The Wicker Man (1973,UK) versus The Wicker Man (2006,USA)
Directors: Robin Hardy (’73), Neil LaBute (’06) Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland (’73) Nicolas Cage, Ellyn Burstyn, Leelee Sobieski, Kate Beahan (’06)
Robin Hardy’s cult 1973 masterpiece The Wicker Man is one of those films that, widely disregarded on its original release (due in no small part to the atrocious butchery of the studio who slashed it to bits in the cutting room and tried to forget it ever existed when it came to promotion) but which over time and with the restoration of missing scenes and a proper, director approved edit has rightly claimed its place among the pantheon of British cinema greats. It’s such a unique film that even Hardy’s attempts to revisit its themes and ideas in the ill advised reprise The Wicker Tree came wildly unstuck, ending up as a horrible mishmash of dull horror tropes and misplaced attempts at humour. Sadly, this proof of the unviolable nature of the original came several years too late for Neil LaBute who decided back in 2006 to remodel Anthony Shaffer’s script for American audiences which resulted in his Nicolas Cage starring version of The Wicker Man. The question then (as if it ever needed asking) is which is best? As always, there is only one spoiler heavy way to find out… (if you have never seen the ’73 version, I suggest you watch it before you read this).
How much wood could a Woodward ward if a Woodward could ward wood?
As far as iconic characters go you have to do a bit of digging to find one as memorable and vivid as Sergeant Niel Howie, Edward Woodward’s puritanical, chaste and thoroughly Presbyterian police officer lured from the safety of the Scottish mainland to the mysterious Summerisle community in search of a local girl who has been reported as missing. Not actually Scottish at all, you would never believe it given the quality of Woodward’s performance who is thoroughly convincing as the outraged custodian of public order. From his indignant interrogation of the rowdy pub patrons to the sincerity of his disgust as he condemns a class of schoolchildren as liars all the way up to his despairing pleas to God as he meets his grisly end in the belly of the wicker man he is every inch the prudish man of principles and tenacious officer of the law he needs to be for the story to work. Perhaps to someone unfamiliar with the ways of the Free Church he may seem something of a caricature but to anyone who has encountered that particular branch of Christianity (living in the Scottish Highlands means I am more than familiar with it) Sergeant Howie is nothing if not an eerily realistic portrayal of one of its adherents.
Let’s compare this to Nicolas Cage in 2006, who plays a character called Edward (ahh see what they did there?) Malus, a Californian highway patrol officer traumatised by the accidental death of a mother and daughter he had pulled over who is contacted by his ex-fiancee to help him find her missing daughter on the island of Summersisle (more on this later) off the coast of Washington state where he proceeds to slouch his way around the island getting increasingly wide eyed and frantic whilst attempting to deliver thirty year old dialogue with any sense of weight and authority. Now don’t get me wrong. I like Nicolas Cage. Wild At Heart is one of my favourite movies and in the right context, let’s say Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant or something like Face/Off Cage’s boggle eyed gurning works really well. Here though, it doesn’t convince me of his suitability as either an investigating officer or a sacrificial victim. It’s just a bit weird. His inferiority is compounded when you consider a lot of his dialogue is word for word with Woodward’s and so it becomes impossible to consider his performance as a different entity and any pretense that he is any use crumbles under direct comparison to the earlier protagonist. For proof watch the schoolroom scene side by side, where the heroes label the class as a bunch of little liars. In the ’73 version you can almost feel your own cheeks burning with shame at Howie’s condemnation. Edward Malus on the other hand makes you cringe with embarrassment for very different reasons.
The landlord’s daughter
A pivotal role in the original film is that of Willow, the landlord’s daughter, played by the stunningly beautiful Britt Ekland. Now in the ’73 version you have to remember that at the heart of everything is the conflict between the paganistic nature worship of the islanders and the modern (relatively speaking) Christianity of the interloper who comes searching for the missing girl. In the context of this nature worship Willow would appear the be the local deflowerer of virgins, worshipped for her beauty and femininity by the islanders and who ends up being the last chance for the unwitting Howie to escape his fate. In one of the most memorable scenes from the film Willow performs a siren song through the wall of Howie’s room, tempting him in the night to come to her and give up his purity. Her motivation is unclear, perhaps she is setting him a test to prove the strength of his virtue, perhaps she is offering him a final chance to make himself unworthy of sacrifice, a chance his stubborn piety denies him. Either way, its a fine illustration of the differences between his beliefs, built on a foundation of self denial and discipline are at odds with the beliefs of the islanders who celebrate the wonders of nature with abandon.
The equivalent character in the 2006 version is of very little significance. Played by Leelee Sobieski there are a couple of suggestions that she might prove to be some sort of seductress but for very little purpose, instead only really being about to provide some exposition (she rumbles the failed harvest problem long before Malus discovers the missing harvest festival photo which I don’t understand at all) and an extra, recognisable face to fight Malus when he procures himself a May Day festival costume. Of course, her relative insignificance here comes down a lot to the fundamental changes LaBute has made in the plot, namely the replacement of realistic, reverse engineered pagan beliefs with a matriarchal, bee based pseudo religion that has none of the context provided by Lord Summerisle in the first film.
Summerisle or Summersisle?
And here lies the biggest failing of the remake. Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle is maintaining methods put in place by his ancestors to ensure a productive farming community on the small island of Summerisle in the ’73 version. He recognises the fact that the old beliefs hold no genuine sway over the forces of nature but, significantly, that by encouraging the belief of the islanders in such a religion it provides a great way to motivate workers and ensure a productive harvest (the purpose doubtlessly served by such rituals in the first place, even if people thought they were genuinely appeasing the gods of the harvest). The only reason they have to resort to such elaborate and horrific methods is when the harvest fails (the implication being that it had never occured before now) and Lord Summerisle realises he needs to import a more suitable sacrifice if he wants to avoid going on the pyre himself. It’s within these rules of suitability that the necessity for the elaborate and mysterious plot by which Howie is lured to his doom is born and the whole lot is tied nicely together with pre-existing May Day celebrations to provide a convincing foundation for the story.
LaBute’s justification for ensnaring Malus in the web of the Summersisle community (LaBute added an S because he thought it would be easier for American’s to pronounce apparently – how depressing is that) is much flimsier, in part due to the fact that rather than being straight forward pagans, the Summersisle community appear to be bee worshippers who put women at the centre of community and treat the men as drones, apparently only keeping the mute ones (or perhaps making the mute? it’s never really addressed) to do menial tasks. Why he felt the need to make a gender issue out of things (the original film doesn’t seem to make any assumptions about the superiority or otherwise of either gender) I’m not quite certain but it doesn’t really work. Do we really need to hear Malus scream “bitches” while he spits in the faces of Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) and her acolytes? Probably not and I’m really not sure what LaBute is trying to achieve by having him do so. One of the points of the earlier film, at least from the point of view of the old beliefs, is the essential role both genders play in the fertility and reproductive rites of the community. Also, Burstyn’s Sister Summersisle seems to be a believer in the process rather than a canny leader who has found something with which to focus and unite her people, as is the case with Lee’s vastly more impressive Lord Summerisle.
The isles are alive, with the sound of music
While Angelo Badalamenti’s score for the ’06 version does suit its more conventional horror vibe (even if it does get annoying by virtue of its ever-presence, why can’t filmmakers, especially horror ones, exploit the silence sometimes?) it is shown up as the tired, conventional formula it is when you contrast it with the array of folk songs that comprise the soundtrack of the ’73 version. Adapted from a number of traditional folk songs, many of which written by Robert Burns, the songs are a wonderful accompaniement to the setting and atmosphere of the piece and even contribute to the story by illustrating the beliefs of the locals. There’s something about the community joining in song that exemplifies the practice of religion, whichever religion that may be, and the often bawdy ballads the islanders sing are the antithesis of the solemn hymns and psalms of Howie’s religion. This is vital in understanding that the islander’s paganism is a joyous thing, a celebration of the world and even the fact that Howie is to be put to death (or offered rebirth by the islander’s reckoning) is not an inherently evil act but rather part of the natural order of things. Strip this away, replace it with some sinister strains of standard issue horror movie music and you lose more than just an eccentric approach to film scoring.
Burn baby burn
It’s in the film’s conclusion that LaBute’s inability to grasp the original source is clearest. Malus, once he’s been led to the site of his sacrifice gets his legs broken in an unnecessarily brutal fashion (for reasons that aren’t quite clear) and then gets a mask of bees put on him (which he’s fatally allergic to) before being saved from death with an adrenaline shot in order that he can be sacrificed. Howie is much luckier in the original, at least he gets cleaned up a bit and touched up by some good looking women before he gets burned alive, what with the people of Summerisle having a mite more respect for their sacrificial virgin than those crazy folk over on Summersisle.
In typical noughties horror remake fashion you can’t help but feel they felt a need to make it more visually spectacular, more “creepy” (by 21st century standards, which just means less subtle and ultimately less creepy) for no reason other than to have something to look at. And this lack of subtlety, the overt attempts to be scary instead of allowing the notion of being burned alive and knowing about it ahead of time to let its quiet, smothering horror wash over you, that is the film’s ultimate undoing.
And the winner is…
Was it ever really a contest? How the original The Wicker Man’s supremacy over the 2006 pretender could ever be in doubt is a mystery to me. The ’73 film manages to find the perfect balance of cast, script and execution that have made it such a memorable and enduring entry in the rich catalogue of British cinema, so much so that the fact anyone even attempted a remake is a bit disgraceful, never mind making one so bereft of any of the things that made the original so great as this one. Some people have described it as the most unintentionally hilarious thing they’ve ever seen but I wasn’t laughing. It’s just an unsubtle, dissatisfying mess, an hour and a half of hour life you will never get back. LaBute and Cage should be ashamed.