Friday, September 01, 2006


THE WICKER MAN (2006, USA, Neil LaBute, adapted from original Anthony Shaffer screenplay

Devoted fans of 1973's The Wicker Man make claims about the film's cinematic greatness, claims which are probably exaggerated—that's what makes them fans. Critics will no doubt massacre this new version, starring Nicolas Cage, but they are probably overly critical of the film's flaws—that's why they're called critics. When it comes down to it, this remake of this oddly chilling curiosity is neither a Big Deal nor a Big Bust. It's just a movie. And that's a real disappointment.

Director Neil LaBute has penned his own adaptation of the intelligent and troubling Anthony Schaffer screenplay, and it's obviously a labor of love. Offered a role in the remake, lead actor Edward Woodward (not to be confused with Ed Wood) politely declined, but remarked that the new script was surprisingly good. So LaBute settles for renaming the missing girl "Rowan Woodward." Nice touch.

Not only the overall arc of the story remains the same—a conventional cop travels to a secluded island to search for a missing child, and comes to suspect that the secretive, cultish residents know more about the girl's fate than they are admitting—but entire scenes are carried straight over into the new film, the dialogue virtually unchanged. The arrival by seaplane and the policeman's bar-pounding lawman-righteous speech at the pub are taken straight from the original, as is the wonderful confrontation with the school-teacher and her classroom full of eerily complicit students. Only it's William Blake on the blackboard rather than quasi-wiccan wisdom: "Toadstone preserves the newly born from the weird woman, the hagstone preserves people from nightmare" is replaced with a so-apt-as-to-be-prophetic passage from "The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell":
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow.
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
The problem with the new film is that there's less of both heaven and hell, and while the man's path is strewn with plenty of new (and superfluous) perils, he's no longer particularly just.

Like his identical twin Peter (note the eerie profusion of twins in LaBute's isolated island community—another deft tip of the hat), writer Anthony Schaffer is fascinated with the collision between conventional law-and-order Christianity and wilder, more primal religious and creative forces. In The Wicker Man, Schaffer tackles preoccupations that his brother will later take up in Equus and Amadeus.

In the 1973 version, the investigating officer is a devout-to-the-point-of-priggishness Christian. On Summerisle, he encounters not only pre-Christian (even anti-Christian) religious practices, but also a darkly tinged and blatant sexuality that not only offends but also tempts him. These are the tensions that give the original film its charge: we see the islanders through the Christian copper's eyes, and while we can't help but recoil at the cruelties and crudities we glimpse, we're uneasy with the reactive, judgmental self-righteousness he struts around town. Both the sensuality and the spirituality are absolutely essential to the film's power, not only aesthetically but also spiritually. His (self)righteousness and virginity—he is engaged to be married to a nice Scottish Presbyterian girl—is essential to the story, held in painful tension with the morality and sexual license of the islanders (a carnality memorably incarnated by Britt Eckland in the '73 version).

In this version, director LaBute, for all his Mormon background, astonishingly guts the story of both these crucial elements—a perverse and ironic prudery, as if too much (or too real) sex or religion just wouldn't be acceptable. His policeman (Cage) travels to the island community in response to a letter from Willow (Kate Beahan), who turns out to have been his fiancĂ©e—so of course it's taken for granted that they've slept together. So much for the whole virgin thing. And if it makes dramatic sense to give the investigator a stronger personal link to the case, it makes no sense to tame the story's thematic polarities. Much is made of the mainlander's Christian faith in the original script, and if he comes across as something of a judgmental prig, it also lends real power when he cries out to God in that film's stunning climax. Here, when Cage gets in a similar scrape, he's got Nobody to call on.

The 1973 version had a peculiarly British blandness to it, a drab ordinariness and a plodding, linear story progression that rendered the occult elements much more deeply troubling for their everydayness. The practices which so disturb Sergeant Howie are rooted in very real, very ancient pagan beliefs, their stony roots (and the clash with orthodox Christianity) buried deep in British soil, woven into the cycle of the seasons in harvest and May Day celebrations and the rituals of birth, procreation and death.

For the historically convincing pagan religion (many wiccans and neo-pagans celebrate the original film for its authenticity), LaBute substitutes a made-up feminist (or misogynist?) beekeeper's cult. Sister Summersisle replaces Lord Summerisle (and what's with that extra "s"? Did LaBute get the wrong pronunciation in his head when he read about the movie as a kid? Couldn't Nicolas Cage pronounce "Summerisle" properly?) as the queen bee in a metaphorical beehive community of dominant women and barely-seen, never-heard subservient males. It's a fascinating invention, but ultimately takes away from the unsettling and unexpected plausibility of the story and its resonances.

Critics will readily seize on the new film's quirks and deem it a turkey. It's easy to point out the obvious incongruities of tone and routine dead-end plot detours, easy targets for mockery. But the film has many (moderate) strengths. There's a great sense of place—though it must be said that the Pacific Northwest has been far creepier, in The Ring, or even Twin Peaks. The Angelo Badalamenti score is fine and fittingly filmish, though surprisingly lacking his distinctive sense of menace.

It's easy to mock the sometimes jarring incongruities of tone, but they're utterly true to the spirit of the original, and true in turn to the spirit of May Day (when both pictures set their story), a spring fertility festival that mixed playfully outrageous folly with deadly earnest pagan ritual. If Cage traipsing through the woods in a bear costume is an easy target for the scoffers, so was Edward Woodward in a Punch costume, chased by a hobby-horse—and frankly, those are some of the elements that are most interesting in both films. For my money, it was gutsy for LaBute to retain the bizarre—I only wish he'd done more of it.

For the average moviegoer, this remake is likely to be more enjoyable than the Robin Hardy original. The troubling mix of occult elements and pagan sexuality lend the original cult classic most of its interest, taking seriously the clash of two very real spiritual worldviews—but in the process, and adding in the oddly drab and dreary tone of much of the film, it would likely alienate many of the viewers who would consider its core themes worth considering. The un-sexed, de-spiritualized modern retread renders the story far more palatable for many moviegoers, but what remains is far more ordinary, and much more dismissible. It's just a movie.

Many folks who see Cage's Hollywood version this weekend will like it better than they would the stranger, artier Hammer Studio original. But they'll forget it by Monday—something you couldn't count on with the original.

Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Quick afterthought. In my review, I remark that most critics will skewer the film, especially for incongruities of tone (like Nick Cage running around in a bear suit), but that it's a glib criticism - that there's something right about the weird mix of comedy and horror not only in the remake, but the original. Subsequently I stumbled on a real nice CT Movies piece that takes a theological look at horror films in general - The Horrors!, written by W. David O. Taylor. An excerpt;
"I started with the seminal work of the German critic Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, written in 1957. In his book, Kayser identifies four premises for understanding the grotesque in medieval art. I found that I could use his framework to make sense of the behavior of horror movies....
Premise #3: The grotesque is at play with the absurd.
I've always wondered why people laugh when they watch horror movies. I usually found them, well, profoundly un-funny. Why so much comic relief in Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Living Dead? The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin suggests helpfully that the grotesque as a form of carnival sought to expose the inordinate sense of self-importance among the cultural aristocracy and the religious establishment. Clowns, fools, gargoyles and masks, costumes and games and laughter—all of it was a search after freedom. A freedom for what? To be whole. The only way to heal, it seems, was to laugh at our disintegrating
Not a bad fit with the whole May Day thing, eh?

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