Remaking cult movies is a risky proposition. By their nature, they are going to have a rabidly loyal fan base, and therefore the people most likely to be interested in the remake are also the people most likely to be hostile towards it. This is the lesson being learned the hard way by Neil LaBute. His remake of 1973’s The Wicker Man is in the theatres now. He faced a barrage of criticism from the fans even before he’d finished his work. He’s unlikely to hear anything different now. Both films tell a similar st…ry of a police officer arriving in a remote island community to look for a missing girl, only to find that everyone is in on some kind of conspiracy. But the storytelling is where LaBute falls down.
Remakes can certainly be worthwhile, especially if they take the original premise in a new direction. Thus, the new versions of The Thing and The Fly became classics in their own right. LaBute, unfortunately, has simultaneously been too faithful to his source, and betrayed it. How he has done so is by misunderstanding what made the original work so well, and then, having destroyed its soul, kept a lot of the original dialogue. This is called being true to the letter, and not the spirit.
One couldn’t expect the remake to feature all the folk singing that makes the first film so very peculiar (it’s almost a horror musical), but that singing was part and parcel of the daylight horror approach of Robin Hardy’s film. Comparatively little of the film takes place at night, and much of the movie is so cheerful that one can’t imagine anything REALLY horrible taking place. And then it does. Along the way, of course, there are just enough off-kilter elements to keep the audience off-balance and uneasy. Then there’s the police officer played by Edward Woodward. The man is a repressed prig, and no fun at all, and so audience isn’t sure exactly where to place its sympathy. The islanders seem such a jolly lot, and their version of religion seems much more exciting and open than Woodward’s. The thing is, though, Woodward’s heart is in the right place, and he in no way deserves what happens at the end. This delicate balance results in one of the most wrenching endings of the 1970’s, a decade known for more than a few downbeat endings to movies.
LaBute, on the other hand, gives us plenty of traditional horror movie nighttime creeping-around. His matriarchal community is as repressed as Hardy’s pagan town was liberated. LaBute’s folks look like depressed Amish. Nicholas Cage is a problem, too. Never mind the largely unexplained trauma that lurks in his background, he is generally too “normal,” too straightforwardly likeable, and nowhere near as interesting as Woodward.
So the remake is a dud. But those who haven’t seen the original so check it out. Anchor Bay has just re-released the DVD, and it’s available everywhere at bargain prices as you read this. It is, however, the truncated American theatrical release. Worth tracking down is the limited edition from a few years back, which includes the European version. Its extra 11 minutes includes some pretty crucial character development. The US version is in 5.1, and the European one is in mono, and the restored segments are in pretty rough shape, but for the full experience, that’s the one to watch.