Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Re/Made in the USA: The Wicker Man

My impression of The Wicker Man 1973 was of an old British film (ie terrible by default) that had some sort of weird to it. Weird - a la Todd Browning's Freaks 1932 - is not one of my guilty pleasures ergo I ignored The Wicker Man's existance.

It was blogger DTW1 who piqued my interest in the film. Age matures and tastes change. The film’s reputation is online2. It was worth a look. I looked. I watched. I saw the 2006 remake.

Like the rest of the world it seems Britain is currently making some (fair to very good) original horror films – Hush 20093, Eden Lake 20094, The Descent 20055.

Here’s one we made earlier.

The very first shot of is of a seaplane taxing to a stop. The film begins with Edward Woodward’s arrival and the credits tracking Woodward’s police sergeant through dialogue sequence. Sergeant Howie is a religious man, humourless, strict, overbearing to subordinates, unfriendly, out of touch and out of time. He’s a Scot in Scotland. With his attitude he may as well be English in the last days of the empire.

He bears his masculinity: in church Mary Bannock sings from his hymn book. It’s an endorsement of their two year courtship. She cannot wait. It’s his Christian duty to.

(Monday?) Morning and an anonymous letter arrives at the police station. It’s addressed to Sgt Howie from Summer Isle where 12 year old Rowan Morrison has disappeared.

Neither the sergeant nor his constable has ever been to Summer Isle.

Sgt Howie: “Aye. Well the whole place apparently

is odd. To start with they have no licensing

laws – singing and dancing on a Sunday6.”

It is 1973 in the Scottish highlands.

Sgt Howie sets off in his seaplane and the credits resume. The soundtrack is bagpipes and folk song. The scenery is cliff faces and wilderness then jump cuts to farmland and orchards and Simon & Garfunkel-esque neofolk. The final credit - director: Robin Hardy - is super imposed over the seaplane landing at Summer Isle.

In less than nine minutes of enriched detail the premise has been established and the plot thrust forward. This is cinema. We the audience will follow Sgt Howie the protagonist through this ‘odd’ island and we will experience it together through Sgt Howie’s virgin eyes.

I’m from Manchester, England. Most English will never visit Scotland in their lifetime. Most Scots will never visit Summer Isle. This is a part of Britain that exists beyond the terms outback, hinterland or boonies. The natives depicted in The Wicker Man make the ones in An American Werewolf in London 1981 look like sophisticates. Summer Isle is on the map. Somewhere.

This film supersedes Deliverance 1972 in the fish-out-of-water category. Burt Reynolds and co wilfully entered the boonies seeking adventure. Sgt Howie flies to Summer Isle duty bound to investigate a missing girl.

I once read an account of a Holocaust survivor: the death train arrived at the concentration camp and they disembarked. One of the Jews asked too many questions. The guard shot him dead on the spot.

The witness recounted that at that point everything he had ever learnt, everything he had ever been taught was voided. This was a new order and the only way to survive it was to learn the new rules. Quickly.

The obvious correlating experience for any of us would be imprisonment.

There are more insidious scenarios.

Should you ever find yourself pitted against authority you will learn: the government in its various guises7, the police8, the corporation9, the media10. You will learn to know that the constitution and your human rights are a political myth.

Sgt Howie anchors the seaplane off Summer Isle. He is self-resplendent in his black police uniform wearing the authority of the crown.

The old men at the harbour refuse him entry without written permission from Lord Summerisle. He is the authority here.

Sgt Howies demands. The old men relent. They send a rowing boat to pick him up. Once ashore he shows them the picture of Rowan Morrison.

Not a one of them has ever seen her before. They claim.

Edward Woodward has never been a star. He’s best known for the 80s TV series The Equalizer11. Second billed is Britt Ekland.

I have never seen an American on screen with a convincing English accent. I doubt there’s a European who can mimic Scots. I know for a fact Britt Ekland is best acting with her mouth shut. In any accent.

Ekland isn’t an actor. She’s a celebrity. Think Denise Richards. 30 years ago. Also think Andi McDowell in Greystoke… 1984 whose voice was dubbed by Glen Close. Here Ekland was dubbed by Annie Ross12.

I have never heard an American onscreen with a convincing Scottish accent.

It’s not hard to see why Ekland was cast. The blonde Swede stands out amongst the locals. Her beauty, her body, her sensuality, her sexuality. Howie’s preliminary investigations have him spend the night at the Green Man Inn where he’s accosted by the landlord’s daughter. They’re separated by a single wall and all he can hear is the animal in her as she devours a chosen boy. He is abstinent.

On the mainland Mary Bannock cannot wait.

On Summer Isle Sgt Howie has to.

Morning resumes the investigation. These people are full of primitive customs

and perverted practises. This whole island – the children too – seem to be in conspiracy. They tolerate Sergeant Howie. They humour him, they mock him, they taunt him. They trap him. They break him.

Sergeant Howie: “I am a police officer!”

Bring forth the Wicker Man.

Should you find yourself pitted against authority you will learn that the constitution and your human rights are a myth. That is the moment of true horror.

If ever there was a film ripe for retelling it is The Wicker Man 1973. Enough time has passed – a generation - to translate it to contemporary culture. The salient points raised then are relevant now. The story is powerful and cinematically rendered.

In 2006 director Neil LaBute had award winning pedigree.

The opening sequence has a child in a burning car as Californian traffic cop Nicholas Cage tries to rescue her. Car explodes blasting Cage off his feet through the air to land on his back.

With nary a scratch on his face.


The Wicker Man 1973 was low budget and it showed. Big budget is not a bad thing. Hollywood production values are the yardstick the cinema goer is accustomed to. However resources can be misappropriated. A wedding cake can be too rich.

Having bona fide movie star Nicholas Cage play the lead detracts from the story. He is not going to portray himself the way Woodward did: pompous, arrogant, sex starved, confused, weak. It was a virtuoso performance. They hand out Oscar(s)® for less.

Academy Award® winner Nicholas Cage is a fine actor capable of fine things13 but he’s a movie star first.

This film has a convoluted backstory. It’s unnecessary. It’s baffling: sick-leave traffic cop receives a letter from his former fiancée that her (5-6 year old – it’s unclear) daughter is missing. Former fiancée Willow is certain the little girl is still on Summer Isle. (This film is set in America. This Summer Isle is in Pugent Sound WA.)

A child missing for two weeks? Call the police. Like they did in the first film. (Plot holes are disgusting. They’re like someone telling you an outlandish lie and expecting you to buy it because you’ve already paid for it.)

The traumatised Cage takes the trip to Summer Isle where cell phones don’t work (you are officially in a horror film).The innovation here is hackneyed and obvious: Summer Isle is a commune led by females - the men are mute drones. However nothing in this theme is explored or expanded upon.

Former fiancée Willow is a superfluous character and it is because of her Summer Isle is bereft of tension. Yes the inhabitants are weird but they’re Hollywood weird - such as the aged twins who speak in unison and the kitted out bee keepers. In the ’73 film the people were different. Strange? Yes but only in the way any different culture is strange. That’s what made it unsettling. This movie is like a kid thinking she can be sexy because she’s rich. You can botox your head, implant your breasts, tan your skin and blonde your hair. Sexy is personality. It can’t be taught or bought. Horror is story. It can’t be faked. The Wicker Man 2006 is fake from the first frame.

Dream sequences and flashbacks in a horror film are indication of a stuttering plot. This movie is full of them. It is implanted with bait-and-switch red herrings and replete with false alarms. The story first then the film itself descends into lunacy.

There’s a scene in ’73 where Sgt Howie enter a classroom full of girls (the boys were in the playground learning to be men). It’s full of incidental humour and indignation. In the retelling all wit, fine writing and humour are gone. What was appalling in ’73 is replaced with enforced political correctness in ’06.

What is Leelee Sobieski doing in this flick? What purpose does her character serve? Oh I forgot. A fistfight with Nic Cage! As for Kate Beehan as Sister Willow – appalling. There are however some shining lights. Mary Black is excellent as Sister Oak though to be fair the role is a meaty if brief one. Diane Delano also captivates as Sister Beech. Molly Parker is amusing in one of her three speaking scenes. As for the two names - Ellen Burstyn seems to be sleep walking and Nicholas Cage tries the Roger Moore humour route. The director should have told him it was a horror film.

Neil LaBute went on to make Lakeview Terrace 142008 – a much better film – staring Samuel L Jackson. The Wicker Man could have been different. Sgt Howie was an obvious outsider in ’73. A black man investigating a lily white commune would bring that starkness (and other baggage) to 2006. Yet even if it had to be Cage or no film would have been made Summer Isle needed to be fixed.

There are two examples of American ‘communes’ that come to mind – Jonestown15 and Waco16. Unfortunately there are others17. The filmmakers did not have to look far to create a plausible island of horror. This film is a missed opportunity and a fine example of cowardice.

LaBute has moved on. He won’t come back to horror. Yet due to the current boon of the genre other mainstreamers will jump on the bandwagon. Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island has been pushed back to 201018. Horror is best left to those who love it.

The Wicker Man 1973 did not make my 10 Best Horror Films. It will make my top 20.

Thanks DTW.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Re/Made - The Last House on the Left

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