The Wicker Man

Remaking old thriller films has been a big trend in the last few years. I still think producers make a mistake when they target cult favorites instead of commercial successes. Cult flicks tend to have a more devoted following and are less accepting of tampering with beloved movies. Writer/director Neil LaBute disregards that idea with his remake of the 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee film The Wicker Man and turns out a fairly decent new film, although fans of the original certainly have more than enough to complain about. Disregard the marketing you’ve seen for The Wicker Man, which makes the movie look like Nicolas Cage attempts to save a girl from a burning car, has her vanish, and then spends the rest of the movie looking for her. While some of that does go on, the events are not as linked as the trailers might mislead you into thinking.

Cage plays Edward Malus, a motorcycle cop that fails to save the aforementioned girl from a car wreck before the credits even roll. The girl and her mother die and Edward takes a break from his job when the stress from the girl’s death begins to affect his stability. During his break he receives a letter from an old girlfriend whose daughter has gone missing. Edward heads to Summers Isle to track down the missing girl, who is not the same as the one from the car wreck, although the similarity of one girl’s death and another one missing does begin to play some games with his head. On the private island Edward finds a weird commune who claims the girl never existed. When evidence points to the contrary, Edward begins to fight against all of the commune’s rules to find the missing girl and discover the secrets of their ceremonies and “the wicker man.”

LaBute makes some interesting changes to the original story for his retelling. Firstly he provides the misadvertised backstory for Cage’s character, allowing Edward to be haunted a bit more by his own failure to save the last little girl. The biggest change, however, is the transformation of the Summers Isle commune to a matriarchal society, changing the role of Lord Summerisle, originally played by Christopher Lee (which some would argue to be his best role prior to Saruman), to Sister Summersisle, played by the talented Ellen Burstyn. The change to a dominant female society is curious, especially as LaBute gives the society bees as part of their culture’s stock, making some interesting parallels.

As interesting as those changes are, the story suffers some problems, particularly when it comes to Edward’s character. He declares his interest in finding the missing girl to be in the interests of the law, continually spouting that he is an officer of the law and expecting the private society to respect that. But Edward has no respect for the law himself. He threatens people with his gun, breaks into houses, and shows total disregard for any kind of due process. I know that a movie that follows all of that, having Edward go get search warrants and such, would be a much less interesting film since half the movie would be bureaucratic nonsense, but I didn’t bring up the idea of the law – he did. If he’s going to rely on it as an excuse so frequently through the film, it would be nice if he heeded the law himself every once in a while.

That complaint may seem like a nitpicky one, but it indicates where my mind was while I was watching the movie. The film didn’t completely captivate my attention, letting my mind wander on to thoughts of Edward’s legal dedication. LaBute’s decision to make the society a matriarchal one is a good idea, but it also removes a lot of the suspense from the story. Anyone who has seen a movie with a supposed Wiccans knows what’s coming (not that these ladies are Wiccans or that Wiccans are bad – it’s just an example so please don’t curse me).

I actually think this remake could have been better than the original if it had been advertised a little better and the story had been told in a way that actually built suspense. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but there isn’t anything particularly good either. Instead it ends up as just another mediocre remake and another PG-13 thriller film in a genre that is already overloaded with the same. The DVD for The Wicker Man boasts a “shocking alternate ending not seen in theaters” as its main selling point. The release is a single disc flipper. On one side is the unrated edition with the “shocking alternate ending” and on the other is the theatrical version of the film. It should be noted that “unrated” does not always mean more blood, gore, or sex – it just means the film wasn’t submitted for a rating as evidenced by this new cut of the film which doesn’t contain any more sex or gore.

So is the new unrated, alternate ending shocking? Not really. Actually, you have already seen this ending. It’s the end of the theatrical cut without the coda. To create the same running time for the picture, this alternate version contains more preparation for that finale (without going into to many spoilers). Some might call it preparation, others might call it torture, but I don’t really call it shocking. After all, the actual end of the film is exactly the same as what you would have seen in theaters. There’s just no coda.

The only other special features are the misleading theatrical trailer for the film and a commentary track that includes LaBute, actors Leelee Sobieski and Kate Beahan, editor Joel Plotch, and costume designer Lynette Meyer. The commentary is dominated by LaBute, which seems appropriate, although others speak up at the proper times when the discussion moves to their subject area. The result is a commentary that is full of people but not overwhelming to the listener. The commentary is available on both versions of the film and does change in the final chapters of the DVD based on which version is being watched, although the first 75-80% remains the same.

I can’t say there’s much more I wish had been included on this DVD. The commentary takes care of most of my desire for any kind of interviews with cast and crew or behind the scenes featurettes. It might have been interesting to see the cast or writer/director of the original involved somehow, but that’s really a stretch. Like the movie, there’s nothing overwhelmingly strong about the DVD, but the weakness of the alternate cut of the film just makes this one more reason not to give this release a strong recommendation.