Thursday, August 31, 2006

THE WICKER MAN (2006) - like sending a three-toed sloth out to sieze turf from a wolverine

Significant plot spoilers follow......

At times of trouble I turn to the good Doctor. Hunter S. Thompson, that is. I quote from FEAR & LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL - his record of the 1972 Presidential election: "The mood of the nation in 1972 was so overwhelmingly vengeful, greedy, bigoted and blindly reactionary that no presidential candidate who even faintly reminded Typical Voters of the fear and anxiety they'd felt during the constant sexual upheavals of the 1960s had any chance at all of beating Nixon." In that weird time - when the giant post-hallucinatory downer hit the free love generation - we got a movie for the times: THE WICKER MAN. Now, thirty-three years later, when one half of America thinks abortion should be outlawed and the other half is cheerfully celebrating gay marriages, THE WICKER MAN once more appears on our screens. But how the mighty are fallen.

The 1973 version of THE WICKER MAN is a bizarre British (oc)cult thriller, directed by Robin Hardy using a quality screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. Shaffer wanted to write a horror story without blood and he did that by messing with our heads rather than our spleens and by using the structure of a whodunnit. In the Hardy/Shaffer film, a virginal, fervently Christian copper called Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is mysteriously summoned to an island off the Scottish coast. He is appalled by the licentious locals. At first, we like the locals more than Howie. After all, they're just having a good time, right? But soon the atmosphere turns nasty. The cute "rosemary and thyme" folksy songs cover up a more profound and sinister pagan cult, involving child abuse and human sacrifice. It's all presided over by Christopher Lee, who plays Lord Summerisle. The mood is sombre, sinister and slow-burning, and by the end we are presented with a provocative confrontation between dogmatic Christianty and pagan zealoutry. I have always read the ending as the cinematic equivalent of T.S.Eliot's THE HOLLOW MAN, but its greatness lies in its ambiguity. It could also be seen as powerful warning against moral extremism in all its forms.

THE WICKER MAN (1973) is truly a fascinating film, which is not to say that it's flawless. The folksy dancing and singing can be camp, and the sequence where the beautiful inn-keeper's daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland with an appalling dubbed Scottish accent and a body double) dances and rubs up against a bedroom wall, trying to seduce Howie is irredeemably kitsch. Still, the original movie is a really great film.

I had pretty high hopes for THE WICKER MAN (2006) too. It is written and adapted by Neil LaBute, who famously brought us IN THE COMPANY OF MEN - a movie so brutal it is rarely available on DVD. If anyone would be able to bring us a WICKER MAN for our times, surely it was LaBute? The thing is, this new movie is a 100% studio production. Think of it as a Nic Cage vehicle and nothing more.

To be sure, LaBute has kept the mechanical workings of the original plot. There is still a copper, played by
Nic Cage, who is called to a mysterious island to find a little lost girl. But he is no religious virgin - rather a nice, if introverted, guy. Indeed, the 2006 copper, rather than being aggressively seduced by Willow, was actually engaged to her, and comes at her request. And what a sappy, pathetic Willow Woodward (geddit?!) we are given - all hippy hair and pouty lips and about as sexless as a crash test dummy. Nic Cage's character doesn't seem morally outraged by the goings-on the island. He is not asked to question his beliefs or hold onto them against all odds. He ends the movie the same man as when he started - a decent, if introverted guy, who gets straightforwardly freaked out that some nutters might be about to torch a little girl just to ensure their organic honey harvest works out. The other bit of studio cyncism involves supplanting the Christopher Lee/Lord Summerisle character with a woman: horror icon Ellen Burstyn playing Sister Summerisle. I suppose that in a post-DA VINCI CODE world, everything has to be about the repression of the feminine.

Without the philosophical provocation and the slighly mad kistch element, THE WICKER MAN remake becomes a rather dull whodunnit. Except we know the ending. Which makes this movie nothing more than an embarrasing coda in the mythic history of the original movie.

THE WICKER MAN (2006) was released today in the Netherlands and in the UK. It opens in the US tomorrow and plays Venice on the 4th September 2006. It opens in the Philippines, Israel, Italy and the Ivory Coast on the 9th, and in Greece and Iceland on the 22nd. THE WICKER MAN opens in Belgium, Brazil and Spain in October and in Germany and Denmark in November.


  1. i totally agree with u here BINA, but if u look at the film as a story about a man and a hairpiece and then it's really quite an epic film.

    also +PLEASE tell me what happened in the final frames of CACHE? I totally missed it and walked awy from TV as credits rolled. Please don't make me rent it again. PLEASE.


  2. Hi Duncan, nice to hear from you again.

    - to all who do not want to know about the final frames of CACHE/HIDDEN do not proceed................

    We see a long shot of the steps of Pierrot's school - lots of kids are leaving. It's shot in the manner of the old voyeur's tapes, so do we conclude that it is also shot by the voyeur or is standard CCTV footage. We see Pierrot meet the son of the Algerian that committed suicide in front of Georges. They have a discussion that we cannot hear. Have they met before? Are they the culprits? Or is it Georges.

    Haneke says there is no solution.

  3. The original was not based on a book written by Mr. Shaffer. It was an origianl Screenplay that was later written out as a novel.
    I must agree, however, that I had high hopes for this remake. I believed it possible to adapt this movie. The more I learned about it (pre-release) the more I feared it's 'remake' stuts and felt we would all be better served were it simply 'inspired by'.
    Thanks for a brill review!

  4. Thanks for the correction, anonymous - the post has been updated. Laters, Bina.