Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Wicker Man

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In the previous article, which looked at Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and discussed what makes a good remake: It has to pay homage to the original while also adding a new twist to an old idea. It needs to be part faithful and part innovative. Above all, of course, it should be a well-written, well-produced movie. The 2006 remake of the Wicker Man failed on all counts.

For those unfamiliar with the original 1973 British cult classic, it’s an eerie mystery/horror hybrid about a devoutly religious Christian police officer named Sergeant Howie, who arrives on the strange Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl named Rowan. Howie is appalled to find that paganism is practiced on the island, as is public sex and teaching kids the phallic associations of the maypole. Finding pictures of the past young “May Queens” of the harvest rituals, Howie deduces that the missing girl was set to be the next queen of the harvest ritual.   

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Horror legend Christopher Lee played Lord Summerisle, the nominal leader of the island, who is no help in finding the girl. An attempt is made to distract him from his investigation by the lovely Britt Ekland, who fails to seduce Howie. Eventually, Howie learns that virgins are sacrificed whenever the harvest is bad. Rushing to rescue Rowan, Howie thinks he’s saved the day but finds out he’s been tricked…He was baited there deliberately, (Even little Rowan was in on it) because he’s a virgin (his religion frowns on premarital sex), he represents power (he’s a cop), he came to the island willingly, and he is—in their eyes—a fool. He’s the perfect sacrifice! Our hero is locked in a giant wicker man, and burned as a sacrifice to pagan Gods while the islanders sing a folk song.

The unexpected and disturbing ending makes an already excellent movie even better. How many movies end with the hero being burned alive? The film maintains an ominous, gloomy tone all the way through and the performances are excellent. Edward Woodward, who starred in the Equalizer TV series, captures both the single minded determination and religion devotion of the sergeant. Christopher Lee is always a good addition to any horror film. Not that this is purely a horror film; it could be considered a mystery, as well. The mix of genres works very well. 

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And now we come to the 2006 remake, starring Nicholas Cage. Oooh boy! Where to start with this mess? It gets everything wrong. How can such a good story be reduced to such a cluster-blunder. Let’s look at the (many) flaws.

First of all, while the remake follows a similar plot, it misses the message(s) of the first film. On the surface, the original movie is about the conflict between Christianity and other religions. Starting in the 1960s, the United Kingdom was slowly moving away from its strong Christian majority toward a more secular society. This movie looked at the fear some Christians had of these strange religions that were becoming more prominent in their homeland.

On another level, there was a second message. This movie came only a year after the 1972 Olympic Massacre in Munich, and so served as a cautionary tale about being to blindly devout to any religion. The islanders here have such faith that their pagan gods will save them from famine that they are willing to sacrifice human beings. Howie, on the other hand, is so enraged by the “heathen” behavior of the locals that he considers them “bloody mad” for their beliefs, that he underestimates the “heathens”, who he considers inferior and ultimate walks right into the fatal trap.

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The new film strips away all the religious subtext, which is a pity since the topic of religious zealotry is still just as politically volatile today as it was 42 years ago. Instead, the new Wicker Man gives us a story about a matriarchal society that enslaves and sacrifices men. The message is very muddled. Is it pro feminism or against it? It depicts an efficient island ruled by women who control their men easily enough, and outwit cop Cage. You could say that their treatment of men as second-class citizens is appropriate turn-about for the way women were once treated (and in some countries still are.) However, the women here are ruthless in their disdainful treatment of men. So is the film advocating or condemning the idea of a matriarchal society? Who knows?

The remake film uses a heavy-handed metaphor about bees to hammer its message home. Yes, women are the queens on this island, while men are drones and workers. We even find out that Cage is allergic to bees, meaning the bees are his weakness. (Hence, the women are going to be lethal to him.) At one point, Cage is almost stung to death while stupidly running through a bee husbandry area, foreshadowing his doom at the hands of the real ‘Queen Bees’ who run the island. 

Another problem with this film is the tone. It’s unintentionally hilarious. Where the first film maintained its spooky feel all the way through, the remake seems almost like a parody. When one of the supposedly most dramatic moments of the film has Cage in a BEAR COSTUME running past a woman and punching her in the face, how can you take any of this seriously? The recurrent dream sequence of a girl he once failed to save getting hit by a truck over and over is meant to show his guilt, but the visual actually becomes funnier and funnier each time it’s used. It’s like a Looney Toons scene on a loop.

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The infamous “Not the bees!” scene has made the rounds on the internet as one of the funniest moments in recent film—but it’s supposed to be scary! This scene was so bad that it was rightfully edited out of the theatrical version but is now back in the DVD release, and in all its inept, laughable glory.  

The worst part of the film is Cage himself as officer Edward Malus. Cage overacts enough to make Jim Carrey say “Reign it in, will you please!” (Especially in the “Not the bees” scene.) Whereas Edward Woodward played Howie as a man of uncompromising dedication, both to his job and to his religion, Cage comes across as portraying his usual man-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown persona, that we’ve seen so many times from him. This makes his character harder to understand. Is officer Malus being driven insane by his past guilt and his present dilemma, or is this just Nick Cage being Nick Cage? Who knows?

The lack of the religious element also makes it unnecessary for Officer Malus to become the sacrifice inside the Wicker Man. We know he’s not a virgin, since the whole reason he came to the island is because the missing girl he comes to find is his long-lost daughter. There were other men on the island who could have been sacrificed instead, so baiting a police officer into a fatal trap when it’s not necessary seems rather stupid.

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Another problem with the Malus character is his obvious lack of any investigative or deductive skill. He asks questions, gets evasive answers and doesn’t follow up for any clarification. When he first reaches the island, he finds the islanders carrying a human-sized sack, which has something wriggling inside it and blood pouring out of the bag. So what does our expert investigator do? Nothing! He shrugs it off and walks away without looking inside. The man is a moron! And this is our hero?

Everything is done wrong in this movie. It takes away every important element from the original and instead gives us a ludicrous, unfocused and inadvertently comical misfire that has won multiple Razzie Awards for its sheer awfulness. The original is still well regarded today, decades after its release because it was done so artfully and cleverly. In fact, the reason Christopher Lee joined the original cast is because he wanted to do a more intelligent movie than the horror films he’d been appearing in for the previous few years. This remake is anything but intelligent. It’s an insult to anyone’s intelligence. It’s a total failure as a remake and as a film in general.

So that’s all for this week and our look at a Remake Done Wrong. Part three will be out next week when we’ll look at another Remake Done Right.