Twice-Told Tales #4: The Wicker Man

Wicker Man

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck.

The Wicker Man was a 1973 British horror movie, and its 2006 Hollywood remake was supposed to be scary, too. The remake was marketed as horror, and both writer-director Neil LaBute and star Nicolas Cage sold it as such prior to the film’s release. It flopped in theaters and received poor reviews. Within a year, it became a punchline, thanks largely to this viral video:

Cage later claimed that The Wicker Man was supposed to be a dark comedy all along. True, his Wicker Man is hilarious, and one can understand why he would prefer to be in on the joke. But given the movie’s dour tone, and that he and LaBute described it as “scary” in promotional interviews, I find it hard to believe they set out to be funny. To me, at least, the simpler explanation seems more likely: Cage and LaBute made a bad movie ripe for snarky mockery.

The Wicker Man begins with Cage as California motorcycle cop Edward Malus. He pulls over a mom when her little girl mischievously chucks a doll out the car window. During the traffic stop, a truck barrels in out of nowhere and smashes the mom’s car, which explodes before Malus can rescue the occupants. The experience leaves him traumatized and on leave.

He then receives a letter from his estranged ex-fiancee, Willow Woodward, asking for his help in finding her missing daughter, Rowan. Willow lives on Summersisle, an island off the coast of Washington. Malus arrives to find the island run as a matriarchal pagan commune. The women vastly outnumber the men, who are cowed and mute, and the local economy depends upon honey production. (In a bit of what we call “FORESHADOWING,” Malus mentions that he’s allergic to bee stings.) Malus asks around about Rowan, but no one seems to respect him or his investigation. Aside from Willow, nobody is willing to admit that Rowan ever existed.

Malus finds Rowan’s name in the school attendance records and realizes that everyone but Willow is lying to him. After a tense meeting with the head of the commune, Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), he suspects that the islanders plan to sacrifice Rowan as part of their imminent spring festival. The locals dress in animal costumes for the festival, and an increasingly desperate Malus infiltrates the proceedings in a bear suit.

This all looks even sillier than it sounds, but I couldn’t hate it. It’s a limp excuse for a horror movie, but it does deliver more laughs than most comedies. And of course Cage overacts throughout, but at least he’s fun to watch. Whether he’s randomly screaming at people, angrily pedaling around on a bicycle, or wailing in pain, he ensures that The Wicker Man is never boring. I doubt a more restrained performance or a different lead actor could have improved this one.

The Wicker Man’s core problem is that it shouldn’t have been made in the first place, not when the original is still a perfectly fine film that never needed to be tweaked. In fact, my only gripe with the remake is that it may deter viewers from going back and watching the much-better version.

The original Wicker Man takes place on a Scottish island and stars Edward Woodward as the detective Neil Howie. As in the remake, he comes to Summerisle to investigate Rowan’s disappearance. The islanders are free-spirited pagans with a penchant for bawdy songs and public sex, all of which offends Howie’s devout Christianity. Christopher Lee plays the community leader, Lord Summerisle.  With all due respect to Burstyn, it’s impossible to top Lee here, giving one his best, most charismatic performances. His costumed appearance during the festival is just one of the movie’s many warped and memorable pleasures.

Granola Washington for Druidic Scotland. Cage for Woodward. Burstyn for Lee. None of these changes favor the remake, but the most important change is also the most damaging. The original centered on a clash of faiths: old gods versus the new, pagan versus Christian, ancient traditions versus modern mores.

Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man is akin to his own movies and plays, which tend to focus on gender politics. That’s not to say that gender politics aren’t important and couldn’t be the basis of a good horror film. In this particular LaBute movie, however, the theme loses all nuance, starting with Malus’ name, a combination of “male” and “phallus.” The original’s islanders were odd but also cordial enough to make the viewer question Howie’s righteousness. The remake’s islanders are predominantly female and forever brimming with smug malice, which only leads the viewer to question LaBute’s worldview. It’s chilling when a seemingly innocent female character betrays Howie in the original. The remake spends most of its time establishing that every woman on the island is evil, and so its betrayal feels obvious. The original might unsettle anyone who’s not down with human sacrifice; the remake could only frighten a men’s rights activist.

It’s worth noting that The Wicker Man exists in multiple cuts. The 1973 film was originally 99 minutes, but then it was cut down to 87 minutes against director Robin Hardy’s wishes. It was re-released in 1979 at 96 minutes. Two more cuts have been released on DVD, but Hardy’s original remains as elusive as Rowan.

There are different cuts of the remake, too. The theatrical cut was rated PG-13, and its climax doesn’t show the islanders torturing Malus before tying him up in the “wicker man” sacrificial pyre. Instead it shows the islanders surrounding him, provides his anguished screams and pleas in voiceover, and cuts to him trapped in the pyre. After the pyre burns, a “six months later” coda follows with a pair of islanders in California, luring more men to the commune.

The unrated DVD cut shows the islanders breaking Malus’ legs and dumping bees on his head before taking him to the pyre, and it skips the coda. It may be unpleasant, but it makes for a more coherent and effective ending than what viewers saw in theaters. Which isn’t saying much, and it probably doesn’t matter. Not when that two-minute viral video has become the definitive cut of the 2006 Wicker Man, bear suit and all.

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