The original British “Wicker Man” is hallowed ground for horror fans, a literate and intelligent mystery flick the merits of which cannot be denied and the “horror” of which still packs a fiendish wallop. The sort of film, in other words, where anyone who attempts a remake is asking for trouble.
Trouble, unsurprisingly, is exactly what direct Neil LaBute gets.
Both versions share the same skeletal structure: A police officer is asked to find a little girl who’s vanished on an isolated island community called Summersisle. Once there, he finds that the citizens of the island are members of a neo-pagan religious cult and begins to suspect that the girl’s dissapearance may be connected to a mysterious sacrificial ceremony due to occur soon.
The similarities largely end there. The original story’s hero was a Scotland Yard detective, who’s own deep Christian faith brings him into immediate conflict with the Druidic Summersisle dwellers, and who’s sexual frustrations (egged on by a comely inkeeper’s daughter) begin to drive him mad. Summersisle’s peculiar form of worship is framed as a retro-fitted version of basic Celtic nature worship based on historic record of the same, and the film has a certain amount of playful fun imagining an otherwise typical English farming village as flavored by old-school Witchcraft (a pharmacy stocks eye-of-newt, schoolchildren learning about earth goddesses and phallic symbols with the chipperness of Sunday School, etc.)
In this updating, the locations are moved to the American west coast. Our policeman hero, played by Nicholas Cage, doesn’t seem to have any discernable spiritual hangups of his own: His inner torment comes from nightmares about having failed to save a woman and her child from a car crash. He’s summoned to Summersisle by his ex-fiancee to find her missing daughter.
Neil LaBute’s stock-in-trade as a narrative filmmaker has been, largely, an interesting infatuation with the notion of women in general and modern post-feminism in specific as a source of satire and/or evil. So it’s not that jarring that this is the fresh spin he attempts to put on Summersisle: It’s a fiercely matriarchal society, wrapped up in a singularly-goofy made-up religion that appears to worship honeybees. There’s fun to be had in the sense that LaBute uses this setup to take a blunt, somewhat mean-spirited (but probably overdue) swipe at the modern conflation of radical-feminism and new age neo-paganism, but ultimately yields little in the way of depth or menace. It also sets up an unintentionally funny stumbling block for the 3rd act, creating a situation where the only action can (and does) center on Nicholas Cage (at his gone-unhinged best) punching a succession of Renaissance Faire-costumed women square in the face.
Pity poor Ellen Burstyn, who turns up at midpoint as the presumptive Queen Bee supervillianess, Sister Summersisle. The original film’s villian was a slyly-underplayed aristocrat, memorably inhabited by dialed-down Christopher Lee, whom plainly implied that his interest in keeping Summersisle devoutly paganist was mostly done for personal gain. Burstyn, on the other hand, is saddled with as far less interesting characterization, as Sister Summersisle is presented as a one-note full-believing cult leader; Osama bin Laden in an orange wool smock. She turns in what will probably go down as the single worst performance of her career.
Robbed of any sense of real dread, incompetently staged and hamstrung by a satirical framework that it just can’t bring itself to really go after full-bore AND a laughably-awful script, the film can only drag on until it reaches it’s climax. I won’t spoil it, because to do so would spoil the original film which you’d all be VASTLY better off seeing instead of this.
FINAL RATING: 2/10