Prior to The Wicker Man remake's release, director Neil LaBute had this to say about the 1973 original and its fans, who are legion, rabid, and rabidly protective of their beloved cult classic: "It's surprising how many people say it's their favourite soundtrack. I'm like, 'Come on! You may not like the new one, but if that's your favourite soundtrack, I don't know if I want you to like my film.'"
Neil, a word. You might want to sit down for this too; as Lord Summerisle says, shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent. See, Neil, the thing about the 1973 film, is that Paul Giovanni's soundtrack is one of the most celebrated things about it. The filmmakers themselves consider it a virtual musical. And, along with Thompsons Richard and Danny, and Bert Jansch, it practically kick-started the 1970s Folk New Wave. To undermine it is akin to imagining Jaws without John Williams. Or The Buddy Holly Story without Buddy Holly. So it's fair to say expectations weren't exactly white hot for the remake.
The reckoning had been coming for some time: no less an authority than Lord Summerisle himself, Christopher Lee, dismissed it out of hand. ("What do I think of it? Nothing. There's nothing to say"). His Wicker co-star Ingrid Pitt thought the idea of a remake was "a crime"; while original director Robin Hardy called the lawyers in after being credited as the "original screenplay writer" in the promotional material before the movie was even in the can - an insult to both Hardy and the memory of late Wicker writer Anthony Shaffer.
Clearly, someone, or a couple of somebodies, hadn't been paying attention. Those somebodies, who can expect to be strung up like pigs in a pantry by the aforementioned legion and - did we say 'rabid'? - make that 'terrifyingly obsessive' Wicker community, are LaBute and his hapless producer-star Nicolas Cage, who, with breathtaking arrogance, have created one of the worst and most pointless remakes of a British cult classic since Sly Stallone's Get Carter.
Perhaps Johnny Ramone's to blame: he was the one who first invited Cage round to watch it. It apparently left the actor "disturbed for about two weeks." So disturbed, during that fortnight's window, that he pitched the idea of reimagining one of the most nuanced and complex films about inter-faith struggle ever devised to a writer-director previously known for his wholly unsubtle depictions of male chauvinism. It's like some parlour game: what would you get if Sam Peckinpah took on The Remains Of The Day? Or Gaspar 'Irréversible' Noe remade Love Actually? (Actually, we'd quite like to see that.)
Unfortunately, someone took this game seriously: if LaBute's intention was to update an already timeless tale for modern audiences, all he's succeeded in doing is ripping out the guts of the original while saddling it with his own gormless sex war preoccupations.
After failing to rescue a little girl and her mum from a fatal car crash, Cage's highway patrolman Edward Malus spirals into a medicated torpor with only guilt-induced hallucinations for company. Then he receives a letter from ex-fiancée Willow Woodward (this one trades on name-homages for kudos), who walked out of his life years ago for reasons unknown, and is now living on the private island community of Summersisle - that extra 's' stands for 'superfluous'. She wants Edward to help locate her missing daughter Rowan, as he's the only one she can trust.
A galvanised Edward boards a seaplane bound for Maine (Canada, in real life). And soon after strolls into a bar during what he presumes is "Ladies night!" Summersisle, it transpires, is a female-dominated joint, conceived in the 1700s as a haven for oppressed womenfolk and refugees from the Salem witch trials.
Here, the matriarchs observe the olde ways, and the few males are near-mute breed-mules ("we love our men - we're just not subservient to them"). It's like Lilith Fair on a grand scale. Summersisle's main export, according to a website, is '100 per cent organic' honey. Which is both a symbolic and literal headache for Edward, as he's allergic to bees. "Beekeepers!" cries Edward. "They seem to be everywhere on this island!" Well, that's probably because Summersisle's main export is honey. Bee references abound in Wicker's world; from the honeycombed-patterned plantations, to the film's preponderance of yellow and brown hues. However, an horrific episode in which Edward is forced to wear a purifying 'bee helmet' was snipped by the MPAA in order to secure a PG-13 rating. Which also explains the inexplicable boils on his face in the next scene.
During the course of his investigations, Edward overhears of an oncoming May Day ritual called "the time of death and rebirth". He discovers that "school has changed since I was a kid!"; that the previous year's crop failed; nearly dies from bee stings; and eventually comes to the conclusion (a conclusion which admittedly couldn't be more obvious if the locals had tattooed a timetable of events on the backs of his hands) that Rowan - who the islanders insist is dead - will be burnt alive in a pagan rite to ensure a bountiful harvest. He also meets the queen bee of the hive, Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who has her own plans for him involving the eponymous wicker man: "The drone must die."
The rest of this review necessarily contains spoilers. First, the good news: any concerns that Cage would be airlifted from the Wicker Man's flaming jaws at the last minute by a fleet of black CIA helicopters can be laid to rest: he's toast. That's about it for the good news. "This is a story whose chapters were carefully written" intones Burstyn with sublime irony. Though retaining the basic cat-and-mouse premise (and witchy credits typography), what's left over subjects the original to a scorched-earth policy.
Crucial to Shaffer's original screenplay was that his Christian copper, in accordance with ancient ritual, came to the island of his own free will, accepted the role of 'king for a day' (who but a 'fool' would do that) - and most importantly, was a virgin - the perfect sacrifice. Here, it's revealed that Rowan is in fact Edward's daughter by Willow, and Sister Summersisle Willow's mother. In reducing matters to a sexual, as opposed to a religious power-struggle, LaBute presents the slightest of qualifiers for a harvest sacrifice: "What we require is a stranger... yet one who is connected by blood." By the time Cage has worked out he was the bait all along, you honestly couldn't care less.
And Cage is one of the very worst things in this; a lumbering, drawling donkey, an arsewit whose tongue seems just slightly too big for his mouth. "Goddamnit" he moans after he hallucinates a drowned Rowan, with all the mental torment of a man who's set his morning alarm clock half-an-hour too early.
One hopes it's his character's frequent reliance on pills that has reduced him to this state - alternately fatigued, then full of preppy, overbearing vim. If so, it's a fine portrayal of an undistinguished IQ addled with anti-depressants. If not, it doesn't bear thinking about. As Willow, the saucer-eyed Kate Beahan is similarly dreadful, presenting her lines as if in competition with Cage for the... most... half-hearted... delivery. Burstyn invests little in a character that afforded Christopher Lee his greatest ever role, lacking the screen presence and mercurial menace to entirely convince. Who's afraid of Naomi Wolf?
Every element that made the original great - the pacing, the lovingly detailed depictions of folk customs, the ingenious score, the dialogue (Lord Summerisle's majestic "You did it beautifully!" has been replaced with the rather less attractive "You did it excellently!" Whoah, dude!) - have been substituted for a meandering battle-of-the-sexes thriller with occasional crash-bang wallop. Namely, walloping women; this is a LaBute flick, after all. Cage's Sister Beech bashing is just one of the more embarrassing episodes; impotent little men will be hooting with glee at how them uppity hippie chicks finally got what was coming to 'em, hyuk, hyuk.
The closing coda 'six months later' sees the whole rotten mess collapsing like blazing wicker work under the weight of genre cliché: in a bar, two guys run into a couple of Summersisle maidens on shore leave, flirty-fishing for fresh martyrs. At the moment of their successful pick-up, you half expect the women to turn round and give an exaggerated wink and a thumbs-up to the camera.
One more thing: keen credit watchers may have noticed that films sporting an unusually high producer count (anything up to 10) tend to be Not Much Cop. The Wicker Man has 18 producers in total.