Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Wicker Man (2006) Review - Well, How DID it Get Burned?


One good consequence of Brexit is that we'll probably see the return of old-school Paganism. "Ah don't worry about the lack of food", my hardcore Brexiter neighbour Mavis will say, "we'll just dance around the flagpole a few times and sacrifice that virgin who works down the road at Tesco. The gods are sure to grant us a bountiful harvest." I jest of course, in that scampish Remoaner way of mine.

But recent events have invited an introspection of Britain's national identity, and forcing ourselves into self-imposed isolation will inevitably foster some of those queer old ways and traditions. Like hanging a horse's dong outside your house to stop your friends badmouthing you after you leave the party.

So, it was Walpurgis Night recently and naturally I was watching Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man. The film, which starred Edward Woodward opposite Christopher Lee, is an indisputable classic of the British folk horror genre. It's a missing person story set against the backdrop of the battle between Paganism and Christianity. A film utterly dripping in atmosphere, nature, and creepy traditions, with an identity as uniquely British as a boiling cup of tea on a scorching summer's day. Or accents which change massively every 50 miles.

Then I got to thinking about the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute. A film which I enjoyed for entirely different reasons. Nicolas Cage reasons. I don't even need to state how god awful it is: the film has a reputation on par with how the rest of the world must have felt about European colonialists. Obviously, we've all seen it and all the jokes and memes which spewed forth from this train wreck. Bees. "How'd it get burned!?". Nic Cage randomly punches a woman. "Step away from the bike." Nic Cage on a push-bike. Nic Cage randomly karate chops another woman. Bear suit. Killing him isn't bringing their honey back.

Yes, this film is (unintentionally) goddamn brilliant. From start to finish, Cage is the only one who knows it's shit and he makes it known. I mean this is the film in which the protagonist is allergic to bees...and goes to an island known for beekeeping, taking no basic precautions.
Wicker Man 2006 (which totally sounds like a rad psychedelic rock festival) retains the shell of the original's plot, but changes the fine details. Woodward's devout Christian police Sergeant Neil Howie, is now Nic Cage's mansplaining, woman-hitting, salad-eating, wild cat Officer Edward Malus. After a strange incident by the roadside involving a doll and an exploding car, Officer Malus finds himself off work. He receives a weird handwritten letter from his ex-fiancĂ©e, Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan) requesting his help in locating her missing daughter. Also, Edward + Willow Woodward = Edward Woodward. This isn't a fucking woodchuck joke, film.

Officer Malus and his stiffy promptly travels to the island where Willow lives. In the original it's a Hebridian island populated by Celtic Pagans who openly fuck in fields and teach children about phalluses. Here, it's an island off the Washington Coast which is home to a group of man-hating hippy women who worship the bee matriarchy. This is one of those weird islands that can't get a cell reception but has its own website.

 The cult are led by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), playing a gender-bent version of Christopher Lee's role. Malus' search for the missing Rowan (Erika Shaye Gair) is hampered by the residents' reluctance to speak with him, and an upcoming fertility ritual. Things end badly for Malus, if that wasn't obvious by the title. What else would it mean? The latest IKEA must have?

To say transitioning a deeply British brand of horror to a North American setting was a bad idea, is an understatement akin to stating that apartheid was a little bit racist. Though I blame the execution more than anything else. America settings can pull off folklore horror, no problem (usually a mix of melting pot culture, the wild wilderness of the massive country, and a little voodoo). Lovecraft country would have been perfect. The decision to make the villains radical feminists (who probably seemed far-out in the naive 2006, but are par for course 12 years later), instead of people trying to hold on to their heritage, leaves the movie with little to say.

Of course the movie's hollow: it's about the Battle of the Sexes. You pick a team and that's that. And maybe you get to write for The Guardian if you pick the 'correct' side.

Ugh, men. Right ladies?

Sure, the woman hippy cult are evil buggers. But all the same, Malus represents everything the women hate about men. Played as only a unrestrained Nic Cage can be, Malus is brash, violent, frantic, nonsensical, confused, and forceful. Once Malus discovers Rowan is his daughter, all bets are off. He continually whips out his handgun (like every American cop whose status quo is threatened), punches some bitches, runs around aimlessly, and falls a cropper of some bees. Now compare that with Woodward's naive virgin.

The Wicker Man 2006 is not a traditionally good movie. It's incompetently shot, with a low budget dream-like cinematography. The score is that tonally inappropriate airy orchestral score you find in every generic film. LaBute overstuffs his movie with meaningless imagery and threads (the entire opening 15 minutes come to mind, the burned doll, etc.). Ellen Burstyn is the only one who comes off well here, and even she falls victim to LaBute's dire script. For a horror movie this film is way off the mark. The closest LaBute gets is some uninspired jump scares, and an ending which way be too brutal for some.

Although Woodward's Howie is a tragic figure. A doomed moral victor, who the audience wants to see survive even as the snare gets tighter and tighter. Cage's Malus may have an even worse death, but I doubt anyone is shedding tears over that arsehole. He had a glorious run.

The part of me who enjoys attending plays and reading massive textbooks on folklore, hates this film for shitting on a classic and for reducing the complex interplay between Christianity and Paganism - or order and civilisation vs chaos and nature - to a bee religion and a bear costume.

But the part of me who likes crap movies and Nicolas Cage's...err bolder acting choices, enjoys this film. And that's the thing. Sometimes you want to watch an Oscar winning movie. And sometimes you want to make "OH, NO! NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH!" the national anthem.
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