In the year 2006, is nothing sacred? A modern-day remake of a classic film is par for the course in today's Hollywood of diminishing original ideas, but they should at least show some respect to their source material. Even with a well-regarded, independent-minded filmmaker like writer-director Neil LaBute (2003's "The Shape of Things
") at the helm, "The Wicker Man" does not do this. In fact, it strips away all that was fascinatingly subtextual and deliciously provocative about that unforgettably moody 1973 cult masterpiece, and then pisses on its bare corpse. Gone are almost all mentions of religion and sexuality; this is quite a feat considering the original was entirely about these things, taking a progressive look at the dichotomy between divergent belief systemsChristianity vs. Paganismand a sharp, thought-provoking swipe at religious oppression. Gone, too, are the memorable songs, so hauntingly complimentary to the images and so strongly tied to the narrative's thematic foundation that they were just as much a character as the humans. And, tragically but not surprisingly, gone is any reason whatsoever for this trashy reimagining's existence.
It has been months since California police officer Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) failed to save a mother and daughter after the car they were in was hit by a tractor-trailer. His cursory leave of absence from the force ends prematurely when he receives a letter from old flame Willow (Kate Beahan). It seems her young daughter, Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair), has gone missing on the Puget Sound island she calls home, and she hopes Edward might be able to help get some solid answers. Happy to hear from Willow and not wanting to let her down, Edward accepts the invitation. Once in Summersisle, a secluded matriarchal farming commune, he notices something is not right about his new surroundings. The women, all known as "sisters" to one another, rule the roost, while the men are subservient to their every wish and command. Despite Edward's unfailing investigation, the residents deny that they have ever seen Rowan. And everyone bows down to the guidance of Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), the leader of the island. Edward is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, and eventually comes to suspect that Rowan is not only alive, but about to become a human sacrifice in the town's annual Mayday celebration.
It would be one thing if Neil LaBute solely directed "The Wicker Man," adapting it from another person's screenplay. It is quite another to learn that he wrote this terminally empty-headed and plodding excuse for a script. Whatever he was thinking, I'll never know. "The Wicker Man" screams of studio tinkering and suffers from fatally bad ideas. Besides all of its compelling underlying conceits, the charm of the original picture was that it defied easy categorization. It was a mystery, a horror film, a psychological thriller, a brilliantly orchestrated mood piece and a musical all rolled into one. The story developed slowly but intriguingly, rewarding the viewer in spades with a creepy atmosphere that led toward one of the genre's more chilling climaxes. In every way possible, it was a truly one-of-a-kind film.
In a clumsy attempt to please a teenage audience who probably have no idea it is a remake, the new PG-13 version of "The Wicker Man" has been molded into a more conventional horror direction. The problem is, the general plot outline does not warrant this or even logically fit it. In the place of a thick yet subtly handled pall of mounting unease and ultimate dread are throwaway jump scares and recurring nightmare sequences harkening back to Edward's guilt over the mother and her daughter who were lost in the car accident. It demands to be noted that this backstory leads nowhere, and continual reminders that their bodies were never found from the wreckage is pointless since the subplot is abruptly dropped at the start of the third act. Other scenes, like the ones where Edward chases children's whispers into barns and watery crypts, only call attention to how desperate and creatively bankrupt the film is, and how misguided and shallow writer-director Neil LaBute's take on the story is.
In the place of a community of proud and sexually free Pagans is a community of loony, bee-worshiping feminist hippies whose religion is never actually named. Then again, it no longer matters, since the Edward of the predecessor, a devout Christian and virgin who was tempted by the townspeople's loose ways, has been neutered into an average guy with no religious background or identity beyond his profession as a cop. This latter change is a woeful miscalculation on LaBute's part, since Edward's stringent beliefs and his denial of all things different, or "taboo," led to his undoing. The present-day Edward's undoing has been one-dimensionalized into wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time bad luck.
The uniformly talented cast are uniformly squandered. At times, Nicolas Cage (2006's "World Trade Center
") appears to be channeling Edward Woodward, which is as close to a fond tribute as this movie gives the original. As Willow, Kate Beahan (2005's "Flightplan
") is forced into the role of Cage's love interest. With all of the goo-goo eyes they make at each other, one would assume Edward would have time to ask her why the rest of the town refuses to acknowledge her daughter's existence, but to no avail. The lead women who make up the Summersisle "Sisters," including Molly Parker (2002's "Max
") as schoolteacher Rose; Diane Delano (2003's "Jeepers Creepers 2
") as burly barkeep Beech; Frances Conroy (2005's "Shopgirl
") as local doctor Moss, and Leelee Sobieski (2001's "Joyride
") as beautiful, wood-chopping Honey, show up for a few scenes apiece to look suspicious and not a whole lot else. Of the actors, it is Ellen Burstyn's (2002's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
") quixotic take on lordship Sister Summersisle that actually shows some freshness. She is no match for Christopher Lee, who birthed the part thirty-three years ago, but that could also be because the role has been downsized in screen time.
When seeing a remake to a film I hold in high regard, I try to keep an open mind even as I know comparisons are inevitable. With "The Wicker Man," everything it does, and every individual moment it recalls, was superior the first time around. The original was deliberately paced, but spellbinding, beautiful and lingeringly eerie. Viewed on its own terms, this new edition is best described as lackadaisical, emotionally flat, and, save for the sight of some of the animal costumes worn in the finale, wouldn't scare a three-year-old. To add insult to injury is a thoroughly unnecessary and insulting epilogue that serves to show off two surprise cameos and dissipate whatever feelings of unrest the viewer might have experienced from the previous scenea scene that should have led into the credits had saner minds prevailed. The fact remains that no matter how many schlocky remakes Hollywood throws at us, the originals cannot be changed and will happily remain in their current form. The best advice would be to seek out 1973's "The Wicker Man" and pretend this frivolous, supremely ill-advised remake doesn't exist. The world would never miss it.