July 22, 2011

Friday Review Double Feature: The Wicker Man

Here's the sum total of what I knew about The Wicker Man prior to this week. I knew that the original British film, from the 1970s, has become a cult classic. That it stars Edward Woodward, who was the lead in one of my favorite flicks, Breaker Morant. That it involved some sort of weird religious rites and a twist ending. That it was remade a few years ago, with Nicholas Cage taking over for the Breaker and that the remake was universally panned.

I had put the original version in the Netflix queue because of Woodward and general curiosity. After I finally got around to watching it this week, I had to follow up with the Cage version. It's an interesting case study in how Hollywood can take something that earned goodwill the hard way and piss it all away in under two hours.

First, the basics. The Wicker Man is about a cop dispatched to a remote island to investigate the disappearance, or maybe the murder, of a child. The island's inhabitants have, to put it mildly, some non-traditional religious beliefs. The cop tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, only to find himself . . . well, I won't ruin the big twist for you. I'm not generally big on avoiding spoilers, particularly for flicks that are as old as I am, but this one went somewhere I wasn't suspecting, so I'll give it some credit.

The release of the original film was bungled by the studio, which forced some cuts and didn't give it any publicity upon release. In spite of that, it's gone on to achieve such cult status that it's been dubbed the Citizen Kane of horror films. I wouldn't go nearly that far - it's sluggish, silly, and not really all that horrific. But it's also unique and fun, in it's own peculiar way. It's cult status is no doubt helped by the difficulty of its release and how that lent it an air of mystery. I can certaily see why some people really love it.

And I can see precisely why any big budget Hollywood remake was doomed to failure. Everything that makes the original fun to watch disappears. Yes, the plot is basically the same, but the ambiance of the whole movie is quite different, not to mention the execution. So to speak.

Take, for instance, the odd religious society into which our hero cop is thrust. In the original, it's old European pagans (Druish, for most part), who, for all their weird ways, are at least fun to hang around with. They drink. They sing (the film has several musical numbers). They wander around nekkid. Watching that libertine lifestyle bump up against Woodward's rigid (but sincere) Christianity is actually interesting.

For the remake, however, the fun drunken pagans are gone. Replaced, inexplicitly, but a dour colony of joyless matriarchal scolds (the only men on the island are used for manual labor and breeding). They're like something out of Rush Limbaugh's nightmares. Cage, meanwhile, has none of the religious background of his predecessor, so it really doesn't do anything for the film.

I can understand why merely transporting the pagans to Puget Sound (where, inexplicitly, Cage's California cop tries to wield the same legal authority as Woodward, who was actually in his jurisdiction, did) wouldn't work, but is a bunch of murderous shrews the best Labute could come up with?  Maybe. After his excellent debut, In the Company of Men, and pretty good follow up, Your Friends and Neighbors, his film career has cratered. Certainly, his rebooted version of The Wicker Man did not right the ship. It does give Cage an excuse to beat up several women, though. If you've ever really wanted to see that kind of thing, this movie is for you.

In the end, the remake of The Wicker Man is a series of poor choices, summarized neatly by Brett Cullum from DVD Verdict:
LaBute's final insult to injury? He dedicates the film to the memory of Joey Ramone. Joey would have at least had the good sense to make this remake fast, loud, and two minutes long.
No doubt. I wanna' be sedated . . .

The Details
The Wicker Man
Released 1973
Directed by Robin Hardy
Written by Anthony Shaffer
From the novel Ritual, by David Pinner
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, et. al.

The Wicker Man
Released 2006
Written & Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring Nicholas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Leelee Sobieski, et. al.

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