titular Wicker Man, a giant structure made of wicker in which he’s sealed, and then lit alight. As he burns to death, pleading for his life and salvation, the pagans gather around and sing a rendition of “Sumer is Icumen In” and celebrate the return of their harvests.

The film is incredibly nuanced, not only in the creation of its characters, but also in its themes of religion and how it can control a person’s life for better or worse. And it’s also a musical! Not a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but all the events of the film are punctuated with folk-numbers, which not only add to the eeriness of the film but further some of the thematic material too. It also happens to be a damn intriguing film and a good little daylight-horror, but the complications in the script, the enigma of Summerisle and its inhabitants, the very nature of Man vs. God vs. Man and the way these conflicts play out make this a truly astounding, bizarre but fascinating, movie that absolutely deserves its cult status.

THE REMAKE

Nicolas Cage puts on a bear suit and punches women in the face.

Ok, there’s little to defend in the remake, especially the decision to use Papyrus as the font for its opening credits, but it’s at least worth seeing why that’s the case.  And make no mistake, although it’s a terrible, terrible movie, it’s also wildly entertaining! There’s rarely been a film that’s so perfectly unintentionally hilarious, but this is it. I hate it in terms of a remake of an amazing movie (and I’m sure you can guess that the original is one of my favourite movies) but as a standalone piece, it‘s almost pure entertainment because absolutely nothing works in this film – those clips on the Internet wouldn’t exist if it did.

The bare bones of the plot are still present in the remake – police officer looks for a missing girl in a small community who end up sacrificing him to their gods – but with some noticeable (and needless) changes:

THE SETTING:

Summerisle in the Scottish Highlands has become Summersisle in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. There’s no real need to change the setting to the US, but  smarter movie might have made something of it. Also, Summersile’s main export is now honey – not apples.

THE PROTAGONIST:

Neil Howie has become Edward Malus, a policeman suffering PTSD. He failed to save a woman and her child from a fiery death in a car accident, and this haunts him – we know he’s haunted because we see flashbacks to the incident a thousand times throughout the movie – even when he’s on a boat! It was probably meant to be a jump scare, but seeing a semitrailer drive past on the deck of a ship is hilarious.

Instead of receiving an anonymous letter, he instead receives it from Willow Woodward (EDWARD Malus + Willow WOODWARD – because having Meta-puns is the same as having respect for the original! Although “Malus” is a genus of apples, which is a nice and subtle nod to the original) with whom he used to have a relationship, and in fact fathered Rowan.

THE CONFLICT:

The biggest change, and incidentally the stupidest, is that instead of the film centring on Christianity vs. Paganism, the conflict has been changed to Men vs. Women. Summersile is now a commune run by women (the men are menial labourers whose tongues have been cut out) and there’s only a vague tenuous connection that they worship “the mother goddess”. Lord Summerisle has been changed into Sister Summersile, and it’s one of those casting decisions where you wonder just how many bills Ellen Burstyn had looming over her name before she signed on.

Now, it’s not like the battle of the sexes isn’t a ripe field to pluck a good story or two from, but it doesn’t translate to the plot of The Wicker Man at all. In the original, Howie’s conflict stems from his own beliefs, and the fact that as an officer of the law, he’s technically facilitating the Christian morals by which the country is run – his time on Summerisle flies in the face of everything he knows in his life and in his career. In the remake, the religious side of the conflict is barely present until it becomes an excuse to put him in the titular structure, and so Malus’ characterisation is…well, he’s just a bit of a douche.

He’s a strict adherent to the law, much like Howie, but without the combination of his religious principles and his career, Malus is just an arrogant guy barging in to a secluded community. Oh, and those religious principles? The complex driving force of the character that defines his confrontation with a pagan society and fuels the inner turmoil between his temptation for the sensuous Willow and his strict upstanding morals? Well, Malus is allergic to bees. No seriously, the burden he bears that weakens him in the eyes of Summersile is that they make honey and he’s allergic to bees.

In reducing the conflict to Men vs. Women you lose all the nuance of the original screenplay, which might have been fine if LaBute had done anything with the new conflict. There’s no real statement being made in turning the women into the villains – it barely even registers as casual misogyny – and instead it just seems like he wanted to change something from the original for the hell of it. It’s also worth mentioning that LaBute (who wrote the screenplay for this version) already covered the battle of the sexes in the significantly superior In The Company of Men.

So alright, thematically, this is a dud. But what about the more technical side of things?

Well, the acting ranges from bad to worse with only two exceptions. The first of these is Nicolas Cage, who – bless him – is just so out of touch with anything resembling realism in this movie. He’s not convincing as a cop, as a father, as a man at the centre of a conspiracy, or even as a man with a bee allergy. But he brings that Cagey goodness to the performance and it’s a sheer delight to watch him throw all of this unbalanced intensity into the role.

The other is Molly Parker, who only has one major scene and a few brief reappearances later in the film, but she not only manages to portray something resembling an actual character, but also manages to make some of the most ridiculous dialogue seem to make sense. Of course, that character is preposterous because of the movie she’s in, but Parker’s an accomplished actress who actually remembered to pack her talent before she flew to the set.

As for everyone else? Ellen Burstyn looks embarrassed to be on the screen, Leelee Sobieski seems at the verge of laughter throughout the entire film (even when Malus kicks her in the gut and sends her flying across the room) and who could blame her? Kate Beahan as Willow is particularly underwhelming though, playing every goddamn scene with this look on her face as though someone only just informed her that Santa Claus isn’t real.

And the mood of the piece is just wrong. The original works so well because, other than being pagans, the residents of Summerisle are just another provincial community. So much of the creepiness in the movie comes in small doses, with things being not quite the same as they would be elsewhere. The remake however, portrays a distinctly oddball commune where things are strange already, and so there’s no real sense that it’s even remotely realistic.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the film is that LaBute has attempted to rewrite the eerie chills of the original into pulse-pounding thrills and then forgot to invest any effort into making it thrilling. It’s a shame the remake didn’t keep the original’s gradual build-up of tension, and wring the hostility from the townspeople in the same way, but if it had to be updated into a “scary” film, it would have been nice if anything had been…y’know…scary! LaBute apparently doesn’t know how to film even the lowest form of horror: jump scares! There’re clearly a few points where you’re meant to jump, but there’s no effort put into creating any tension or even providing a shock, so they all fall flat.

The film’s music is also oddly underwhelming, given that its composer is Angelo Badalamenti. If you were hoping for any of his trademark haunting style, sorry to disappoint you with the news that the score is pretty generic with only the occasional standout moment.

I suppose the movie is shot nicely though, but again, this is almost to its detriment. The original is hard and grainy (and not just in the poorly-restored pieces of footage) which helps convey a sense of coldness, isolation and barrenness to Summerisle. In the remake, the film abounds with soft hues and a sort of earthen sensibility, which matches the physical setting of Summersile but makes it look like a tourism spot for the island, which robs the feeling of intimidation that the original so effortlessly had.

OVERALL

Whereas the original is an enigmatic accomplishment of filmmaking, thoroughly nuanced and completely captivating, the remake is an exercise in lazy filmmaking. The plot and its themes are dumbed down for a modern audience and the result is a confused mess of a film, that doesn’t even remotely live up to its predecessor’s name, either in intelligence or technical competence.

That said, if you can overlook the crappiness in comparison to the original, the remake is an absolute barrel of laughs, and a fantastic example of the intense insanity that is Nicolas Cage. If you’re a fan of the original, avoid the remake, but if you want a “So-Bad-It’s-Good” fun time on a movie night, give it a whirl it’s worth seeing for the Cageness of its leading man’s performance.

There’s an official sequel to the original by Robin Hardy, called The Wicker Tree, but to call it underwhelming would be an understatement. There is however another movie that got a lot of praise for following in the vein of the original called Wake Wood, which is worthy of a rental at the very least. And if you’ve never seen the original Wicker Man, GET A COPY AND WATCH IT!! It’s amazing, and nothing like the awkward confusion of its remake.

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One thought on “War of the Remake: The Wicker M(e)n

  1. Pingback: 11 Truly Bizarre Reasons That Real Flights Were Delayed – Patriot Bands

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