Featuring bees, women, bee-women, wobbly bicycle riding and a great big bear suit – the product of some surely disturbed minds – it’s The Wicker Man!
Nicolas Cage plays Edward “Steady Eddie” Malus, a traffic cop who eats salad and reads self-help books (what, you want character development? He eats salad and reads self-help books!). He comes to the island of Summerisle in the Pacific Northwest when his ex-fiancee writes to tell him that her daughter, Rowan, is missing. Rowan is named after the actor who played the policeman in the 1973 original, which gives her the slightly unsubtle nature-worshiping name Rowan Woodward, pronounced Woodwood. Edward is also allergic to bees, and woe betide you if you dismiss that character quirk as insignificant. On Summerisle, people wear their hair in plaits, carry sacks around that drip blood, and have no phone reception. They also operate under a (steel yourself!) matriarchy, leaving poor emasculated men only fit to wheel bicycles around at their mistresses’ behest.
Watching Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man you are assaulted by lurid sensuality, like being handed a faded postcard of Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ in the toilets of a London Underground station. By contrast, Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of Hardy’s film is like a laminated Victoria Francés poster of a bodiced angel, its ripped corsetry and smeared make-up clumsily foregrounded signifiers for the a pre-Raphaelite sensuality which the artist blandly simulates. The original film pitches the uptight Protestantism of Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) against the pagan spiritualism of the inhabitants of Summersisle, ruled over by charismatic Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee). Over the course of the film it is slowly revealed that the local bucolic scenes of naked maidens cavorting under light dappled trees are a desperate pantomime that mask a rotting away at the heart of Summersisle itself. However, the sun drenched cinematography captures these rituals with a polaroid warmth which, when accompanied with the melodies of lightly fluting folk songs, makes a life of pagan naturism seem beguilingly attractive, almost in spite of Sargeant Howie’s unseemly fate at the heart of the wicker man. It is a film about the allure of a very old belief system that runs below staid Christianity through which Jesus, not the clean-cut philanthropist of Sunday sermons, can be glimpsed, “a wild ragged figure who moves from tree to tree”, to quote Flannery O’Connor – who has become a fixture here at Cage Wisdom. As Lord Summersisle reminds Howie, Jesus was “himself the son of a virgin, impregnated – I believe – by a ghost”. The tangled, bramble-cut crags of Ayrshire and the other Scottish locales where the film was shot provide authenticity and help lend a curious wind-swept purity to the bawdy fertility rites and carnivalesque knees-ups that gives the film the atmosphere of wholesome tawdriness which is totally unique to it.
By contrast, LeBute’s remake feels synthetic, like a fake log cabin at a ski-resort. Instead of the ratty fur trimmed costumes of the original’s parade, the new islanders’ masks look cleanly vacuum formed and store bought. Post-production has given the cinematography a grimy sheen, as if we were watching the film through a newly polished, yet somehow still dirty window. Flash-back sequences (and this film contains a dreamt flash-back of a hallucinated vision) look especially like they’ve been ‘made on the cheap’ as we stumble drunkenly through much-repeated footage retrospectively filtered through the dull exposure of Malus’ tormented memories.
While the original film may look wholesome, but be about unwholesome things, the remake’s digitized colour tinting makes the film stock look anaemic, as if drained of vitality. If the film contained naked pagans they would not seem fleshy and earthy, but neutered and metallic. Not that the film has any naked pagans, because while it may be queasily unwholesome to look at, there is no lust on display. LaBute characterises the female enclave of his Summerisle as a smug, sneeringly straight-laced bunch who never dance and sing and probably don’t even laugh at racist 70s sitcoms. Basically, they’re what The Daily Mail imagines Guardian readers to be like. They drink in clean beer-free gastropubs, live in mock Tudor cottages in sensible gender neutral clothes and feed their emasculated menfolk to swarms of ravenous bees. Problem is, Guardian readers are both less creepy and alluring than naked pagans and despite the fact that the film often takes dialogue and plot points from the original, this really changes the stakes. Instead of having a frowny righteous middle-aged man pushing his way through a bunch of flannel-shirted heathens, we how have an even-frownier righteous middle-aged man pushing his way through a bunch of clean-living Wholefoods customers. Nature is not shown thrown into excess; nature is cellophane wrapped and made of fibreglass.
But this is satire, right? It’s hard to tell with LaBute, whose break-out hit In the Company of Men (1997) was condemned as misogynous by about as many critics who celebrated it as an ironic exposé of the same. From his own words it is difficult to ascertain why he took the project on; Nic himself was on board long before him, since he had pledged to Johnny Ramone before he died that he would see it through. One could image the ludicrous Bacchanalian heights Cage must have envisioned taking the film to, when pitching the idea to Johnny, perhaps setting himself on fire in the wicker man itself or punching people while dressed in a bear costume… yes, there is that, but the Youtube montages belie the preceding nature of the film and of Cage’s role in it. For the majority of the running time Cage stands in front of people, solidly planted, making churlish, no-nonsense remarks about his hatred of bees and women and bee-women, since in the screenplay and through the hive based architecture they are often conflated. Summersisle’ economy is based around honey creating, LaBute says in the commentary, “a kind of loose colony effect using a Queen Bee at the centre… and then the females represented the worker bees and the males represented the drones.”
As becomes transparently obvious during the course of the film, the bees and the women are one and the same. Both have a queen, both employ subordinate males to do grunt work, both have a long proboscis that enables them to acquire nectar, the resemblance is uncanny. Bees are women, women are bees – there is literally no difference between the two creatures in Neil LaBute’s mind. He leaves the house in summer, the scent of wild flowers on the breeze and watches the women flying around, pollinating the lavender – ah, to live in such a world as Neil LaBute’s.
As we know, Steady Eddie is allergic to bees. It is, therefore, not a great leap of imagination to say that he is allergic to women. However, while we see an early establishing shot of the epi-pen he uses in the case of bee-stings, he seems to have left his epi-fem behind, and must resort to the cruder tactic of punching women in the face before they sting him. It’s purely self-defence; Adam, for example, is slightly allergic to cinnamon, and many’s the time I’ve seen him sidling up the spice aisle and punching little bags of cinnamon full in the face.
The film’s memorable moments come densely packed in the last, climatic third, but here Nic often runs past the most crazy of spectacles, perhaps slowing a little so that the woman in question can register his look of disgust and then speeding up again. Off he runs! Past two mumps-cheeked old lady grotesques! On, past children in masks – he stops, swipes the masks off – runs on. He barely registers a woman with a body suit made of bees and a man bumpy with bee-sting boils, so concerned is he with running! Revealingly, the moments of the greatest madness and thus the most mundanity breaking are those introduced by Cage himself, but introduce a little chaos into the mis-en-scène rather than into how he plays the role, which is a shame. On the DVD disc’s commentary LaBute says that the bear costume was a Cage intervention and that he was very keen to wear it during through the entire final sequence when he is finally tortured by the islanders. More fool LaBute for not yielding to Nic’s wondrous whims, those intuitive ideas he creates, often on set. The bear suit is far too shortly lived and even avoids the flames.
We could have been treated to Nic dressed in a bear wailing and thrashing like a stuck Morrissey, on fire. The bee mask, the height of gothic absurdity in the film, was brought onto the set by Cage, who is as LaBute informs us, a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe. Though Poe never wrote about the primal terror of bees (‘that ineluctable bee, that singular bee, that still buzzes in my mind’s eye’) he definitely should have and though their CGI swarming leaves a lot to “bee” desired, it’s as terrific an idea as Cage has ever had. It’s also remarkably similar to the rat mask that Winston is made to wear in Room 101, in the climatic scene of the film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. Although the ‘no, not the bees, not the beees!’ is unintentionally funny, perhaps it’s heading for Room 101 horror and getting lost along the way. It’s only at this moment that Cage breaks free from the tough cop persona which I feel restricts him in the film, but some fine hollering in a film’s last ten minutes cannot save the mediocrity of the previous hour and a half, however loud Cage yells.
The uncut British DVD release of the film comes with a commentary courtesy of LaBute, producer Norm Golightly and editor Joe Plotch, in which they try to back-classify the film as an intentionally campy comedy, in spite of Angelo Badalamenti’s broody, brow-furrowing score, which tells us in no uncertain terms that we are on Serious Ground. Knowing that the film has been received badly within circles of serious criticism and positively in ironic ones, puts the crew in a peculiar and often defensive position, which creates fascinatingly flinty exchanges. So uncertain of his own film is LaBute that in the first 30 seconds of the movie’s commentary he refers to The Wicker Man as “the film you’re about to see… unless you’re switching it off now” and talks about the commentary as ‘Mystery Science Theatre-ing’ his own movie. In fact, the commentary is one of the most interesting I’ve ever heard, due to its generous self-deprecating critiques and displays a humour that the film itself often lacks. One is given the impression that it was a project with eager beginnings, hampered by its adherence to the original, while the North American location and cast, forced strange and disjunctive changes, resulting in a lack of cohesive atmosphere and tone.
What disappoints me about The Wicker Man is that the States have their own fevered puritanical history, you need only look to the Salem witch trials, which could have informed a much creepier, more troubling film. Instead, the result is as curiously staid in its way as Police Sergeant Howie in the original film. It spends so much time rallying against feminism and their bee breeding that it doesn’t take any fun from probing its own country’s myths and heritages of folk music and peculiar Christian off-shoots, like the Hussites. America has ghosts and strange practices of its own with a history that reaches back through a civil war and revolutions. Nic voices his own interest in myth and legend in many interviews; hopefully the upcoming Season of the Witch, will see him as a character immersed in the darkness of the past, rather than merely policing it.