Witch Cinema 21: The Wicker Man, 2006... What a Waste!
Article ID: 11130
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: September 3rd. 2006
Times Viewed: 14,254
Well, of the many cinematic moments I have eagerly awaited in the past decade of reviewing as the resident Media Coordinator here at Witchvox, I have to say this is probably the most anticipated one of all.
I am sad to report, it is also one of the most bitterly disappointing.
Thinking back to The Craft, The Blair Witch Project, Harry Potter, Practical Magic, The Crucible, and various silly remakes like Bewitched and Satan's School for Girls, it is not an exaggeration to say that all discussion of the portrayal of modern pagan witchcraft (to use Professor Hutton's term) in film must include awareness of and reference to The Wicker Man, a clever, artful and quirky film that Cinefantastique magazine once called "the Citizen Kane of horror films."
I won't go into what made this 1973 B-film (which had its debut on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now) into an instantaneous cult classic. There are scores of sites on the web generated by a huge and illustrious fan base (one of the best I have come across recently is this one by Steve Phillips from the UK) so have a look around and you'll find loads of reviews and other goodies. The thing is, this film is not just a cult favorite of cinemaphiles; it is also a cult favorite of modern pagans.
I should qualify that; some pagans love it (for the music, the sex, the campy dialogue, the intelligent portrayal of a pagan worldview), and some hate it (for the suggestion that modern "enlightened" pagans engage in ritual human sacrifice!), and some are lukewarm (which I will never understand). As someone who has seen it dozens of times, and has compared several of the different versions (the film's original release was cut drastically from the original intended length; sadly some of that "lost" footage has never been recovered, and various "cuts" with various running times exist now), and having been invited to speak at the academic conference devoted to the film in Scotland several years ago, I am gonna go out on a limb here and call myself a fan.
But loving the original should not automatically predispose me to hating the remake. So I knew I'd have to stay open-minded. (Caution: SPOILERS AHEAD!)
I realized the minute I found out Nicolas Cage was the executive producer that it would not be much like the original. I also experienced trepidation when I learned Neil LaBute would write and direct; he is a skilled filmmaker, but I have found him to be a very misanthropic one (check out In the Company of Men, or Your Friends and Neighbors, or The Shape of Things), and have not liked the previous adapted material he's filmed (he made A. S. Byatt's novel Possession into a film that only vaguely resembled the book, although the historical characters were wonderfully cast). As the many differences became known (it would be set in the United States, not Scotland; it would not be a "musical"; and many of the original characters would be changed or eliminated), I steeled myself for the end result.
The remake was mired in difficulty for some time. The original cast was shifted more than once (LeAnn Rimes was originally going to star in it). The final cast is not bad (Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, LeeLee Sobieski, and Diane Delano are all wonderful actresses); but their talents seem wasted, as does the wonderful ability of composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose transcendent work on Twin Peaks established him as a genius of film scoring.
I am not going to complain about the obvious decisions made to differentiate this from the original. (If you have not seen the original, this review may not seem terribly helpful, so get thee to your local video store, pronto!) Moved from a remote island north of Scotland to a remote island near Puget Sound: okay. Not a "musical" (the characters in the original version sang songs within a logical performance context, such as while drinking at a pub or during a ritual, so it was not a typical film musical) anymore: okay. Lord Summerisle is now "Sister Summersisle": okay, but why the slight name change as well as the gender shift? In general the name changes annoyed me. Cage plays "Edward Mayless" and his ex-lover s "Willow Woodward." "Mayless" is a play on May Day I suppose, but the reference to Edward Woodward (who plays Sergeant Neil Howie in the original in an amazingly nuanced performance) is just kind of pathetic. Rowan is the daughter of Willow, and also Edward's ex-lover; Willow sends Edward a letter begging his help to find her missing daughter, after running out on him a decade ago...see where this is going?
The characters are no longer 1970s Brits but contemporary Americans: okay; this makes it fairly certain that Edward's virginity is not going to be an issue. Some of the changes were even somewhat clever: for example, the apple blight is now a failure of crops that leads to a shortage of honey, and the honey motif is carried through in some interesting (if occasionally disturbing ways). The matriarch, Sister Summersisle (why "Sister" and not "Lady"? I think it is some sort of weird cult reference, or maybe some pot-shot at feminism, which is typical for LaBute), is the sort of "queen bee" who presides over her "colony." When Edward commandeers the innkeeper's costume for the processional (Alder MacGregor becomes Sister Beech, played by Delano), it is not Punch but a bear; which seems to be some sort of silly joke. The men of the community are all apparently handicapped or deformed, many of them blind or mute, and one character is punished for helping Edward by having his eyes gouged out and his tongue removed --shades of Thomas Tryons Harvest Home here, obviously. I also detected a bit of an homage to Don't Look Now which is also, to some extent, about a missing girl: the quick shots and dream apparitions of Rowan dressed in a red cardigan echo the shiny red raincoat of Christine in Roeg's thriller.
The film's plot loosely follows the original, and at times the dialogue is lifted directly from the Anthony Shaffer script. But the words often have a hollow ring to them, and the actors often struggle with the stylized dialogue (even the usually-terrific TV actress Diane Delano can't quite deliver what this film needs: to embrace its camp pedigree). Some of the film's most powerful imagery echoes the original, as with the many masked community members in the ritual procession. It's also stunning to see the field where the beehives are kept, mowed into the shape of a giant honeycomb, and the dark forests where Edward searches for Rowan are wonderfully atmospheric.
But even the occasionally-effective visuals cannot save this film from being a ham-fisted, woefully misunderstood interpretation of the original. I suppose it is possible Mr. LaBute thought he'd found some deeper message within the original version and wanted to re-imagine the story as some sort of feminist manifesto. But if that was his intention I would have at least expected a more sophisticated script rewrite. The Wicker Man circa 1973 worked so well as a classy horror film because there was a deep-seated conflict of ideology at its heart. Sergeant Howie was a devout Christian who was offended by what he saw as a community corrupted by paganism: lawless, licentious, godless. He was sent to rescue a young girl, but instead sees his mission as one of exposing the evil that is Summerisle. In LaBute's version, Edward Mayless is only offended (and only mildly so) by the behavior of a bunch of "whackos."
In other words, Howie's psychological conflict is as deep as his own moral stance, and when he finds himself weakening it is a profound message of perseverance and passion that allows him to continue. Even in the film's final moments, his words are inspired, almost beatific. But Mayless's only conflict comes from the fact that the missing girl may or may not be his daughter; and when he is eventually overcome by the villagers, there is no final ephiphany or courageous sermon; he merely screams and flails helplessly. But it is true he punches out three women before he is captured.
And that is another real problem I have with this film. It's one thing to completely change the setting of the story without a whole lot of consideration as to what sort of history or cosmology might apply. A vague expository monologue by Sister Summersisle about her "Celtic ancestors" leaving Europe for Salem, Massachusetts, and then migrating to the Northwest after the persecutions began, and doing everything in service to "the great goddess" does not begin to explain the reasons for the matriarchal structure and agrarian economy of this community.** Give me Christopher Lee's diatribe on apples and Victorian feudalism any day! And Shaffer's original script celebrates a culture which embraces male and female sexuality equally; LaBute imagines a world where men are wordless freaks only kept around for their sperm contributions.
I am really sorry LaBute has these issues with women. But his roster of films thusfar (thoughtful and provocative though some of them have been) have revealed him to be a deeply misogynistic filmmaker. To butcher a complex and uncategorizable film like The Wicker Man and try to force it to serve his discriminatory vision shows a complete failure (or perhaps unwillingness) to comprehend his source material. Why shouldn't any filmmaker doing such a remake want to try to reimagine it on a scale that actually tries to improve upon the original? The nature of adaptation should be characterized by an intricate, even obsessed, relationship with a text, not a passing glance at it.
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Monday, June 7th.. 2004
Email: [Staff Email]
* (There was a brief time when it looked like I might actually be involved in a remake of it, as a research assistant/advisor, when a different producer/director wanted to acquire the rights; but alas Mr. Cage and his millions scooped it up faster)
** It is worth mentioning that Australian witch and media personality Fiona Horne was consulted as an advisor on the pagan content of this film. Though she is not listed in the final credits for the film, I want to thank her for making an effort on behalf of pagans and witches, so that this remake of a well-loved and important film would be rendered as sensitively and intelligently as was possible under the circumstances.
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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