As I write this, America is a bit more than a week away from choosing the next person to lead the most powerful nation that has ever existed and I believe I speak for a great many when I ask…how did it come to this? We are the civilization of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglas, Chuck Yeager and Amelia Earhart, we split the atom and put a man on the moon, we fought a war to end slavery in our own backyards and led the free world to victory over Nazism and Communism…and THIS is the best we can do now? A vulgarian who gets into Twitter wars with ex-beauty queens in the middle of his campaign and a wronged woman whose greatest political “accomplishment” was an epic failure at health care reform and who spent most of this campaign under criminal investigation by the FBI?
What has happened to us?
There’s a bunch of reasons and explanations and analysis that goes into answering that question and a good chunk of it is beyond my meager intellect, but I think there is one word that sums it up. It’s a word that not only applies to the sorry state of our country’s civic order but to this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown that pits “The Wicker Man” (1973) vs. “The Wicker Man” (2006). That word is…standards.
It is fairly common for “The Wicker Man” (1973) is be called a cult classic. That is also entirely incorrect. A cult classic is a bad movie that nevertheless has something in it that a small section of the public loves intensely. “The Wicker Man” (1973) is just a damn great motion picture and likely the best Christian horror flick that will ever be made.
A letter about a missing girl calls Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) to a remote island off the coast of Scotland. He arrives to find that no one, not even the girl’s mother, will admit the vanished child even existed. Howie’s investigation leads him to suspect the girl was killed, as well as brings him into contact with the bawdy pagan religious rituals practiced by the island’s inhabitant. Getting permission from the owner the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), to exhume the girl’s grave, Howie finds her body isn’t in her coffin. Now believing the missing girl is still alive and about to be sacrificed in a vain attempt to revive the island’s failing crops, Howie races to find her before the designated victim has an appointment with The Wicker Man. Oh, and the movie is actually a musical.
I’m not kidding.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the film because even 40some years later, “The Wicker Man” (1973) is still something viewers should experience with as few spoilers as possible. It is a nicely put together little mystery, powered by strong performances from Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland, which takes a turn into the horrific that retains its ability to disturb and unsettle after so many decades.
One thing I will say about it is that people who grow up with American horror movies that usually have a little nudity and a lot of violence may not appreciate why “The Wicker Man” (1973) has little violence and a lot of nudity. It’s not simply because sex sells, while I’m sure the box office appeal of a topless Britt Ekland did not escape the producers’ notice, but because sex is central to the conflict in the story.
“The Wicker Man” (1973) is about the clash between Christian morality and a pagan worldview where the threat isn’t only to Sergeant Howie’s life but to his immortal soul. That clash is most vividly illustrated in how the licentiousness of the islanders confounds and tempts the chastity of the copper from the mainland and it is in that where I fear today’s audiences may have lost or may someday lose the capacity to understand this film. “The Wicker Man” (1973) reflects a society where the dominant influence of Christianity is unquestioned, to the point where it equates Christianity with modernity. It is the Jesus-loving Howie who is the rational and reasonable one who confronts the unthinking superstition and dangerous ignorance of Summerisle. When is the last time you saw a movie where the faithful Christian character was the smart one in the plot? When Howie rejects the advances of a young woman because he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, the viewer is supposed to identify and applaud Howie’s rectitude. In the struggle between Howie and Lord Summerisle, it is the Christian who represents the forces of not only order but progress and enlightenment. People who grow up in a world where sexuality has been severed from almost all moral judgment and who practice largely Christian values that have been disconnected from their religious origins may no longer share the common emotional responses necessary to comprehend what “The Wicker Man” (1973) is trying to tell them.
The movie’s structure and performances are still good enough to engage a post-Christian audience but I worry that their ultimate reaction would be less horrified and more bemused.
Neither horror nor bemusement should be the response of any sentient being to “The Wicker Man” (2006). The only things anyone with half a brain should feel about this wretched remake is anger, disgust and crippling depression at what it says about films and ourselves. It is pretty inarguably the worst big budget studio remake ever done in that it not only completely butchers the entire point of the original but is one of the most shoddily conceived and executed productions you’ll ever watch.
It’s really THAT bad.
Nicolas Cage, in one of the worst performances of his life, plays Edward Malus, a California motorcycle cop. The film opens with him returning a stuffed animal that had fallen out of a station wagon containing a mother and her daughter. A semi then slams into the station wagon and it explodes. None of which has anything at all to do with the rest of the movie. Seriously. We get like 87 flashbacks to that scene and none of them contribute to the plot or theme of the film at all. There’s no reason or rationale for the scene to even exist, especially since it takes the remake a full half hour to get to the same point the original hit one minute after the opening credits ended.
Malus gets a letter from his ex-fiancée (Kate Beahan) who left him at the altar years ago and even though we only get a brief glimpse at the letter, it is obvious that no human hand produced and it was cranked out on a printer with an old timey font. She begs him to come to an island called Summersisle of the coast of Washington and help her find her missing daughter and the movie, which had already been fairly terrible up to then goes completely in the toilet.
In the original, Howie is a police officer from the mainland sent to investigate a missing child on an island. He has no connection to anyone who lives there. So when he doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, it makes complete sense that he would start digging a little deeper because it’s his job to find out. Malus is from California. Why doesn’t he tell his ex to contact local law enforcement? Why doesn’t he contact local law enforcement? And since he knows the complaining witness, when he gets to the island and she refuses to simply tell him what’s going on, how does he not instantly realize there’s something fishy? Malus should not have to investigate ANYTHING. His ex should just be able to tell him what happened and if she refuses to answer, that refusal should send the story into an utterly different direction than the original. But it doesn’t! We get scene after scene of Malus forgetting to ask the most elementary questions and scene after scene of his ex forgetting to tell him to most basic facts he would need to know. When the police officer was an outsider, there was a logic to it being difficult for him to discover what happened to the missing girl. But the remake gives Malus and insider who should be able to answer any question he has. When the other people on Summersisle start denying the girl ever existed, Malus should be able to turn to his ex and ask “What the hell is going on?” and he shouldn’t accept not getting an answer. But the remake stupidly misses that fact and has Malus pointlessly repeat much of Howie’s investigation.
And what the hell is with the extra “s” and going from Summerisle to Summersisle?
“The Wicker Man” (2006) is peppered with idiotic plot points, awful dialog, characters who serve no earthly purpose and a cast of actors who all look like they’re mailing it in. Writer/director Neil LaBute then compounds all that by replacing the pagan religion in the original, which was based on actual history, with a made up bee-centric matriarchy that is infused with so much misogyny it makes Donald Trump look like Gloria Steinem. It’s not even at all clear what this cult believes, other than “men are horrible.” And so there’s no moral or philosophical dimension to what happens to Malus. There’s no battle for his soul or clash between opposing worldviews. There’s just a guy and a coven of crazy rhymes-with-witches.
How did it happen? How do you take the smart script of the original horror movie and mess it up so thoroughly that the remake is enjoyable only as an unintentional comedy? Standards. More precisely, no one bothering to uphold them.
No one cared that the remake’s script didn’t make sense. No one cared that LaBute replaced the Christian/pagan dynamic with his own fear and loathing of women. No one cared that Nicholas Cage was half assing his acting or that his character looked like a total dork riding a bicycle around the island. No one cared whether this movie was any good or not. They just wanted to crap out another horror remake in hopes a gullible audience could be fooled into spending money on it. And they couldn’t even do that right as “The Wicker Man” (2006) was a financial failure.
How did we wind up with a Hobson’s choice for our next President? How can Donald Trump get away with proclaiming his love for torture? Because members of the George W. Bush Administration ordered that real human beings be tortured and none of them were ever held accountable for it. How can Donald Trump be accused of sexually assaulting women and tens of millions of Americans not seem to care? Because when it was Bill Clinton accused of sexually assaulting and raping women, there were tens of millions of different Americans who didn’t seem to care. How does the Democratic Party hand its Presidential nomination to someone being investigated by the FBI? Because, as was said over and over in the 90s, it doesn’t matter as long as she doesn’t get convicted.
Standards are like muscles. If you don’t use them, they get weaker and weaker until they’re good for nothing at all. For decades now, we’ve only cared about winning. Winning the election. Winning the argument. Winning the fight. And any standard that got in our way was derided and tossed aside. Should we be at all surprised that those standards are no longer strong enough to stop us from doing something terrible?
“The Wicker Man” (1976) takes this Throwdown and the people who made “The Wicker Man” (2006) should be taken out behind a barn and shot. Depending on what’s going to happen on November 8, a lot of us may wish to join them.
The Wicker Man (1976)
Written by Anthony Shaffer.
Directed by David Pinner.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cliento, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Water Carr, Ian Campbell, Roy Boyd and Gerry Cowper.
The Wicker Man (2006)
Written and directed by Neil LaBute.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Emily Holmes and Zemphira Gosling.