Looking back at Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man

News Ryan Lambie 12 Dec 2010 - 14:03

We pick over the bones of Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, and celebrate what is surely a masterpiece of comedy...

Robin Hardy's 1973 classic, The Wicker Man, was a masterpiece of British cinema. Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, and the late, wonderful Ingrid Pitt, it told a tiny yet perfectly wrought tale of a stern Christian lawman (Woodward, brilliant in the role of Sergeant Howie) and his search for a missing girl in a remote island community.

Filled with paranoia and sly, subtle humour, The Wicker Man built to an astonishing, unforgettable conclusion, one that has left an indelible impression on audiences and critics the world over.

By contrast, Neil LaBute's 2006 remake, which he both wrote and directed, is one of the most universally panned mainstream films of the last decade. It's also quite, quite wonderful.

The biggest mystery surrounding The Wicker Man 2006 is, perhaps, why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make it. Nicolas Cage was reportedly interested in remaking the 1973 original from the very beginning ("I think it's a homage. It's a way of us saying this is a wonderful film," Cage said at the time), while even Neil LaBute knew that updating such a beloved film would be an unpopular move.

"There are people out there who say, literally, 'I don't care if it's good or bad, I hate the fact that they are doing it'," LaBute said shortly before his film's release. "So, that's a difficult audience to work with. You have to forge yourself ahead and say, I'm making something which, if people are fair with, I think they'll see that you're coming to this with good intentions, and trying to retain the spirit of the thing without being slavish to it."

Whether LaBute's intentions were good or not, the resulting film was an unintentionally hilarious mess, bizarrely inverting certain elements found in the 1973 original, while introducing new ones which are, almost without exception, terrible.

Like its predecessor, LaBute's The Wicker Man concerns a virtuous lawman investigating the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island community. This time, Nicolas Cage stars as Malus, a gloomy, sullen motorcycle cop who's allergic to bees, a plot detail that is exploited to the hilt later on. He heads to the pagan, honey-making island of Summerisle (now located in the North Pacific), a weird matriarchal community where men are subjugated and eerily silent. Increasingly frustrated by the locals' lack of cooperation, Malus continues to search for the missing girl until, too late, he discovers the truth behind the island dwellers' wicked conspiracy.

Where the original film gradually built up an atmosphere of paranoia and quiet dread, LaBute's Wicker Man instead opts for lots of overacting and dreadful dialogue. It's not clear whether Cage, sensing that he was in the midst of one of the most terrible films of his career, simply decided to play the film for laughs or not, but his performance is truly, truly bizarre.

Looking sweaty and uncomfortable throughout, Cage spends the film sprinting around Summerisle, alternately asking ridiculous questions ("What's in the bag? A shark or something?") or terrorising the female populace with fists and feet.

It's hard to think of another horror film from the last ten years whose attempts to shock or surprise have fallen so amusingly wide of the mark. Was the moment where Cage opens a door, only to be confronted by a grinning woman wearing a beard of bees meant to be frightening? How did Neil LaBute manage to convince respected actor Ellen Burstyn to appear with a face covered in woad, like a demented tribute to Braveheart?

Whose idea was it to have Nic Cage running around, punching women squarely in the face while wearing a bear costume? Ah yes, the bear costume. If the original film's most unforgettable, indelible image was the gigantic, burning wicker man of the title, it's entirely usurped here by the sight of one of Hollywood's most famous actors dressed as a giant grizzly.

Then there's the gloriously terrible script, courtesy of LaBute himself, which includes such lines as "Step away from the bike", and the truly unforgettable "Killing me won't bring back your goddamn honey!"

The Wicker Man's script is so extraordinarily bad, in fact, that I find myself quoting it all the time. The curious scene in which Nic Cage shakes a scorched rag doll in a woman's face ("How'd it get burned?! How'd it get burned?!") has been drunkenly recreated between me and my friends ever since, as has Cage's wonderfully over-the-top exclamation of "The bees! My eyes! My legs!" elsewhere in the film.

Released without preview screenings, critics formed an orderly queue to pour scorn on LaBute's film back in 2006. "Mr. LaBute, never much of an artist with the camera, proves almost comically inept as a horror-movie technician," said the New York Times. Empire's Kim Newman described the movie thus: "This has limited interest to folks who don't know the old movie, and an excruciating experience for those who do. Bad idea. Bad film."

At the Razzie Awards, The Wicker Man was nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Actor (unsurprisingly, for Nic Cage), Worst Screenplay, Worst Remake, and Worst Screen Couple, for Cage and his awesome bear suit.

As a remake of Robin Hardy's classic 1973 film, the scorn levelled at The Wicker Man was largely deserved. And yet, viewed as a comedy, it's enormously entertaining. Cage's shrill, animal performance is often fascinating, oscillating wildly between the kind of sleazy, sweaty mood he later perfected in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans, and an overacted wildness never seen anywhere else.

There are long stretches of tedium in The Wicker Man, where LaBute's complete inability to sustain atmosphere or suspense leaves the film's protagonist simply drifting from one weird exchange to the next. But these are punctuated with odd moments of sheer comedy delight, from the bike theft at gunpoint to the pointless moments of slapstick, like the scene where Cage falls through a wooden floor for no particular reason.

The Wicker Man builds to its own kind of spectacular zenith, providing a dazzling departure from the horrifying conclusion of the original. A bear suit-clad Cage, emoting to the bitter end, blurts out insults and detailed descriptions of pain, as the sinister women of Summerisle close in all around him.

As a horror movie, LaBute's The Wicker Man staggers ineptly onto the screen, totters around for about 90 minutes, and then trips over the doorstep on the way out. But while it's an utter failure, it is, at the very least, an entertaining one.

I like to imagine that, with the benefit of hindsight, Nicolas Cage is actually quietly proud of his work in The Wicker Man. If I were Cage, I'd make watching it a regular event. I'd drag the dusty old bear costume back out of the closet, and sit down and admire the sheer unhinged majesty of my handiwork.

"Not the bees! Not the Bees! My eyes! Aaaaggghh!"

Sincere thanks to Glen Chapman, whose tweets about The Wicker Man inspired this piece.

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