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March 18, 2007

Unexpected Treat: The Wicker Man

Note: This review seems to be an awful lot of words wasted on a minor horror remake from last year, especially one that fared so poorly at the box office as well as in critics' estimation. Still, for some reason, I wanted to write about it, so I did.


Some posters warned me away from this Nicholas Cage-starring remake of the 1973 British chiller (considered by most to be at least a minor classic), and the critics were savage, tearing into the film with a hostilty not seen again until, well, 300.

I rented it because I had nothing better to watch, and because I enjoy truly inept movies like Battlefield: Earth and The Avengers, delighting in their incompetence and providing me with the egotistical thrill of thinking "I could do better." Perhaps because of my low expectations, and because I like Nicholas Cage, I actually liked this movie quite a bit, and I'm confounded as to why my take on it differs so much from, well, almost everyone else.

My guesses: Most people didn't like it because they either don't much like Nicholas Cage, were turned off by the subtle (arguably somnolent) pacing, and were expecting this "horror" film to actually be horrific. It's actually not really a horror film so much as cross between a low-octane psychological thrller and a detective story set not in the Big City but in an odd, insular rural community of modern-world rejectivists (with the cliche -- though a fun cliche -- of the weirdly-customed agrarian-types and their requisite unapologetic hostility towards and suspicion of strangers intruding from the modern world ). Anyone coming to this movie expecting genuine horror, or even a high creepiness level, is going to be disappointed; it's really more of a (softly) hard-boiled detective story set in the forest with some light supernatural overtones.

The critics, on the other hand, rejected the film chiefly because of its perceived politics, as liberal critics are wont to do. Many say they found the film "unnecessary" or "redundant," which I expected them to, given the high esteem the original is held in, but I don't get that complaint, generally -- a remake of a classic is almost never as good as the original, but isn't there some value in getting the old material back into the theaters again? The Wallflowers' cover of Heroes was a note for note re-do of the Bowie original, and could hardly be expected to out-do that amazing song, but was there any harm in getting Heroes back in wide play on the radio? I didn't think so; sure, I prefer the Bowie version, but even a lesser remake of a great song is still pretty good, isn't it?

How many people, precisely, were renting the original 1973 Wicker Man? Almost no one, save for some few dedicated cinefiles and horror fans. So why not remake the film and give the basic story a much-wider audience? Is there some great virtue in leaving an old film unsullied by a remake, and also almost entirely unwatched?

I didn't really see the original -- well, I saw a few minutes of Edward Woodward confronting some odd Welsh-ish primitive screwheads in thatch huts, and the somewhat famous climax -- so I can't really judge how good this movie is compared to the supposedly great original. It does seem to me, though, that the hostility for what seems to be to be a fairly smart, subtle, and effective horror flick is motivated chiefly by liberal disconent with the film's fairly light political undertones. Is the film a little too low-key and under-played for modern megaplex tastes? Well, then, wasn't the original as well? Isn't a film-maker willing to risk a bit of quiet and subtlety in a genre usually marked by obvious manipulation to be praised?

Well, usually. But not when that film-maker is Neil LaBute, and his target is, very lightly, modern, or at least recent 80's-style, feminism.

Some minor spoilers follow. These are sort of first-fifteen-minutes spoilers -- the stuff I'll specifically reveal is pretty obvious from the first fifteen minutes, or else major themes that it's hard to avoid discussing if the film is to be reviewed at all. But if you're worried about spoilers, you might want to skip it from here.

Neil LaBute has made a career out of depicting the mistrust and betrayal between the sexes in often archly over-the-top ways (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), and here he reimagines the creepy Welsh Druidic survival-community as a matriarchal, man-hating coven of (lesbian?) Wiccans descended from the witches who fled bad old Salem, Massachusetts. It's a decent choice of subject matter, I think, if only for the fact that horror should be set close to home, not in faraway lands; the original was a British film, and so its weird cultists were, for the British audience, those strange village folk living just a few dozen miles down the road from London; for an American version, it makes sense to set in America, trading the British "old ways" of pagan Druidism for the American mythology of the "old ways" of witchcraft.

There are a couple of problems with this choice of re-imagining, though. First, he seems to have utterly pissed off the liberal critics, who cannot bear to even see a subtle analogy to modern feminism. Second, witches aren't really terribly scary; they make appearances at Halloween far more than they do in movies and books precisely because they're really not much of a perceived threat -- the are, after all, just old women, by and large, it's hard to make frail old women into physical threats that can menace a hero (especially a male hero in the prime of his life).

The third problem is that the anti-feminist resonance of the movie just fails to, well, resonate. Thoughtful horror movies are often said to include not only play upon primal biological and psychological fears, but upon current social ones as well -- Dracula played upon the Victorian fear of the sexual and sensual, Invasion of the Body Snatchers upon queasiness over both Communist infiltration and/or the resultant supposed hyperconformity of the 1950's, Carrie upon the fears of adolescent sexual awakening, etc. To the extent this film has this component, it plays upon fears of radical feminist empowerment, which wasn't even much of a fear in its heyday, the mid-eighties, with second-wave feminists like Katherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin turning feminism into a mutant cult of the sisterhood of unhinged man-hatred. The social component of the triad of horror wouldn't really have worked even back then, given how buffooonish such women seemed; in the latter half of the double-naught decade, such fears seem not only unfounded but anachronistic, quaint, and even slightly ridiculous.

(A critic knocked A Shape of Things as being "the most controversial movie of 1983" in its depiction of Karen Finey-esque performance art and feminist excess -- the clever put-down playing on the fact the movie was released in the 2000's, and its intended targets now a bit musty and mouldering and was thus, for the time it was released, not at all controversial and even a bit silly. In a way, Neil LaBute is a film-maker ahead of his time by being so frequently behind the times, and stubbornly, unapologetically so.)

That said, I've never really invested very heavily in the social component of horror; I really don't give a fig that Dracula was a metaphor for repressed Victorian sexuality, and have hardly missed the social aspect in movies like Jaws, Alien, Aliens, etc. (What's the social resonance in those films? Being afraid of scary monsters that want to eat your face?) So I just take this gesture of Neil LaBute's to be a bit of art-house style provocation, neither adding much to nor detracting anything from the film's other pleasures.

Apart from the light creepiness of the rural folk with the odd customs and nineteenth century mode of dress and speaking, the film isn't really scary at all. LaBute apparently considers himself above the moroe manipulative sorts of scares found in most recent horror stories, but still resorts to pop-up scares and "it was just a dream" jolts to add some tepid fright value to his movie.

Another problem in movies about cults is this: At some point you have to show the cult performing its rituals, and that almost always looks absolutely ridiculous rather than scary. The costumes, the chanting, the primitive music. We've seen it all before and it wasn't very scary the first thousand times. (Eyes Wide Shut is just about the only movie I can think of where a cult actually appears pretty scary and somewhat plausible -- then again, that was Kubrick. Rosemary's Baby also did a halfway decent job at it, avoiding costumes and chanting, by and large, in favor of ugly old people.) The problem with Sataincally-themed horror movies is that you just have to show the Satanists at some point, and Satanists always just look friggin' retarded.

But the original had a pretty silly ritual scene, too, and this film's ritual isn't really as goofy as many critics claim. It seems a bit Magical Mystery Tour-ish, but then, I always thought that was kinda creepy and weird. Your mileage may differ; but considering how hard it is to convincingly pull off this conceit, I think the movie avoids the laugh-out-loud factor so common to the late reveal of the cultists' rituals.

Another problem is that this movie kinda-sorta suggests that magic is quite real in an early scene -- there seems to be little other explanation than either the power of illusion or conjuration for this event -- and yet the rest of the film seems to proceed from the assumption that there is no magic apart from the power of belief, and what evils strongly-held, insane beliefs might compel. And yet -- still there is that early scene, suggesting magic is real. I think that early scene (which is never really explained) undermines the main point of the movie about the power of, and need for, belief. (I understand this flaw was not present in the original, where nothing really was truly supernatural at all.)

Also absent is the hero's flaw. In this kind of movie, convention has it that the hero must have some sort of flaw, or must have committed some grave sin in the past, which makes his subsequent torment... well, if not quite deserved, at least an example if poetic, though excessive, justice. Cage here, however, is a thoroughly decent man without the expected hatred of women (or history as a spouse-abuser) which would make his torment at the hands of radical feminist Wiccans somewhat ironic. I actually didn't miss this convention too much -- it would have been a bit too pat to make Cage a misogynist -- but still, there is a feeling that something is missing here, because we've seen this sort of story enough times to know the hero is supposed to have somehow earned his ticket to hell. He doesn't even exhibit the male sin of bullying women until late in the picture, and by that point, hell, these lying lunatic women have richly deserved a bit of slapping around for at least an hour. Even in extreme circumstances -- trying to find a lost child, and faced with a community that not only is obviously lying to him about her, but doing so so transparently as to be arrogant about it, not even bothering to try to be convincing in their lies -- Cage shows more restraint than the average man would, making him an almost complete innocent.

So why on earth did I like it? Well, chiefly because no one makes detective stories much anymore, and even though I knew where all of this was heading (having seen the ending of the original, and, even had I not seen that, being able to guess how these things play out), I still enjoyed the ride. The light mystery, the intrepid detective seeking the truth, etc. LaBute avoids the "Hero is a Moron" conceit so often seen in horror movies; he's not some doofus perpetually in the dark about what's going on here, but figures it out at about the correct pace for a man of some intelligence; he knows the basics of what's going on at about the same time the viewer is figuring it out, so he's not some idiot the viewer laughs at. Cage and the almost exclusively female supporting cast all play their roles well, with very little over-the-top or over-hyped nonsense; Cage is angry, but not in screaming righteous mode, even as he accuses the women of what he's long suspected (that they're engaged, somehow, in ritualistic murder).

Another bit I liked comes from LaBute's quick suggestion about the need to believe in something, even if most have turned their backs on what has historically been taken to be God, exemplified by Cage's purchase of a New Age style videotape called "Everything's Okay;" even though nothing much is done with this, I got the the idea LaBute was going for, and appreciated it. Not sure he had to do too much more with it to partly explain the power of the cult Cage is confronted with. A minor bit of thoughtfulness for a horror movie, but one I appreciated.

All in all, what can I say? I liked it. There was some cliche in the low-octane creepiness (how many times will a little girl's giggle be used in an attempt to scare an audience), not too many actual scares (for me, the number of actual scares was actually zero, the big goose-egg), and some unavoidable silliness in trying to depict a goofy pagan cult as somehow realistic and menacing. I can only guess that I'm just so starved for detective thrillers that I went for Cage's oddball version of Phillip Marlowe stuck in a creepy agricultural commune. And even if it wasn't brilliant, it also wasn't so stupid as to insult my intelligence, which makes puts it in the upper level of horror films right there.

Recommended, though reservedly so. Low expectations seem to have helped me. Snowed in, and reduced to watching the Steve Martin comedy The Man With Two Brains for the fiftieth time, I guess I was just looking for a halfway decent thriller, and I got it. (Ace of Spades is... Starved for Entertainment. Eh, it'll only cost you four bucks and 110 minutes of your time. Why not?

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posted by Ace at 04:05 PM

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