Obviously any attempt at remaking an absolute classic like Robin Hardy? 1973 thriller THE WICKER MAN is doomed to some sort of failure before the lens cap even comes off. I mean, we?e not only talking about one of my own personal favourite movies of all time, we?e talking about a much-cherished cult film which has, over the last thirty-three years, built up a formidable reputation amongst genre aficionados and the very idea of revisitng this material is most likely to encourage the original? admirers to consider hurling the director into some sort of giant man-shaped effigy before setting it alight? Or something. But here it is anyway, contemporary Hollywood? take on screenwriter Anthony Shaffer? vision of an isolated pagan community and its peculiar sacrificial rituals. The greatest surprise of this film is that it isn? half bad?n
Writer/director Neil LaBute has, to his credit, refashioned the story of THE WICKER MAN, removing elements from the original which just wouldn? wash with a modern audience. Nicolas Cage may be a severely versatile actor but even he wouldn? be able to convince an audience that he? a chaste, uptight virgin, saving himself for his wedding night a la Edward Woodward? Sgt Howie of the original film. Nor, in these sensitive times, would a story about a community adhering rigidly to an austere pagan religion chime well with post 9/11 sensibilities. So here we have Cage as Edward Maulis, a motorbike cop traumatised by a car crash in which a young mother and daughter are?ait for it?urnt to death. Taking extended sick leave he receives a letter from an ex-lover, Willow Woodward (Beahan) who lives on the remote Summersile and is sick with worry at the disappearance of her young daughter Rowan (Parker). Maulis travels to the island which is populated entirely by rather odd women and a handful of mute men. The island is run like a bee colony with the mysterious Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) as the Queen, the other women serving as the workers and the placid men in the role of the drones. This is the conceit the film is built around; a society which has isolated itself from the brutality and savagery of the outside world, but which follow age-old traditions when the crops fail and offering up terrible sacrifices.
The original WICKER MAN was a dark and unsettling movie from the outset. Set entirely on the island the audience was left disorientated, with no reassuring real-world reference points. This new version keeps us grounded in Maulis?world for its first twenty minutes or so before shifting to Summersisle and only when we get to the island does the film really start to work. The inhabitants of the island are weird and disturbing, and despite Cage? shouty, punchy cop character having none of the uptight nuances of Woodward? performance, the film still manages to portray his increasing bemusement and, ultimately, terror, as he probes deeper into the island and discovers the truth about its inhabitants. Superb performances by Ellen Burstyn and SIX FEET UNDER? Frances Conroy manage to create the sense of dislocated other-worldliness the film needs if it? to unnerve its audience.
It? hard to believe that a modern Hollywood movie could replicate the bleak, harrowing ending of the original WICKER MAN and it? to LaBute? credit that he hasn? chickened out here. In the last hour, a film which has been not much more than a slightly off-kilter police procedural manages to weird itself up as the inhabitants dress themselves in their ritualistic costumes and march across the island in preparation for the ultimate sacrifice. The film loses the eerie songs and chants of the original, preferring to rely on Angelo Badalamanti? admittedly evocative score, but there? a real sense of eeriness to the scenes where Maulis confronts the crowd and realises his fate and, worse, that no-one? coming to help and there? no escape. Some of the exposition here is clumsy and heavy-handed and while the film doesn? avoid the wicker man sequence itself, it barely does it justice by rushing the whole scene by in about two minutes where the original lingered on the sacrifice and allowed the audience to gape in astonishment. THE WICKER MAN almost blows it by a completely unnecessary ?ix Months later?coda which adds nothing to the narrative and almost kills the tension of the previous scene buy suddenly wrenching us back to the real world?n
I admit I? a bit ambivalent about this new WICKER MAN but that? largely because the original is so cherished. LaBute? done a workmanlike job; technically the film is well shot and the acting? generally effective. It? neither the abortion it could have been nor the masterpiece it already was. If you?e not seen the original you?l find much to engage your attention here. But those of us who adore Hardy? classic will just file this one away as yet another decent enough remake which never really needed to be made.