by Lucius Shepard
September 3, 2006
You have to wonder where this remake thing is leading. It appears the rulers of that earthly paradise known as Studio City will go to any extreme to avoid an original thought, and thus in recent years we've been blessed with an endless succession of films seeking to Americanize (more chases, explosions, CGI; less emphasis on character and story) the work of foreign auteurs and classic and not-so-classic movies of the past. We've had remakes in name only, films that lift a basic concept and/or title, taking these elements in a new and usually disastrous direction. We've had oddities like Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, a movie whose Borgesian conceit was that a work of art recreated in an era different from that of the original will produce a different effect on the viewer—sad to say, the effect produced was of intense disinterest. There have been a handful of successes (John Carpenter's The Thing springs to mind), but for every success there are a myriad abominations. To list some personal favorites: Payback, wherein Mel Gibson, before his insanity became a matter of public record, managed to strip John Boorman's Point Blank of all its malevolent brilliance; the Ethan Hawke-Gwyneth Paltrow version of Great Expectations, wherein a great novel is morphed into a gag-inducing soap opera; Cousins, which re-envisioned Jean Charles Tacchella's sharply written romantic comedy Cousin, Cousine, as a vehicle for Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini, a couple who set a standard for Least On-Screen Chemistry (Say it to yourself. Contemplate the awfulness. Ted Danson? Isabella Rossellini?) challenged only by the pairing of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard . . . yet another remake.
The list is, apparently, endless.
So what lies ahead?
A robot My Fair Lady? 2001: A Space Odyssey set in an ant farm?
My theory is that the world will one day be All Remakes All the Time, that science will provide tools that permit us to reinvent ourselves ceaselessly, and we will spend our days gazing into technical mirrors, re-imagining our lives as pirates, lonely milkmaids and giants, until at last, having exhausted the realm of possibility, life becomes so terminally tedious and unpalatable that we expire from lack of interest.
Which brings me to The Wicker Man
The original film was made in the early 70s, a period during which directors such as George Romero, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, et al, were reinvigorating the horror genre, and the king of the genre, Hammer Films, was slumping into irrelevance, churning out the same old bodice-ripping vampire/monster flicks they had been making for years, many starring Christopher Lee. Lee wanted to catch the new wave in genre film and sought to persuade Hammer to be more adventurous; they, however, were pleased with the status quo, so Lee went to another English movie company, Shepperton Studios, and there he succeeded in getting a project made that satisfied his notion of the direction in which the new British horror should travel.
Lee's project, The Wicker Man, is not a great film. Far from it. Yet it might have come close with a bit more of a budget and a little tweaking. Derived from an intelligent script by Anthony Schaeffer, a curious amalgam of mystery, horror, and musical, it relates the story of a Scottish policeman named Howie, a forty-year-old virgin deeply committed to his Christian faith and soon to be married, who is summoned by an anonymous letter to an offshore island, Summerisle, there to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He soon discovers that the island does not merely produce apples of surpassing flavor, but has also bred what to Howie's mind is the pernicious evil of paganism. Everywhere he goes, he finds evidence that deepens the mystery surrounding the girl's disappearance, and he begins to suspect that she is to be sacrificed in a pagan rite. Paganism has been ingrained into every aspect of the island's life, and especially disturbing to Howie are the sexual overtones of the religion. On a visit to Lord Summerisle (Lee), the de facto ruler of the island, Howie sees young women dancing naked within a ring of standing stones, leaping over a fire in hopes that the god of the harvest will impregnate them. Schoolgirls chant ritualistically while boys overtly celebrate the phallus by dancing about a maypole. At night in his hotel room, he is sorely tempted by a nude Britt Eklund, who performs a dance of sexual abandon while Howie struggles with his conscience and his faith, ultimately winning the battle with himself thanks to his devoutness . . . or is it fear? Fear of contagion, of some masculine inadequacy. Whatever the case, his preoccupation prevents him from seeing the jaws of a trap closing upon him.
Each of these occasions and others are accompanied by songs, and the songs comprise both the films' most grievous flaw and one of its greatest virtues. Had they been blended more naturally into the picture, had they not been lip-synched over studio recordings made by professional singers and sung by actors in their natural off-key voices, if their number had been cut by two or three, they would, I think, have achieved the intended result, that of creating a believable pagan culture, an island kingdom informed by ancient laws in the midst of the modern world. As it stands, that result is achieved, though not without some difficulty on the part of the viewer—one tends to be distanced from the film during these sequences. But Edward Woodward's performance as the uptight yet essentially decent and dutiful Howie holds the movie together. Woodward, mainly known here for his work on the American TV series The Equalizer, has some excellent performances on his resume, yet none more central to the success of its film than his role in The Wicker Man.
Most movie stars have inordinately big heads and relatively tiny bodies. It's true. People with those physical attributes photograph well. If you're ever at a celebrity event, take a quick look around—your first impression will be that you're in a room full of bobbleheads. I mention this not only because it seems strange, but because the star of the remake of the The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage, is a prime example of that freakish sub-populace. I haven't measured Nick's cranium, but a casual eyeballing causes me to suspect that he rivals Matt Dillon for the lead in size-of-head-to-size-of-body ratio among contemporary Hollywood actors. Unfortunately, this does not reflect a commensurate largeness of talent, for Cage is among the most incompetent leading men of his generation. His emotional quiver contains a very few arrows. Notable among them is what passes for a grim, smoldering look—it can also pass for a constipated look, but I'm assuming that Cage intends grim and smoldering, because there are few roles that memorialize the constipated . . . though it's possible a TV Movie of the Week may have been devoted to the cause. By means of this grim, smoldering look, then, he is able convey passion, anger, sadness, bewilderment, deep thought, lower abdominal pain, etc. Another look Cage relies on heavily consists of showing his teeth and widening his eyes, presenting the image of an affrighted horse—thus does he convey fear, grief, outrage, effort, shock, and so on. Such an un-nuanced style of acting, albeit economical to a fault, does not qualify Cage to carry a motion picture. But even an inept actor can do credible work if the direction is strong and the writing incisive. Therefore most of the blame for the remake's calamitous failure must be laid at the feet of writer/director Neil LaBute.
LaBute, who's done at least one decent studio picture (Nurse Betty), has stripped The Wicker Man of sub-text and reduced it to exactly what Christopher Lee was trying to escape—a stock horror film replete with jump scares and CGI foolishness. The story is much the same, the scene-by-scene progression virtually identical, but the changes that LaBute has made cripple the film. For example, the idea of playing a virgin may not have set well with Cage's ego, or as has been published, it might have been deemed unbelievable in this day and age. Yet such men do exist today, religious types with an abiding conviction that out-of-wedlock sex is sinful, and surely a character of this sort would have been more interesting than and just as believable as the below-average Joe character created by LaBute's script. In the remake, the vanished girl is Cage's daughter and the mother is his old fiancÉe who left him without explanation years before (this proves to be a cold-blooded tradition among the island women). And so we are left with a shopworn horror trope—the righteous man invading a bastion of evil in order to save an innocent. It could scarcely be more ho-hum if he were dressed in a cassock and armed with a cross.
One refreshing quality of the original film was that it presented paganism as a religious choice, devoid of supernatural claptrap, and presented Howie's Christianity as an equally reasonable (or unreasonable) choice. Both faiths were depicted as extreme yet culturally appropriate, and this made the picture's ending seem all the more horrific. In LaBute's version, paganism manifests as a sinister Mother Goddess bee cult led by a queen, Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn)—this allows the director to bash his favorite villains (women) and to belabor the theme of men versus women, which he investigated to better effect in The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. That Cage (who plays Edward Malus, a character named for a genus of apple dependent on pollination by bees) is shown knocking three women unconscious reminds us of how greatly the director relishes his misogyny. In most of his pictures, he portrays women as alien and cruel, but here he forces the template of those views onto materials they do not suit; thus the movie feels disjointed, haphazard, and devoid of context. Without the necessary foreshadowing, a scene in which Sister Summerisle, resplendent in white robes, lies in her royal bed, flanked by handmaidens, comes across as comedic. The entire ending, in which Cage, relying on Look Number Two (affrighted horse), is chased through a forest by a posse of castrating hippie shrews costumed as deer, chickens, ravens, kitties, etc., is downright laughable. From the point at which Cage hijacks the local schoolteacher's means of transportation, whipping out his piece and commanding her to "Step away from the bicycle!", we realize that all is lost and we might as well sit back and enjoy the yucks, because not even an Edward Woodward could have saved this movie.
On a brighter note, let me recommend Dominick Moll's Lemming, a French psychodrama/thriller/horror film available on DVD. Spearheaded by brilliant performances from Charlotte Gainsborough, Laurent Lucas, and Charlotte Rampling, it tells of what happens to a young engineer (Laurent), the inventor of a flying webcam, and his wife (Gainsborough) after they invite his new boss and his steely wife (Rampling) to dinner. Presaging the strange character of the disaster to come, the young couple finds that one of their drains has been clogged by a dead lemming, a type of rat native to Scandinavia. The dinner turns into a suburban nightmare, with Rampling—wearing sunglasses and armored in haute couture—lashing out at her purportedly unfaithful husband in devastating style. When Rampling leaves her husband, she moves into the couple's spare bedroom and, shortly thereafter, commits suicide. Gradually, the young wife seems to acquire the personality of the dead woman, but this is no simple story of possession. As the house changes into a virtual haunted house, a transformation masterfully handled by Moll, assisted by David Whittaker's unsettling score, the movie enters Lynchian territory and begins to mess with your head. If you have recently seen LaBute's botched job of thematic transplant, and I hope that you have not, you may require an antidote and Lemming should fill your prescription.