September 1st, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Almost the Wicker Man

In addition to reading dull books so you don't have to, I also sometimes watch dreaded movies so you don't have to. OK, I admit it, I'm not that selfless: I was offered a free preview screening pass by some friends. I went to spend time with them, not to see a movie whose impending release I viewed with fear, disgust, and revulsion the likes of which I haven't felt since I read Paul Verhoeven's interview in Starlog before the release of his execrable adaptation of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. My dread of this one was rooted in the same cause as my dread anticipating that one. From what I had read, the makers of the new The Wicker Man no more understood the original movie than Paul Verhoeven understood Heinlein's original book.

I went into this movie with the lowest imaginable expectations. It exceeded those expectations ... but then, that was a very low hurdle. To explain what movie we ended up with, let me recap a history of the original movie. The director of the original The Wicker Man set out to make a horror film that would also qualify as an art-house film, and ended up with a masterpiece. Unfortunately, he faced two problems. For tax reasons, his studio desperately needed him to have produced a flop. And worse luck, hardly anybody (apparently including 3 of the 5 lead actors) fully understood what he'd made. So it showed in one theater for one night. Then, due to herculean efforts by the actor who played the lead villain, Christopher Lee, who moved heaven and earth because he believed (and still believes) that this was the greatest and most important performance of his entire career, it also showed in a couple of film festivals in Europe, to rave reviews ... and then disappeared again. Eventually, the BBC bought the rights to broadcast it once. But they didn't like parts of it, so they cut it down by about 20 minutes with the express purpose of making the hero less disgusting and the villain less intellectually defensible. Unfortunately, that print is the most intact copy we have; all we know about the original scenes that were cut is some promotional photos that were taken during shooting and the actors' recollections of those scenes. Years later, Hammer Films bought the American distribution rights. But they still felt that American audiences wouldn't put up with the remaining moral ambiguity in the film, so they cut yet another 20 minutes out of it, removing anything unsympathetic about the cop and everything sympathetic about the cult. They recut the film for the audiences that are the bane of my existence, people who want their heroes to be flawless shining knights on white horses, sans peur et sans reproche, and their villains to be unambiguously evil and totally unsympathetic, or else it's not really entertainment and they can't relax and enjoy it.

This movie is an almost scene-by-scene homage to the Hammer Films cut of the original The Wicker Man. Except, unfortunately, the story and screenplay were unmistakably adapted from that film (quoting many of its more famous lines and scenes) by someone who didn't understand almost any of the symbolism in that movie. The original movie's cult of Summerisle was cribbed entirely out of Sir James Frazer's influential (if misguided) The Golden Bough -- as was nearly everything in modern Wicca, which is why Wiccans are such steadfast fans of the film. This movie's cult of Summerisle was made up out of whole cloth by someone whose scholarship seems to have extended no further than an episode or two of the TV show Charmed. The villains are "properly" villainous, a cult of priggish filthy hippy Diannic Wiccan feminists who use all of the men on the island as downtrodden beasts of burden and cut out their tongues, playing heavily to the modern stereotype of feminists as grim, humorless, castrating, man-hating bitches and of hippies as incomprehensible, depraved, primitive, superstitious, and filthy. The cobbled-together fake religion in this movie doesn't line up at all well with the symbolism they kept from the other movie, has no particular internal consistency, and results in two of the movie's three largest gaping plot holes. (Oh, and they also cut out all of the nudity and all of the singing.)

The result is a perfectly ordinary horror movie about a human-sacrifice cult hidden in plain sight in 21st century America with a quirky but likable star and easily hated villains. If it weren't for all the baggage and expectations it drags behind it by keeping the name of and paying so many homages to the original movie, this would have made a perfectly acceptable summer horror movie, no better or worse (or smarter or dumber) than the average. Judged by the standard of ordinary American summer horror films, it's not so particularly bad. But it's not my The Wicker Man, the movie I'm so passionately obsessed with. Maybe tomorrow, if nothing distracts me much, I'll explain why.