Everybody loves The Wicker Man. The 1973 film, that is, and not the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage. From what I can gather, everyone hates that Wicker Man. But what exactly was wrong with it? Was it just another case of a bad remake of a classic film (just like with Psycho and Get Carter)? Is it really that bad? Against my better judgement, I recently spent an evening with the Cage Wicker Man.
According to its director Robin Hardy, the 1973 original was treated badly by its distributors. The film was edited fairly brutally and eventually released as a B-movie to support Don’t Look Now. Rumour has it that some of the deleted scenes were buried under the M4. The film drifted in obscurity for a while and then began to gain something of a cult following, receiving frequent tv showings, and eventually a director’s cut DVD release. Hardy can’t really say the film is ignored any more. It’s rightly cited as a classic and is possibly the only British film made in the 70s that continues to receive five star reviews in film guides and listing magazines. Its own star, Edward Woodward, is now always asked about the film in interviews and recently made a short documentary with the film critic Mark Kermode where they revisited the original locations. Christopher Lee, who also appeared in the film, says it is his best role and can’t stop talking about it.
“Oh God! Oh no!”
The Wicker Man sits awkwardly alongside the horror films being made in Britain at the time, and this is probably why it has endured so well. For the first half, it’s possible to be forgiven for thinking that this isn’t horror at all. Woodward plays a devoutly religious policeman who’s lured to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He finds a cut off yet seemingly self sufficient pagan society, laughing at his Lord and indulging in sexual ritual (some of it looks fun, especially when Britt Ekland gets her kit off, but Woodward’s having none of it). The Wicker Man stands up to repeated late night viewings, both for its careful build up to a dreadful ending and for its most unusual and wonderful soundtrack. It’s the role of a lifetime for Woodward and probably Lee as well.
Surprisingly for a Hollywood movie, the new Wicker Man doesn’t change an awful lot, although what it does change leads to its ultimate downfall. Cage plays a cop (Edward) who’s called to a remote island … yes it’s the same. But the alteration is that the missing girl (Rowan Woodward – geddit?) is revealed as his daughter, thus altering the original premise that the policeman – a king-like, willing fool – was pure for sacrifice (a virgin). Director Neil LaBute also decides to make his island a feminist nightmare – run by women where the men are mute and dominated. This is one of the reasons why the film was slated, especially as Cage enjoys throwing a few punches, and it’s difficult to defend this plot change, although it was effective to have a woman (Ellen Burstyn) in the Lee role.
But I found the reception to this Wicker Man far too unkind. There is an underlying creepiness to the film, and the end is almost as effective as the original (I was on the edge of my seat because I really thought they were going to fudge it and have Cage rescued). And really strangely, there are a few fleeting references to Don’t Look Now with Cage pursuing a small child in red. Perhaps they forgot at times which film in the original double bill they were remaking. Now this film has earned its place in late night tv slots, I suppose LaBute will take Hardy’s place in moaning about its treatment. Although I can’t see this one being hailed as a classic in 35 years. But everyone who loves The Wicker Man, the 1973 one, should give it a chance.