Film Torments: The Wicker Man (2006)
THE MONTH of June is not especially known for a predilection for remakes, but we at Film Torments spit in the face of Hollywood convention – what do they know, anyway? This week, we’re taking a look at probably the most notorious remake of the past decade, bees and all. It is, of course, The Wicker Man.
The original version of The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, is one of my favourite films of all time, and I especially like how much of a litmus test it is for people. Uniquely among my favourites, it’s a film I know full well some people are just going to hate. It’s very unusual for an ostensible horror film, containing almost no gore or jump scares, and its frequent nudity can easily be construed as pornographic outside of its creepy context. If you can look below the surface though, you’ll find a haunting and beautiful parable about righteous men fighting on behalf of their opposing gods.
The story of The Wicker Man is deceptively simple: Neil Howie, a policeman from mainland Scotland receives a letter from the leader of a secluded island informing him that a young girl named Rowan Morrison has disappeared. Sergeant Howie thinks this is a simple missing persons case, but when he arrives alone on the island he finds that the community either deny they recognise a photograph of Rowan or cryptically suggest that she has passed away.
Sergeant Howie eventually meets with Lord Summerisle, the ancestral leader, and learns that this island upholds the ancient Celtic Pagan Gods and deduces that they sacrifice a virgin every year on May Day to enhance their world-famous apple crops. Howie is harassed by the islanders, who make things difficult for him at every turn and behave in sexually provocative ways which upset him as a devout Christian.
In the third act, he infiltrates their May Day festival in a “Punch” costume and hopes to rescue Rowan before they can sacrifice her. In the end, it all turns out to have been a trap, and Rowan is not only alive and well but isn’t the intended sacrifice: Howie himself is. Howie has stumbled into their midst as a “perfect sacrifice”: an adult virgin who willingly assumed the role of Punch, the Fool King.
Cornered with no chance of escape, Howie is sacrificed by being burned alive inside the titular Wicker Man, a huge and terrifying idol. As he faces death, Howie prays for mercy from his own God while the villagers sing a prayer to theirs. There’s no big twist to save him. The Wicker Man collapses with Howie slowly burning inside, and the film ends.
The film wasn’t particularly successful on first release, though it certainly had its early supporters and its stars Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee are both on record as believing the film to be the finest they’ve ever been in (I remind you that Christopher Lee was in Lord of the Rings). Thanks to being championed by various musicians and artists as well as film buffs, The Wicker Man has avoided obscurity and is considered a seminal film both inside and outside of the horror genre.
Then they remade it. In 2006, director Neil LaBute’s long-discussed reinterpretation of The Wicker Man: The Quickening was released to universal disdain. The film was outright rejected by both critics and audiences, but especially by fans of the original.
Beyond the fact that it’s all-American now, the storyline is mostly similar, except with some disastrous alterations. Firstly, Rowan was changed to be the daughter of a definitely-not-a-virgin Howie (renamed Edward Malus) and a woman named Willow (who is nothing like the character named Willow in the original, and now has the surname Woodward which made nobody happy).
Secondly, the religion of the island is changed from an accurate depiction of Celtic Paganism to some sort of weird matriarchal tribe which is obsessed with bees (because bees are matriarchal). As a result, Lord Summerisle is reimagined as a woman and played by Ellen Burstyn, who is WAY too talented to be in this movie, and tries her best but doesn’t have the gift of a brilliant script as Christopher Lee did.
Rather than dressing as Punch, which actually means something, not-Howie dresses as a bear (because bees equals honey equals bears) and runs around punching women in the face. The remake uses many modern horror clichés, such as characters speaking in unison, jump scares and daydreams about a little girl being hit by a truck which have nothing to do with anything, and a totally generic score.
All of this instead of developing any characters or creating an ambient soundtrack, which is quite impressive considering how rich the original is in those regards. It’s as shallow a remake as you can get for such deep source material.
Horror movies are remade constantly, whether warranted or not. Common motivess include; to capitalise on a famous title, and the nostalgia of older viewers, to update and contemporise the story for a younger audience who won’t have watched the older version, and good old fashioned laziness. The Wicker Man 2: Electric Boogaloo definitely has shades of all of these motives, but the way it goes about “updating” the original is laughable.
The translation to an American location needn’t be a problem, but the Scottishness of the original and its well-researched use of ancient Celtic Paganism are what give the film such flavour. It’s perfectly possible to rejig the story with a different religion and a different country, but the entirely invented cult (which is more than a little misoynistic in its conception) lacks any credibility.
Sergeant Howie was played with incredible depth and fierce dedication by Edward Woodward. Howie is a zealous Catholic and an uncompromising policeman, and a highly compelling lead who I feel differently about from one viewing to the next. In the remake, Officer Edward Malus (note the choice of forename) is played by Nicolas Cage, an actor who isn’t nearly as comfortable with subtlety and subtext.
I’m not one of those people to jump on the Cage-bashing bandwagon, because he’s given many fine performances (Leaving Las Vegas, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Adaptation…) but when the guy phones it in he rips the phone off the wall and hits a woman in the face with it. There’s no reason why Cage couldn’t do a good job in this film if it was a competent adaptation, but sadly it’s not. Howie doesn’t believe in anything in this film: instead of being a devout Christian and a virgin, his exploitable weakness is that he has a bee allergy.
In the original, Howie arrives on the island looking for a girl named Rowan Morrison after being contacted by Lord Summerisle. All he has is a picture, but he finds that the community there are either denying that Rowan ever existed, or hinting that she did exist but is now dead, or suggesting that she is still alive somewhere. He can’t get a straight answer, but he stays professional and impersonal for as long as he can: he’s a compelling detective, tirelessly dedicated to his job and uncompromising with the mumbo-jumbo spouted by the cult-like community.
Cage is so poorly directed and so beyond control in this film that he will take a straightforward line such as “How did it get burned?” (a reasonable question) or “not the bees” (a valid request) or “you bitches!” (an understandable assessment) and repeat them ad nauseum in a desperate screech. It’s hilarious out of context and the source of many a meme, but within the context of the film I’m just too bummed out by how many people are being robbed of The Wicker Man’s greatness that I can’t even laugh.
Among the original’s most famous scenes is the “Willow’s Song” scene, in which the landlord’s daughter Willow attempts to seduce Howie through the wall between their bedrooms. Willow is first sung about in a bawdy song named “The Landlord’s Daughter” which suggests that she’s just the village bicycle.
We eventually learn that as the most beautiful woman on the island she is tasked with taking the virginity of all the boys when they come of age, while the patrons of the pub listen and sing from below. In Willow’s Song, a nude Willow sings and dances to a cooing siren song (well, technically Britt Ekland’s dub voice sings it and her body double dances it) while Howie tries desperately to resist.
It’s a gorgeous and chilling sequence, and turns out to be pivotal to the plot. If Howie had given into temptation and accepted Willow’s invitation, his fate would be entirely different. He would have betrayed his own values and cheated on his fiancée, but he would no longer be the virgin they need him to be. He would survive, but he would survive in shame, rather than dying gracefully. It sums up the tone of the film perfectly: Sensual and enigmatic, yet deeply disturbing. In the remake, Nicolas Cage dresses as a bear and punches a woman in the face.
I wouldn’t recommend the remake to anyone, but I implore everyone to seek out the original. It’s one of the finest British films there is, and so utterly unique that even its remake barely resembles it. The acting, the music and the tense atmosphere of the original film are all masterful, while the remake was made by people who I can’t believe even saw the original.
I want to give some partial credit for not doing a redundant replica or a more explicitly sexualised version (as is usually the case with horror films), but even on its own terms The Wicker Man: Man Wickier fails to sustain any intellectual engagement, any emotional attachment or any artistic credibility. This film is a fountain of memes, but is otherwise dry and pointless.