Writer-director Neil LaBute has never attempted a horror film, although most of his films feature horrible people doing horrible things to each other. Often categorized as misogynistic and cruel, LaBute’s films routinely feature men being the worst possible men they can be, with women written and cast as objects of vilification and humiliation. The best example is In the Company of Men, a dark, comic tale of men using women as playthings unaware they are being played.
So it comes as a surprise to find LaBute behind the camera of a remake of The Wicker Man, a seminal-to-the-point-of-cult 1973 British horror film starring Edward Woodward as a police detective looking for a missing girl amongst a village of new-age pagans. Craftily written by playwright Anthony Shaffer, the original Wicker Man explored themes of religion and how it can lead a deeply religious man down an unholy path.
LaBute’s screenplay throws out the baby with the bath water, replacing belief with grief. In LaBute’s version, the detective is now a California motorcycle cop haunted by tragic circumstances. When he’s summoned by his ex-girlfriend to help find her missing daughter, he’s not seeking absolution; he just wants to work through his inner turmoil. Removing the character’s spiritual conflict transforms a man with a mission into a lunatic looking to save himself.
No one does lunatic better than Cage. Vampire’s Kiss was an exercise in eccentric behavior, method acting taken to the extreme. Who else would eat a live cockroach for his craft? Or, in the case of The Wicker Man, run through the forest in a bear suit? Cage doesn’t run bare through a forest, he runs through a forest in a bear suit. You keep waiting for the cast of Monty Python to show up and confirm the absurdity of the moment.
LaBute comes out with both barrels blazing, but his remake misfires. The filmmaker seems intent on making The Wicker Man his own, tinkering with the story until it becomes a different beast. LaBute would have been better off working around the premise, creating his own story instead of taking something familiar and turning it into a stranger. This is revisionist filmmaking at its weakest.
The Wicker Man begins with a nasty bit of business. Motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Cage) is thrown into a major depression after he fails to save a mother and daughter from a fiery accident. Edward may not be Leaving Las Vegas, but he’s slowly losing his mind. Among a stack of bills and letters is a cautionary plea from his ex-girlfriend, Willow (Kate Behan), whose daughter has gone missing. Looking for a reason to get his life back, Edward heads to the Pacific Northwest and the small, private island where Willow lives.
Less friendly than the folks from Twin Peaks, the locals see Edward as an intrusion. It’s easy to see why. The island is actually a commune of women who seem as flighty as the bees they raise. Men serve as drones, subservient slaves who never speak but do as they’re told. This feminist utopia is actually a coven of witches, in which everyone is called Sister. Leading the pack is Sister Sledge — excuse me — Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who has other plans for poor Edward.
Edward’s unauthorized investigation immediately hits a brick wall. None of the locals have heard of the missing girl. That doesn’t stop Edward from risking his life to uncover the truth, including a near drowning and a near-deadly allergic reaction to bee stings. By setting his remake within the confines of a secluded community, LaBute robs the film of its creepy undercurrent.
The original was set in a town on an island, a town which for all intents and purposes appeared normal. Pubs, hotel, stores — the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings. At first glance, you would never suspect anything was amiss. To me, that’s more chilling than separating the lunatic fringe from the rest of society. In the original, anyone or everyone could be in on the secret.
Once Edward sets foot on the island, the mystery is gone. LaBute sets up common thriller trappings (transportation to the mainland is down, there’s no cell phone signal) and then trashes them. He has no interest in setting up or maintaining suspense. The film is like a nightmare version of the Facts of Life, with Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Garrett and Cage as the hunky handyman who has to disappear because he’s prettier than any of the girls.
If only The Wicker Man were as entertaining. It’s a huge bore, one silly, ham-fisted, soapbox moment after another. Characters don’t talk in this film; they make speeches.
Cage mopes around most of the time, looking like someone shot his puppy. His range of emotion is limited by the director’s lack of motivation, which throws a wet blanket on every dramatic spark. By the time the plot reaches its natural conclusion, you feel relief for Cage. Not so for the rest of the cast, distinguished actresses doing their best to make something out of nothing.
Burstyn, in full Mother Earth mode, makes a meal of the scenery, but there isn’t much to chew on.
It’s obvious LaBute was attempting to make a thinking man’s horror film, but he should have put a little more thought into his own script. It’s obvious, linear and downright preposterous. Even suffering from grief, a trained cop would realize he’s being set up, but Edward blindly leaps from one bad decision to the next, forcing us to question his sanity. It’s difficult to care about and root for someone who is destined to become a victim.
Technically, The Wicker Man is sound, with a traditional suspense score by Angelo Badalamenti, crisp cinematography by Paul Sarossy and jump-cut editing by Joel Plotch. Too bad about the bear suit.