Neil LaBute’s attempt to remake the 1973 UK cult classic “The Wicker Man” aims high, but falls dismally short of the mark. Like many remakes, there’s a couple of interesting new twists on the material – but ultimately it’s all window dressing to cover up what is essentially a poor man’s clone of a great original. There’s no real sense of suspense or menace here, and no driving reason to remake a film which worked far more effectively as a sinister little creature from 1970’s Britain.
Indeed some of the material now seems almost corny, which makes some of the latter scenes work as an unintentional black comedy. LaBute has dropped some of the more interesting metaphors and issues of religious zealotry of the original in favour of clumsy attempts to ramp up suspense. I can’t count the number of sequences in here where for long periods on end Cage goes wandering around abandoned graveyards and houses calling for the little girl and only finding cats or creaky floorboards. Don’t even get me started on the clumsy nightmare within a nightmare sequences.
Cage himself doesn’t help either, his usual cornball schtick feeling decidedly annoying for much of the time, though it actually works on more levels if this is taken as a comedy. Some of the female performers, most notably proven actresses Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn and Frances Conroy, take it so over the top one has to view it as a comedy. Only Leelee Sobieski as a creepy shut-in and Kate Beahan as the willowy (no pun intended) woman who’s child is missing seem to be treating the material with any seriousness. Look for a brief cameo from the ever f–kable James Franco grinning away.
There’s good things to be said though about this version. Angelo Badalamenti’s score and Paul Sarossy’s photography are richly textured with a real sense of richly layered darkness and slightly off-kilter workmanlike procedure. The production designers and costumers are able to imbue this little island setting with a real sense of history and purpose, aided by LaBute’s intriguing idea of recasting the whole society as a matriarchy based on the model of a bee hive. Also, despite its clumsiness, the film opens and closes on strong notes of shock and suspense.
Still, its few strong notes of atmosphere and presentation are heavily outweighed by its clumsiness. The script is entirely cliche, the performances a mixed bag, many scenes are thrown in purely for padding or made to give us a sense of ‘artistic shock’ (eg. one brief flash of a girl with bees crawling over her). Then there’s stuff that is purely unexpected comedy from Cage’s adventures in a giant bear suit to Ellen Burstyn’s Braveheart make-up. LaBute’s approach sadly makes the material seem very dated, a shame considering that extreme religious practices are a much more contemporary issue than when the original made its debut.