Welcome to Second Chances, a recurring feature which gives widely underloved and notoriously maligned genre works another opportunity to impress and redeem themselves with a reviewer who initially found them severely lacking. Maybe these follow-up looks will result in a kinder re-evaluation…or maybe not. Will dull misfires shine brighter after years of distance and nostalgia? Will initially infuriating films somehow reveal their hidden genius?
Ever utterly despise a movie so much that your white-hot anger terrified a friend stuck listening to you rant and rave for a solid half hour after the two of you watched the offending flick unspool on the big screen?
To set the scene: it’s late August, 2006. I was pretty much at the midpoint of my fifteen year career as a movie theatre’s assistant manager in Small Town, Kentucky. The job was fun enough for this movie nerd, what with its constant access to movie posters, free popcorn, and fellow film enthusiasts to chat with. But maybe the best perk of the job was the ability to preview films after-hours in advance of their release. In my time at that theatre, I must have watched hundreds upon hundreds of films in the post-midnight hours once my evening shifts had ended.
And no early preview screening so raised my ire as the one for the little horror remake that had my hopes sky high in anticipation of its release – Neil LaBute‘s remake of the 1973 folk horror classic The Wicker Man. With its impressive cast (pre-meme Nicolas Cage! Ellen Burstyn! Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy!), praised playwright turned filmmaker LaBute at the helm, and the solid foundation provided by its masterpiece of a predecessor, 2006’s Wicker Man was perhaps the single most anticipated film for this horror nerd during the year of its release. So when it came time to preview the film’s 35mm print (a task theatre employees would get paid for, as we would have to potentially repair any missplices or reorder misplaced reels if the occasion called for it), I gladly volunteered. I invited along a fellow film nerd familiar with the original movie, threaded up the print through the projector, and pressed the start button on what I was certain would be a special, special film.
I wasn’t entirely wrong.
What we witnessed during that late screening was one of the most tonally chaotic, disrespectful, and downright infuriating movies I’ve ever had the displeasure to suffer through. In discussing the film after the credits hit and the film print dropped, I found my voice growing louder and louder as I paced back and forth in my theatre’s lobby, drawing looks of concern from my friend – for my well-being at first, and then perhaps his own. Surely my heightened expectations played a role in my disappointment, but so too did the film’s own shortcomings, which I saw as being legion. And I swore, right then and there amidst my cursing and fist-waving, that I would never again set eyes upon that cinematic atrocity, that insult to a genre classic, ever again.
Before I dive into the second chance I’ve given this film, a brief recap for those who’ve never seen it, and those who’ve done their very best to forget it.
Emotionally broken by a tragic traffic stop that claimed the lives of a mother and her child, Edward Malus (Cage) has taken a leave of absence from his job as a California Highway Patrolman. While in self-imposed exile, he receives a letter from Willow Woodward, an old flame who’d broken his heart years earlier who now needs his help to find her missing daughter on the remote Pacific Northwest island of Summersisle. While there, the hapless cop is confronted with a matriarchal society populated by women claiming no knowledge of the little girl’s existence, let alone her current whereabouts. As Malus unravels the mystery of the disappearance, he begins to uncover the true nature of not only the island’s inhabitants, but of their ghastly intentions for him – all serving to lead him to his inevitable appointment with the Wicker Man.
At a glance, the setup bears a close resemblance to the original 1973 film. But it’s in the details (and, unfortunately, the execution) that the remake establishes its own distinct identity. In place of the original’s engaging story, well-drawn characters and genuinely creepy mix of horror and humor, the remake saddles its audience with a plodding mystery, cliched stock characters and a tonal mishmash which neither horrifies nor amuses. I’d hoped that my revisit of this film would reveal a misunderstood gem (as I’ve occasionally heard fans defend it as being), but no. In rewatching the movie for this article, I’m sad to report that the film is every bit the bitter disappointment that it was thirteen years ago.
The trouble starts almost straight away, with an action sequence that fails to either excite or shock. It’s an interesting choice, to give the lead character a tragic backstory which drives him on to investigate the little girl’s disappearance later on (he needed more motivation to save a child, one supposes the filmmaker assumed?), but the way in which this moment unfolds – what with its pedestrian staging and unimpressive pyrotechnics – signals exactly the sort of uninspiring movie we’re in for before the title card even hits. The film is punctuated by similar action beats (Malus randomly falling through a barn floor, Malus pinballing off of a number of beehives in an unintentionally hilarious moment), none of which manage to thrill.
This listless approach to its setpieces extends to the storytelling, as well. At its worst (which covers a LOT of real estate in this film), The Wicker Man wallows in tired, hackneyed horror/mystery tropes. Narration, flashbacks, dream sequences, dreams within dreams, jump scares, lazy exposition dumps – all stand in place of any attempt at originality (a tall order for a remake, I suppose, but not an entirely unreasonable one). This is an unpleasant surprise considering not only its filmic forebear, but LaBute’s involvement as well. The playwright turned filmmaker has been responsible for some fascinating, well received works, including the films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. LaBute was an unexpected and exciting choice to write and helm this particular remake, if for no other reason than he would undoubtedly bring more to his version than a simple retreading of the original film’s beats and themes. And maybe, in some small way, LaBute succeeded in regard to the latter.
Supplanting the ’73 film’s struggle between Christianity and Paganism with his recurring concerns with gender politics and misogyny, LaBute reframes the Wicker Man as a battle of wills between a lone man and a society of women. In doing so, he gives us a protagonist who’s often unlikeable, given his treatment of the women surrounding him. Malus seems to get along well enough with scant few men in the story, but hardly at all with the women. One could chalk this up to the fact that the character always seems to feel out of his depth while investigating the mystery in this matriarchal society, but his irascibility often comes off as the character having an all-around dislike of women. As a result, Malus often comes across as even more of an asshole than the original film’s hard-charging religious bigot Sergeant Howie, which makes the film’s finale oddly more satisfying than it probably should be – all at the expense of having a protagonist we care about to guide us through the preceding two hours. And yet, for all of LaBute’s skills as a storyteller, he never uses this setup to dig any deeper into the themes that he usually seems so preoccupied with in his other tales. It’s as though he realized how to create a remake that would both stand on its own thematically while sitting comfortably within his own filmography, but he never bothered to pursue those themes beyond the basic setup.
And all of this might have been forgiven if the resulting film had just been even simply entertaining on some level. It isn’t. The film even fails to impress on a technical level. The cinematography is often flat (though the beautiful locations and production design do their best to combat the film’s unimpressive visual aesthetic), while the typically brilliant Angelo Badalamenti provides a musical score that, at best, telegraphs every emotion we’re meant to be feeling, but aren’t being conjured by the film in any genuine way (and at worst, sounds like it belongs in a made-for-TV thriller). And to this viewer, the film even defies its audience the ability to enjoy the film on a “so bad it’s good” level. When it isn’t boring us to tears, it’s hurling a number of unintentionally humorous moments at us that garner little more than an exasperated chuckle (a little girl being struck by a semi while standing on a ferry, Nic Cage punching women, Nic Cage wearing a bear costume, Nic Cage punching women while wearing a bear costume, “How’d it get burned?! HOW’D IT GET BURNED?!”)
Reader, believe me – I derive no pleasure from unleashing such vitriol in any review I do. There’s no fun to be had from kicking a film when it’s down. And hell, the entire point of this series is to revisit films I’ve disliked in the hopes that I could find something worthwhile in them that I’d missed the first time around. Whenever I sit down in a movie theatre for a first viewing, or press play on a DVD for a second chance, I’m on the film’s side. I want it to succeed. I want to love it. Or at least enjoy it. But sometimes, it just isn’t meant to be.
Ultimately, The Wicker Man is a complete failure on nearly every level. It fails as a horror film, it fails as a mystery, it fails as ANY sort of engaging entertainment, and it completely, utterly, absolutely fails as a retelling of a towering genre masterwork. This movie gets no more chances from me.
Let it burn for all I care.