Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Wicker Man Stings; Or, Gloria Swanson is the Bee's Knees Redux: The Wicker Man is a '70s remake, all right -- but not of just The Wicker Man...

Right: What, out of wicker? The Bad (Bee) Seed
'bad girl' poster art supplants the iconic Wicker Man

Ah, the Hollywood cycle of 1970s horror movie remakes continues with yesterday's nationwide debut of The Wicker Man, which I attended, per my habit with these remakes, as (a) a matinee (less expensive and most of 'em have been best as matinee fodder) and (b) with absolutely zero expectations.

Mind you, I'm a great fan of the original Anthony Shaffer/Robin Hardy feature The Wicker Man, and had the pleasure of seeing that twice in August, including turning my wife Marge onto it (she is no fan of horror films, but loved the Anchor Bay restoration of the 1973 The Wicker Man, which is indeed the best way to revisit it unless a big-screen revival is in driving distance of your home). I'm also a fan of the remake's writer/director Neil LaBute's films (my faves being In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty), so I had no predisposition against the remake in principle: seemed a fair chance it could be compelling in either context, so what the hell. I paid my bucks and took my seat.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this review absolutely gives away everything about the remake, and I do mean everything. Hate to say so, but there's no other way to discuss it in short order. So, stop now if you've any intention of seeing the remake, then come back here and read on. Or don't. I don't care either way. Just don't want to ruin anything for you without fair notice. SPOILER WARNING concluded.

Now, go see Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy's original 1973 The Wicker Man. Now. I'll wait. It's on DVD, and easy to find just now. No really, go see it, if you never have. It's essential viewing, and far, far more relevent to the contemporary right-wing religious patriarchal era of the Bush Administration than the remake.

OK, seen it? Good. Alas, The Wicker Man has been ill-served by this remake. Now, try to forget the original version. Try.

It's all reduced in the remake to lone male (Nicholas Cage) vs. malicious matriarchy (led by Ellen Burstyn, Regan's mama in The Exorcist, playing the Lord -- here Sister -- Summerisle role) on a remote Northwest Pacific island, where bee honey rather than apples are the core product. Of course, Cage's protagonist is deathly allergic to bee stings, though this is exploited and/or ignored at whim and is increasingly unbelievable. At one point (typical of how the film unravels as it unreels), Cage has his essential conversation with Sister Summerisle in her garden as bees flit and buzz all about (the dialogue herein is a patchwork pastiche of Shaffer's original exchange between Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward).

Right: Cage to Burstyn: "How's Beezness?"

As best I could tell, his mounting rage at her mere existence (though the plot mechanics would have us believe it's his concern for his missing daughter's welfare, it plays like he's just pissed at the arrogance of the matriarch) precluded his biological aversion to bees in short order. It was hard to tell, really, given the silliness of the preceding sequence in which Cage blundered like a bear through the beehive complex, suffering stings that should have killed the sonuvabitch deader than a doornail. If only this were a remake of My Girl...

Stripped of the characterization of Shaffer's original, Cage is now a secular cop traumatized by a shattering encounter with a single mother and daughter on the highway (in a sequence much like the opener of Peter Medak's sleeper The Changeling). Surviving this accident, the guilt-wracked policeman is lured to Summerisle by Willow (Kate Beahan), the fiance who jilted him on the eve of their wedding. She's now begging for his help in the search for her missing daughter Rowan (Erica Shaye-Gair, the boogy-boogy waif of the remake's lame Omen-like poster art; emblematic of the stupidity of the studio behind this remake, they've chucked the film's evocative, now-iconic titular image) -- who, dig, turns out to be Cage's daughter, too (I warned you, I'm a spoiler in this review) to clumsily supplant the righteous patriarchal arrogance of the original's Edward Woodward protagonist with something to hang the remake's poorly-motivated revamp upon).

What's lacking? While I miss the heart and soul of Shaffer & Hardy's film, the real problem is nothing takes its place in the remake save LaBute's ire at all womankind. Purists should note, just to get it out of the way, that there's no musical component here, save for the by-the-numbers score (among the most subversive delights of the original film is -- it's a musical!). Gone is the Christianity vs. druidic agrarian religion conflict, too, which renders the climactic paganistic ritual superfluous (it becomes, shorn of any recognizable historical context, as risible as the invented paganism of the Children of the Corn films).

But the remake's problems are even more fundamental: there are no characterizations per se, save for the most rudimentary kind (which actually devolve as the film's gender-fueled polemic becomes more aggressive). Though lines are lifted verbatim from the original's sterling script, they fall flat: the villagers (women all, save for neutered male drones glimpsed later in the film) are from their first scene presented as unnaturally cruel in a bit of business involving a writhing, bleeding bag (containing -- what? We never find out). LaBute immediately plops an enigmatic mention of the wicker man into the proceedings (for no reason other than to set up the climax -- Shaffer and Hardy were clever enough to let the title alone beg the question resolved in the climax); the matter of the harvest photos in the pub is maladroitly fumbled, too.

In the end, the wicker man itself isn't even reconceived to fit the hive metaphor (borrowing a page from the Clive Barker story "The Forbidden" that inspired Candyman would have worked wonders here), and the much-ballyhooed "shock ending" falls flat. Completely divorced from its Celtic druidic religious, historical and cultural context, and with nothing comparable to take its place, the plot is recontextualized into base drivel by supplanting the core premise to an increasingly numbing 'dread of women' horrorshow.

(At one point, I found my mind wandering, considering what Roger Corman might have done to update the premise. Hmmmm, isolated agrarian cults in the 21st Century -- perhaps a melding of bubble-environment Disney World imperialist 'statehood' and covert Monsanto-like corporate GMF horrors would have filled the bill? Both corporate states in reality maintain their own laws and police forces, and escape outside-world scrutiny -- that would have been believable. A secretive commune of Mormon-like splinter-group extremists living by their own sexual and familial laws, helming an innovative ethynol-producing outpost in the heartland? But no, a hoary sf pastiche of New Age/Wiccan women must bear the brunt of this writer/director's outrage. Sigh.)

Worst of all, the remake simply dissolves under the most cursory scrutiny. This is lazy storytelling, pure and simple, and the worst offenses include apparently supernatural sleight-of-hand that allows key characters to explosively die only to return, sans explanation, when it's convenient during the climax. This revionist occultism also extends to one of the few sympathetic female characters: in what is either a reflection of Cage's or LaBute's rabid fear of women, the question of how exactly Willow's unstamped letter landed into Cage's hands is resolved with a flashback to the lone female cop who visits Cage in apparent sympathy: a bee hovers and lands on her cheek, linking her improbably with the Summerisle coven (to what end? How? And if she isn't of the coven -- the image could be delusional in its context -- how did the letter reach its intended destination?). Thus (pardon my French), all women in this flick are betraying cunts to be feared/reviled, without exception.

Another lazy form of supernaturalism pandemic in American action and horror pix allows Nic Cage to slap, punch, drop-kick and stomp "evil women" as "necessary," only for them to turn up later, unblemished by as much as a bruise (Sam Raimi typically channels this Tex Avery-like absurdism much better than LaBute, natch). The almost inhumanly lovely LeeLee Sobieski takes the worst abuse in a completely hamfisted sequence which serves neither narrative nor emotional logic (save, perhaps, to give repressed & roused male audiences of all ages seeking an outlet for their righteous anger another beating to cheer).

Right: Actor Cage to Director LaBute:
"OK, then do I kick the shit out of her?"

Thus, the great clash-of-faiths central to the original is completely eschewed -- Cage's character has no religious beliefs, apparently (save for his fleeting attraction to self-help audio books), and in the end is reduced to howling "bitches!" instead of the original film's potent Christian-matyr speeches screamed by Edward Woodward from the wicker man pyre. Jettisoning the religious conflict -- which, again, would have been far more relevent and timely in the context of our current American landscape, and a far more courageous undertaking -- the core of Anthony Shaffer's potent original script is completely refuted in favor of blunt and often ludicrous backlash-against-feminism fear and loathing.

It's a screed, really, disguised as a remake. To its coda (featuring cameo male-bait James Franco and Jason Ritter), the remake simply projects a pathological dread of predatory females. I hasten to add there's no real sexual component, either, beyond the fear-of-woman and males-as-drones (another sad disposal of a key component of the original). In concept and execution, this PG-13 opus plays like a 1970s TV movie -- which, BTW, The Wicker Man remake most resembles.

It especially resembles one in particular, in fact: Curtis Harrington's made-for-TV gem Killer Bees (first broadcast on Feb. 26, 1974; scripted by the husband and wife team of John William Corrington & Joyce Corrington), which starred Gloria Swanson as the matriarch of a venerable California vineyard's hive-like colony which needs a new queen (Kate Jackson). The parallels are uncanny, though Harrington's movie-of-the-week is the superior film in every way, however impoverished its budget.

Bee Girls By Any Other Name

In other ways, too, LaBute's The Wicker Man remake reminded me at times of Denis Sanders/Nicholas Meyer/Sylvia Schneble's drive-in opus Invasion of the Bee Girls (aka Graveyard Tramps, 1973) -- but, like, not as funny, or as much fun, or as self-aware of its most ludicrous elements. LaBute in fact lifts a couple of his revisionist 'shock' shots verbatim from both these 1970s films (including a shot of a bee-covered vixen leering in a chamber in Summerisle's abode), sans either's context, rendering them nonsensical in the remake's shaky revamp of the original's premise. (The old Outer Limits 'queen bee' episode "Zzzzz" -- January 27, 1964 -- also comes to mind.)

Left: Come to the Bosom of the Beehive: Queen Swanso -- uh, Sister Burstyn

Thus, LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man joins Snakes on a Plane as the second notable genre TV movie remake of the year; Snakes on a Plane, natch, was essentially a remake of the entire 1970s reptiles/insects/arachnids in/on a plane/boat/submarine/housing development/town etc. cycle (see Fer-De-Lance, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, etc.), and I had a lot more fun with Snakes than I had with Wicker Man.

It's worth noting, however, the fear-of-feminism that was so prevalent in so many '70s TV movies was of its era. One wonders what its revival in this remake mirrors of the contemporary 2006 landscape with such lazy candor.

Curious to note, in that context, that both the key TV movies fueling dread-of-women (primarily genre fare, from the Richard Matheson-scripted The Stranger Within to the brilliant Legend of Lizzie Borden) and LaBute's Wicker Man surface during the reign of two of our most condescendingly patriarchal Presidents (Nixon and Bush, respectively), and at the height of conservative and Republican dominance in key seats of power (though Nixon at least had some elected Democratic checks and balances to contend with, unlike Bush today). What primal patriarchal dread is manifesting itself in these pop culture eruptions?

Rationally, I've had my fill of patriarchs, padrone; if you're trying to scare me with this kind of blood-and-thunder nonsense, reality has outstripped you, Neil. I'll take the beehive.

Curious, too, that LaBute's The Wicker Man hits theaters the very week that an extremist religious cult patriarch (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints leader Warren Steed Jeffs) is in the headlines as one of the FBI's "Most Wanted" finally captured in Las Vegas. In another indication of how wrong-headed LaBute's amazonian beehive fantasy really is, reports have also emerged of 400 to 1000 displaced homeless teenage boys in Utah communities, ejected from their homes by Jeffs and his followers who found their sons dangerous competition for preteen and teen young women (read: eligible brides). You don't need queen bee matriarchs to sire disposable drones when you've got active polygamist patriarchs working the numbers to arrive at the same conclusion -- indicating, perhaps, a far more fruitful (pun intended) direction LaBute could have taken with his remake, had he been able to yank his head out of his misogynistic ass long enough.

Gasp! Matriarchs! Frances Conroy (right) and coven.

Now, I'm not arguing The Wicker Man would have been inherently better had it been a feminist rather than an anti-feminist screed: the dilemma here is that The Wicker Man botches its own premise, as well as that of the original classic it presents itself as remaking. It serves neither.

Nor am I ideologically opposed to a patriarchal attack on matriarchies per se: I don't subscribe to either gender orientation (people are people in my book), but if you're going to take your swings, at least do so with the integrity, chops and intensity of a Don Siegel, Lars Von Trier, Vincente Aranda or Sam Peckinpah in their prime, or don't waste my time. La Novia Ensangrentada/The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972), The Beguiled and Straw Dogs (both 1971) -- to mention three random examples -- can be and have been justifiably intepreted as misogynist polemics and screeds, but they have the courage of their convictions and tell their stories with unflinching ferocity, clarity and intelligence (they were also products of their era, as much as the TV movies I referred to above). I needn't share their philosophical underpinnings to savor their stories or the skill with which they are realized, any more than I must loathe my own gender to enjoy feminist films: whatever their politics, if a film (or book or comic or piece of music or art) engages me, I am attentive. I relish the skills of many artists, whatever their gender politics, if their work compells me -- including many anti-male screeds (like Niki de St. Phalle & Peter Whitehead's Daddy, 1973, etc.) that delivered in spades as works of art and/or entertainment, refined or primal, polished or primitive.

I'm sorry to say that LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man is just a lame story badly told, reducing its gender polemic to easily shrugged-off claptrap.

There are some elements to savor herein, primary among them the fine cast and crisp cinematography. Frances Conroy (of Six Feet Under) delivers the film's slyest performance and steals the show, and Sobrieski's ethereal radiance cannot be undone even by Cage drop-kicking her full-force into a wall. Kate Beahan does what she can with the thankless role of ultimate betrayer Sister Willow, and there's some eerie and evocative use of twins throughout, both children and elder (a blind pair of 'seers' evocative, along with Rowan's red garb, of Nicolas Roeg's infinitely better Don't Look Now, itself a companion piece -- in its production history -- with the original Wicker Man), though to no real point.

Like others of his ilk (reputable indy directors with proven non-genre track records), LaBute seems to approach his dallying in the genre as an excuse for slumming. He instantly debases the very source material he claims/reclaims -- Shaffer's original script -- while never once approaching the intelligence and skill of the wellspring he is sullying. Sigh. It's a sad spectacle, beginning to end, save for the bright spots Conroy and others provide.

I must note that the end credits crawl for this remake acknowledges as a source not only Shaffer's screenplay, but the novel Ritual by David Piner (1967, Hutchinson, UK), a curious bit of legal redressing that hopefully will result in Piner's novel being reprinted somewhere, somehow.

Piner's novel has long been rumored to be the 'secret inspiration' for Shaffer's screenplay, and those wishing to find out more are heartily urged to nab a copy of
  • the book Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book Vol. 1 edited by David Kerekes.
  • Contributor Gary Ramsay offers the definitive assessment of the controversy and comparison's of Piner's rare novel to the beloved film's script (see pp. 97-100); recommended reading (as is the entire book, and the second volume, too)!

    The 2006 The Wicker Man remake joins the recent The Stepford Wives remake as a botched "update" pretending to engage with gender politics. Crash-and-burn LaBute admittedly has more balls than Frank Oz in the primal rage department, but proves just as sloppy a storyteller (curiously, LaBute's Wicker Man is almost a perfect inversion of the original Bryan Forbes/Ira Levin Stepford Wives, with testosterone ire; would LaBute -- and the audience -- been better served by a LaBute remake of Wives?).

    As the original The Wicker Man amply dramatized, you don't turn an angry fundamentalist loose on Summerisle without the bull-in-the-orchard (or beehive) chasing his tail to his own fiery demise.

    (c)Stephen R. Bissette; images (c) the respective proprietors.
    Ah, jeez, more blogging woes... again, I've posted (or tried to post) already this morn, and hopefully it'll be up soon.
    It's All for Rock'n'Roll!

    Update on the Brattleboro Scene: Here's
  • yesterday's news story I referred to from The Brattleboro Reformer;
  • and here's
  • today's Reformer followup.
  • In short, The Dr. Phil Show indeed showed last night, but the teen protestors were ready for 'em. What were they protesting? It's unclear as ever ("We're so jaded by this media coverage that we've forgotten about what we were making a statement" -- nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!), but it's "all for rock'n'roll" now, bunky! Jeremiah Crompton and Alec McPherson insisted on being filmed only in the buff when with their guitars, refused any of the program's planned staged nudity (in front of one of Brat's churches; in front of shocked old ladies, etc.), and now it's all about their band, Corpsicle Rok City. Media-savvy youth, the world is your oyster.

    For the record: HomeyM notes, via email, "Steve Steidle comes out for nudity?", citing this item from Reformer reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman's earlier coverage of the August 18th incident and its repercussions: "Word that the Selectboard was going to take up the issue caused a small group of young men and women to throw off their clothes in protest two weeks ago today.

    "This is something the town needs to look at," Selectboard Chairman Stephen Steidle said."

    Also for the record: Alec and his twin brother Ian collaborated with their peers on a short feature film earlier this year, Delusion, while completing their Senior year at Brattleboro Union High School and studies with the Center for Digital Art in Brat. Ian was the primary creative force on Delusion -- he wrote and directed -- a distinctively Brian DePalma-esque thriller consciously spiced with touches of Roman Polanski and Nicolas Roeg, and a pretty polished piece of work for a student debut feature it was, too.

    More on Delusion and the CDA in future installments...