Collins’ Crypt: In Defense Of THE WICKER MAN

Yes, that one.

For a box office dud with a historic F cinemascore and real reviews that are hardly any better, the only thing I really dislike about the 2006 The Wicker Man has nothing to do with the film's quality or even existence - it's that it put the memefication of Nicolas Cage into overdrive. Released on DVD shortly after YouTube really hit its stride (via Google's purchase of it), the film's wackier moments - stripped of their context - were shared en masse on the site, and previous examples of Cage's "mega-acting" followed. His box office clout (which was always tenuous) began to wither for good not long after that, and now, ten years later, the movie exists as an instant joke - just as you mock the ET game for Atari when discussing video game failures, you bring up The Wicker Man as a go-to example of a movie bomb, or a terrible remake, or even the actor's nadir.

Well I can't deny the movie's failure in a financial sense - the 40m budget wasn't even matched on a worldwide scale, let alone exceeded, and I can't imagine it was much of a hit on disc (especially when the "highlights" were so widely shared on a video site - before it became inundated with ads). But it's far from Cage's worst movie; I wouldn't even have said as much in 2006 (Trapped in Paradise, Guarding Tess...), let alone now, with his filmography increasingly clogged with VOD premieres and the like. Hell, his very next two movies - Ghost Rider and Next - were far worse (and the latter an even bigger dud, for the record), so I honestly can't take you seriously if you try to levy any sort of "Worst movie of all time" type complaints at this one. It's not even in Cage's bottom 10 at this point.

Alas, with the mere mention of the movie sending people into a blinding rage (or fits of laughter), there isn't much use in trying to convince anyone to give it another chance. I can only hope a few like-minded folks out there will agree with me that this isn't that bad of a movie at all, unfairly maligned and curiously lambasted for its remake status when the original has its own share of offbeat choices. Let's not forget that the mid to late '00s were plagued with remakes, many of a dubious nature - this was one of the more inspired choices for a major studio to throw a lot of money at, if you ask me. While others like When A Stranger Calls and The Omen had no reason to exist other than to coast on the strength of their familiar (and American) titles, the original Wicker Man was a realtively obscure British film that barely saw release in the US, and was often presented in a truncated form to boot, leaving its preferred version almost impossible to track down (and even the cut versions going in and out of print, at least here in the US). Clearly, Warner Bros. wasn't giving Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage 40 million dollars to remake a horror movie because they knew fans would show up for anything with that title (as they did for The Omen '06, to the tune of 54m - I dare you to tell me that movie's better) - they saw potential in this strange tale being retold by these unique talents, regardless of the fact that it had been done before.

As I've said in the past, I prefer remakes to keep the basic story of the original but otherwise go about carving their own identity - Dawn of the Dead is probably one of the best examples I can think of, as it retained the one line concept ("Zombies trap people in a mall") and changes nearly everything else. The more alike the films are, the less likely it is I'll be able to forget about the original film for a while and find myself unable to get engulfed by the new one. That being said, LaBute's version does stick pretty closely to Robin Hardy's original in terms of plot and structure, but the differences are big enough to still give the film its own life; even when the dialogue is basically the same, the context changes enough to keep it from dipping into Van Sant Psycho territory. I wouldn't want to watch the two films back to back as I could with Dawn or a few other remake/original combos, but they're different enough that I can enjoy them both and appreciate their respective strengths.

The biggest change is gender-based: Summerisle (or Summersisle in the remake) is a matriarchy in the new film, allowing Ellen Burstyn (!) to play the Christopher Lee role. This is another bit of evidence that the movie is far from a total joke - I imagine the star of The Exorcist was offered countless genre films in the 30 or so years following the film's success, but apart from a vocal cameo in Red Dragon, this was her first horror role since that landmark film (coincidentally made the same year as the original Wicker Man), which should give the movie some cred. The men on the island are mute, borderline drones that perform the heavy lifting but otherwise have no apparent power in the community beyond their seed, so even though Cage's character (now named Edward, after the original's star Edward Woodward) goes through all of the same scenes, more or less, there's a different dynamic to most of them. When the character's lack of authority is brought up again and again, it's not just a man fighting a system that doesn't play by his accustomed rules - he's also a man being put in his place by a woman. 

Furthermore, it's interesting how abrasive the women are to him, unlike the slightly more hospitable men of the original. The remake reduces the original's "Paganism vs. Christianity" angle in favor of placing a man at odds with a matriarchal system, though I think it's not as explicit as it could have been (given LaBute's previous work, this could be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view). Lee's version of Summerisle is somewhat welcoming, if condescending - Burstyn's version is combative from the start, openly mocking him at times without even trying to pretend she wants to help. Ditto the bartender; the male version in the original doesn't exactly bend over backwards to help him, but he's a saint compared to Diane Delano's version, who practically deserves the smack in the face Cage gives her later (when he needs to knock her out to get her costume). The men can't talk, so apart from his ex-girlfriend (who is off her rocker) no one is particularly civil to him for the entirety of his time on the island, even when he's being courteous. Woodward's version is an asshole as soon as he arrives, even when the people are open to answering his questions or fulfilling his demands (he can't even ask for a glass of whiskey from a bartender without sounding like a jerk). Like I said, I wouldn't want to watch the films back to back, but it might be fun to take a few scenes where the dialogue is virtually identical and see how differently it plays when the dynamic has been altered (in many cases reversed). The only other recent example of this approach that comes to mind is We Are What We Are, which inverted the roles within the family unit as well, though in that case I prefer the remake (from Cold in July's Jim Mickle) to the original.

The other big change (besides the lack of songs, but for the most part I can't say I missed them - some were nothing more than pace-killers in the original) is that the hero actually has a genuine reason to find Rowan, the missing girl who provides the movie with its central mystery. In the original, Woodward's Sergeant Howie gets an anonymous letter about the missing girl and makes it his life's mission just like that, despite having no connection to the girl, the island, etc. Here, Cage gets the letter from an ex-girlfriend, who left him to join this cult and feels he's the only one that she can count on to find her. It's not much of a surprise to learn that he's the biological father, strengthening his resolve to find her and also giving the movie a bit more of a narrative thrust. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy and (again) prefer the original, but even before I saw the remake I always had trouble with Howie's dedication to something so random (and that he spends almost zero time being concerned with why he was the one they contacted in the first place). This may have been a bit conventional, but at least kept me from constantly questioning the sanity of the hero. Howie should have left after ten minutes, but Edward has a blood tie to the girl, so his dedication to finding her is never a puzzle. It also makes Rowan's ruse more heartbreaking - whereas Howie was sold out by a random girl who meant nothing to him, Cage's hero is undone by his own daughter. It does make me wish that someone a bit younger than Cage was cast (the actress playing his ex is ten years his junior), as it might be easier to sell the idea that he's her father (without ever sharing a scene as such), but as a legitimate fan of the actor it was very appealing to me to see him topline a horror movie (his first since Vampire's Kiss, though he's done several since), so it was easy for me to forgive.

That's not to say I fully understand everything the actor does here. Cage has always made eccentric choices even in his most mainstream roles (Stanley Goodspeed is the weirdest "John McClane" type hero in a blockbuster ever), and this is no exception, but it's kind of a weird movie anyway. Even if the most straight-laced guy on the planet had played the role (let's say Aaron Eckhart, an fitting example given his history with LaBute - he actually makes a laughably quick cameo in the film's first scene), this movie would have its share of WTF moments, so putting a WTF kind of actor in the role just magnifies everything. His off-kilter line readings ("How'ditgetburned?") and tics you can almost guarantee he added to the script himself (his character's fondness for self-help books on tape being a particular oddity) would be enough to give the movie a bit of character even if it had a routine denouement, but this is a movie that has its hero (in both versions) put on a silly costume to infiltrate the villains' festival and mount a rescue attempt. Yes, the remake's version is even sillier (a bear costume instead of a jester), but let's not pretend the original is this super serious nailbiter that LaBute and Cage were shitting on. They just changed the costume.

Of course, that's assuming the remake's detractors have even SEEN the original, which I often suspect is not the case. Cage's "Killing me won't bring back your precious honey!" is an oft-quoted example of how "silly" the movie is... but it's pretty close to the original's "Killing me won't bring back your damned apples!". This reflects one of the movie's other changes, as Summerisle's crop is no longer apples but honey - which gives the movie an excuse for some bee attack scenes that the original obviously lacks (Cage's character is allergic, something that people also find very funny). So it has some sillier elements, yes, but it also has some more genuine horror scenes (there's also a pretty good bit where Cage investigates a mill and nearly falls to his death), a decision I can appreciate - the more conventional elements that are added make the insane climax stick out all the more, if you ask me. Perhaps another actor might have been better to take this journey (it's hard to imagine Cage finding anything too crazy even for him), but on a conceptual level, I think it was a fine choice. Instead of hippie songs and topiary penises, the remake pretends to be a little more mainstream for its first hour or so, lulling viewers - at least the ones who never saw the original - into a false sense of security. And then bam! Things go batshit in the third act, which hopefully shocked a few viewers. I believe in seeing the originals before the remakes, but with this one I might be tempted to make an exception: you'd probably expect a '70s British movie to get a little weird, but not a bid budget movie from the same studio that gives you the Superman and Harry Potter movies.

Is it a masterpiece? Heavens no. There are far too many flashbacks and nightmares about the opening sequence, where Cage is trying to rescue a woman and her daughter from their burning car, and if you've seen the original there's precious little suspense to the proceedings (though I guess one could argue they weren't expecting a major studio release with a fairly big budget to retain the downer ending). But I wouldn't offer the original that high of a compliment, either - Woodward's character is a bit too passive and his entry to the story is far too flimsy to be believable. Both films make some wrong choices, in other words - I don't think it's fair to dismiss the remake outright simply because it's a big budget movie that played on 2,000 screens instead of this weird little British movie you saw on TV on a late night broadcast or read about in Rue Morgue one day (as with the same year's Black Xmas, I realized that horror fans get overly protective when the original is slightly obscure, for whatever reason). It's a shame that Cage's mere appearance can result in some people bursting into laughter (I'm not exaggerating - I ultimately walked out of a revival screening last week and finished my viewing at home after a sizable chunk of the audience drowned out some dialogue because they were still laughing at the sight of Cage merely opening a door), because the film is more interesting than it ever really gets credit for, something only those who can tell the difference between Cage the Oscar-winning actor and Cage the guy from internet gags will notice. The results may be imperfect, but if you look at the other horror remakes coming along at that time (Night of the Living Dead 3D, Pulse, the ones I mentioned above), it's one of the very few anyone still thinks about - that's gotta count for something.

Final note - both Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee dismissed the film's existence (the latter did so by dismissing the idea of remakes in their entirety, despite having appeared in Tim Burton's Willy Wonka remake the year before), and yet went on to make The Wicker Tree, a frontrunner for one of the worst films of 2011. If you honestly believe that THAT pile of crap was somehow more worthy of being associated with the original film than Cage/LaBute's version, I implore you to make your case in the comments.