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"The Wicker Man"


The anthropology of horror

A new version of the1973 British film, The Wicker Man suggests some solutions to the familiar cinematic problem of remaking a previous movie without simply duplicating the action, characters, and situation and placing them all in a recognizable contemporary context (see Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Superman Returns, etc.). While the picture updates the original to the present, moves its setting from Scotland to America, and faithfully mirrors the subject and spirit of its predecessor, it also in effect interprets much of its unsettling material through the lens of some relevant issues of our time. Within the general framework of mystery and horror, it examines some matters of anthropological interest, showing the persistence of the pagan in its display of the ambiguous possibilities of myth and ritual.

Nicolas Cage plays Edward Malus, a California motorcycle patrolman traumatized by his failure to save a young girl and her mother from a terrible automobile accident in which, strangely, no bodies were found. In the midst of an emotional breakdown, he receives an odd letter from his former fiancée, Willow (Kate Beahan), who now lives in some sort of commune on an island in the Northwest called Summersisle. She asks him to come and find her missing daughter Rowan. With much difficulty he travels to the remote place, which he finds mostly populated by women who address each other as "sister" and only reluctantly allow him to stay and investigate the disappearance.

The inhabitants generally regard him with hostility, telling him a variety of falsehoods, including denials that a child named Rowan even existed. Despite their recalcitrance, he pursues his investigation, occasionally assisted by a few of the women, including Willow, learning she ways of the island and gradually solving some of the mysteries of its past and present. Organized in a matriarchy under the governance of a woman named Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), the place resembles something out of William Morris, a community of humble folk at one with nature --- as Cage points out, they all have plant names --- wearing the requisite granny gowns and Birkenstocks of organic hippiedom.

As the cop follows one false trail after another, the peaceful island reveals itself as ever more sinister and dangerous. Suffering from his own psychological problems, haunted and confused by dreams and memories of the automobile accident, he keeps finding signs of the missing girl, which lead him into some moments of genuine danger, including a near-fatal attack by the bees who provide the community's major crop (appropriately, he is allergic to their venom). As he finally learns, the island's society itself, under the leadership of Sister Summersisle, resembles a beehive, which explains the crop, the matriarchy, even the mead that apparently constitutes the preferred local tipple.

Following the pattern of the original Wicker Man, he also learns about their ceremonies, which include a fertility festival he is forbidden to see, and a celebration of death and rebirth at which he will serve as something like the main attraction. (If he'd been an anthropologist instead of a cop, he might have discovered all this much earlier.) Along with an awareness of those ancient pagan myths and rituals that lie behind its gradually evolving plot, the movie also suggests a certain inevitability in the investigator's quest, a fate that brings him to the island.
Framing the primitive and pagan elements of the community as some version of a feminist utopia suggests an appropriate contemporary interpretation of the original film, which featured a bunch of crusty, surly rural Scots. Both the real and the metaphorical use of the beehive's rigidly structured, matriarchal society creates an additional, if somewhat incredible, layer of meaning and in a couple of troubling images, a nice little extra touch of the horrific as well.

Perhaps the weakest element in the whole production, Nicolas Cage blunders about without a good deal of conviction, falling through a decayed barn ceiling, nearly drowning in a flooded crypt, and generally tripping over his own feet as he chases down clues or flees a mob of pursuers. His weak, whispery voice and limited emotional range allow him to express little beyond puzzlement and distress. Despite his inadequate presence, however, the new production of The Wicker Man offers a most satisfactory reinterpretation of an excellent original.

The Wicker Man (PG-13), directed by Neil LaBute, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview Cinemas.