October 9, 2019 The Anatomy of a Remake: The Wicker Man
Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man, a tale of Scottish policeman Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward: The Equaliser series) investigating a disappearance on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, run by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee: Dracula 1958, The Lord of the Rings 2001) is regarded as a Horror classic. Originally released back in 1973, the film blended mystery and terror in a way that makes it a chilling watch to this day.
Fast forward over three decades later, the 2006 remake, written and directed by Neil LaBute, was considered so bad that Hardy had his name taken off the promotional posters – ouch! Shifting the action to the US, it told a similar story, only with police officer Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage: Leaving Las Vegas 1995, National Treasure 2004) searching for the daughter of his ex-fiancee Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan: The Matrix Revolutions 2003, Flightplan 2005) on an island off the Washington State coast run by Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn: The Exorcist 1973, Requiem for a Dream 2000).
In addition to playing the lead star in the 2006 edition, Cage also produced it, and reportedly dedicated the film to his friend Johnny Ramone, the guitarist of the band The Ramones, who had died 2 years earlier in 2004. An interesting footnote, is The Wicker Man 2006 edition as bad as critics made it sound, or has it aged well in the 13 years since its release? Let’s take a look as it makes its way to the cutting room floor of The Anatomy of a Remake.
Despite shifting the action to the USA, the remake skewed fairly close to the original. The plot involves a society based around a pagan cult, who are cagey about the missing girl. There is an attempted rescue involving a disguise, and it ends with the titular wicker man. There are differences though, and a lot of problems.
First, the big, white elephant in the room; Nicolas Cage’s performance. He is perhaps the only reason to watch the remake, and not because he metaphorically spun straw into gold. The scene of him holding a doll and screaming “How’d it get burnt?!” sits second only to the torture-via-bees sequence. Cage addressed his performance in a 2010 interview, saying “There is a mischievous mind at work on The Wicker Man… I finally kind of said, ‘I might have known that the movie was meant to be absurd.’”
He may have had a point. Cage’s ham-acting is just one dodgy element amongst many. The original film had a cultural clash going on under the hood. Summerisle’s free-loving, Pagan traditions sit sourly with Woodward’s pious, Catholic cop. Likewise, Lord Summerisle cares little for the faith on the mainland, preferring the older, Celtic culture to maintain the island’s harvest. Their worldviews clash, and their adherence to them will ultimately doom them both. Just that one side’s doom is more immediate than the other.
In the remake, the clash is not really there. Sister Summerisle’s Pagans feel more like a cult of boogey-women. Their roots are less in Celtic lore or history than more typical witch stories. Sister Summerisle even says her ancestors fled west to avoid the witch trials in Salem. They do have some layers though. Instead of a harvest, they produce honey from their beehives. Like the bees, they live in a matriarchy- where the largely female population worship the ‘queen’ in Sister Summerisle, while the men are reduced to mindless drones.
It is not like a coven of bug-worshiping witches could not work in a Horror film. The original film’s islanders were not exactly ‘normal’. Except they did not start off as murderous kooks. They go from being ‘different’, to suspicious, then dangerous, until the twist revealed them to be more manipulative than Howie or the audience thought. In LaBute’s film, the villains are as subtle as, well, Cage’s protagonist.
It is not like this kind of progression was beyond LaBute. He made his name making dark stories about gender relations, like 2003’s The Shape of Things. Its villain, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), was just as cruel and calculating as Lord Summerisle. She might have even been worse, despite not killing her target, as her plot cut deeper. So, LaBute getting the chance to remake The Wicker Man was not a bad idea from the start. There was a chance he could have made a sharper take on the tale.
Alas, his remake is as blunt as a brick covered in Halloween stickers. The film may be good for an ironic laugh thanks to Cage going through the scenery like Pac-Man on power pellets. Beyond that though, it sits alongside 1998’s Psycho and 1999’s The Haunting as one of cinema’s worst Horror remakes. Anyone looking for a genuinely thrilling Horror Mystery would be better served by indulging in the more original and equally bizarre 1973 original film.