More than a generation after its release, the bizarre 1973 thriller The Wicker Man is probably as memorable for what it attempts as for what it accomplishes.
In the hip-mod shadow of a waning '60s mentality ... when nudity in movies was both titillating and liberating ... here was a story about a modern pagan cult that lives on a bucolic island off the English mainland. They sing ancient songs, conduct ancient rites, dance naked around the maypole, and sacrifice people to their gods when their crops fail. Throw into their midst a properly square British policeman, investigating the reported disappearance of a teen-age girl, and you get an erotic mind-blower that pits Christianity against ... well, The Dark Side.
Written by the playwright Anthony Shaffer ... the author of Sleuth and Hitchcock's masterful Frenzy ... it's a serious work, and it's photographed, for irony, like a picnic in the English countryside. But its stilted acting, especially from the monotonous icon Christopher Lee, as the cult leader, now makes it feel at least dated and perhaps even a bit ridiculous. In any case, with the pagans smiling their iniquitous smiles, and with the representative of the Civilized World facing his execution with prayer and damnation on his fiery lips, it's certainly a curiosity of its time.
The American playwright/director Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors) has reinterpreted Shaffer's work into a PG-13 thriller that does not, in our pre-Apocalyptic times, critique religious dogma like the original did: You just don't ask questions about the Almighty nowadays. And though LaBute sometimes deals in sexual behavior, he never employs nudity, which has become as hard to find in respectable movies as a Santorum button in a whorehouse (not including those worn by the clients).
We need to make people in cults appear to be brainwashed so that they don't too closely resemble the faithful of our mainstream religions, which all began, more or less, as cults themselves. (The only real difference between a cult and a religion is tax-exempt status.) And while the original movie ends with a powerful expression of faith, it doesn't do the believer much good, unless you believe that he'll soon be in a Better Place.
LaBute's version remains surprisingly true to the outline of Shaffer's fanciful tale. This time our hapless hero, portrayed by Nicolas Cage, is Edward Malus ... rhymes with "phallus" ... a California highway patrolman who's traumatized after he can't rescue a girl from a burning station wagon. Looking for meaning in his now-depressive life, he finds it in a letter from Willow, the doe-eyed fiancée who left him several years ago. She returned to live on an isolated island off the coast of Washington where she was born and raised, and now she needs Edward's help: Rowan, her little girl, has disappeared, and Willow doesn't know where to find her.
On the island, which has no telephone service, and where his cell phone can't get a single bar, Edward finds a world populated by creepy women who call each other "sister," and mute men who do all the work and know their place. Slowly, slowly, their world unfolds to him, although no one will admit to having seen Rowan ... not Sister Rose (Molly Parker), the raven-haired schoolteacher, nor Sister Honey (Leelee Sobieski), the foxy blonde who says, "When you leave the island, take me with you."
The island's doctor (Frances Conroy) is cooler and savvier than her more impulsive younger "siblings." But coolest of all is their queen bee, Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who rules with silver hair and a Cheshire grin. She explains to Edward how her 17th-century female Celtic ancestors left England for America to liberate themselves. They landed in repressive Salem, then kept moving west until they arrived at the island on which their descendants now live.
By the time we find Rowan and solve the mystery, Edward has grown tired of their sinister matriarchy. This is the moment at which the re-envisioned Wicker Man becomes just as much LaBute's as it is Shaffer's. In his best films, beginning with In the Company of Men, LaBute has explored misogyny ... some would say glorified it ... by putting women into relationships with men who emotionally exploit and abuse them. It's a compelling canon, but also a disturbing one: He almost seems to understand too well why the men do it.
So when Edward finally lets go of his manners, punching his first of several women square in the jaw, the audience cheers, and LaBute effects a sort of personal liberation: At last, he's created a man who abuses a woman who deserves it. LaBute never does explain how a group of idealistic proto-feminists turned into a cuckoo cult, though he seems to suggest that they don't get enough Tom, Dick and ... thank you very much ... Harry. Stabat mater indeed. Obviously, this is what happens to women with no men around who can put them in their place.
Is this a better story told as a piece in the puzzle of Neil LaBute, or was it better in 1973, as a reflection of its period more than its maker? This time through, I would have enjoyed some nudity. The new Wicker Man is possibly even sillier than the old one. It's also just as interesting, in its way. So why not make it an evening: Watch the two films together with friends, then drink some wine, shed some clothing, engage in some thoughtful intercourse, and hug it out. I can think of worse ways to spend a Saturday night.