If you seek out devotees — and they are legion — of the 1973 British mystery-horror curio The Wicker Man, you’re likely to encounter much breathless chatter about how it’s the one ”pagan” movie of our time. A police officer, played by Edward Woodward (before he starred in The Equalizer) in a mode of sub-Richard Burton clench-faced righteousness, travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The society he encounters looks, at first, like what you’d expect to see on a remote Scottish island (gnarly middle-aged geezers in pubs, etc.). It turns out, though, that these people are all part of a mysterious commune. There are dances around the maypole, nymphs leaping through fire, even Britt Ekland doing a nude musical number. (Hey, this was the ’70s — don’t knock it.) Christopher Lee, who plays the commune’s lord and master, has said that he sought out the role to shed his image as the sexy, blood-guzzling Dracula of the Hammer films. He certainly does that, but in The Wicker Man he’s a tad ridiculous in pouffy hair, a plaid jacket that might have come off the rack at Filene’s Basement, and a yellow turtleneck. He’s sinister in an overly benevolent, sherry-club way, as if he were presiding over a kinky episode of Fantasy Island.
Yet The Wicker Man, while it has some of the bombs-away campiness of an overripe fantasia like Zardoz, also exerts an eerie, lingering power. The last 15 minutes, in which Woodward (and the audience) learns what’s actually taking place on the island, may consist of a pagan rite organized around a giant, burning wicker totem, but what it really depicts — or, at least, projects — is the cult mentality that had spread through the fallout of the 1960s. The villagers, as they commence their happy, smiling dance of death, are like the missing link between Charles Manson’s followers and the Jonestown horde. It’s Fantasy Island with a kick of mass psychosis.
In the 33 years since it was first released, The Wicker Man has been cut by its distributor, restored, and ultimately shown, in theaters and on video and DVD, in enough different versions (at least three) to be scrutinized by its fans as if it were The Magnificent Ambersons. Talk about cults! The movie has been hailed as a masterpiece, and also as the greatest British horror film ever made, and while it’s nothing of the kind (Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, to name just one example, is a vastly more accomplished and terrifying film), it remains an unusually eerie piece of bad-dream kitsch. I have no idea whether the Wicker Man cult will regard the new remake as a temptation or a sacrilege to be avoided, but I do know that I was eager to see what writer-director Neil LaBute, that cold, hard minimalist of sexual warfare (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), would do to update this infamous, beloved, at times haunting wackjob of a movie.
I had intimations of the worst when Nicolas Cage, as a California cop, showed up on the island, which has been re-imagined as a woodsy, honey-harvesting ”utopian” community off the coast of Washington. For most of the film, Cage is slack-jawed and disheveled. When he snaps in frustration at the islanders, who not only won’t cooperate with his search for the missing girl but claim never to have heard of her, his histrionics carry more than a touch of high-volume desperation, as if he were well aware that he’s doing the only acting in most of the scenes. At one point, he’s jolted awake by one of those it’s-only-a-fantasy shock cuts, and the moment is drenched in cheese as soon as Cage opens his mouth and says ”Goddamn it!” He seems to be upset that he’s stuck in a movie with a scene like that one.
LaBute’s big innovation is to turn the commune into a proud matriarchy, full of ruddy women in layers of wool and complicated 19th-century braids. They’re beekeepers who want to keep the drones in their place. This idea, which grows right out of the filmmaker’s paranoid distrust of contemporary feminine power, works well enough to make the new Wicker Man into a nightmare of emasculation. Despite its logy, red-herring structure, the film has enough enigma and weirdness that it gradually stirs to life. Kate Beahar, as the woman who was once engaged to Cage’s cop (a LaBute twist) and has brought him to the island to search for her lost daughter, has a spacey-angel Fiona Apple allure, and Ellen Burtsyn, in the Christopher Lee role, makes a delectably self-satisfied feminist earth mother.
I just wish that LaBute had made the commune less abstract and more of a true, latter-day counterculture fringe group. He could have had a field day satirizing the piety of neo-hippies, but too much of the time the commune members come off like players in a road-company version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. The power of the original Wicker Man is, in part, a testament to what was so effective about the scruffy, roughhewn filmmaking style that dominated the first half of the 1970s: As you watch, the old-stone Scottish houses, the broken-toothed extras who don’t look like extras, even the weather patterns all contribute to the sensation that you’re seeing a real place, a genuine bad trip. In LaBute’s Wicker Man, the whole thing is transparently a concoction, and so even though the movie holds you, its climax lacks that tingle of madness. All that’s burning is some sticks.