The Wicker Man is acknowledged as one of the great British thriller classics. (It tends to be described as a horror, but there are no supernatural elements in it) Christopher Lee considers Lord Summerisle to be his best role and he's been very enthusiastic about promoting the film. Wonderfully plotted, with a shocking twist ending, it is the story of the clash between two religions, showing them at their best and worst. We may not like Sergeant Howie, a somewhat puritanical Christian, but he's ultimately better than the delusional islanders - and ironically, it's his religion and its strictures that end up killing him.
The Wicker Man's replacement is a Californian policeman called Edward Malus. He is not religious in the slightest so there is a void in the substance of the film that has to be filled up. Filled up with what? Alas, with cliché after cliché after cliché. It doesn't help that he's played by Nicolas Cage, a man who acts his way through the film like someone who's never exeperienced a real emotion in his life.
Malus is a motorcycle cop who in the first few minutes of the film has to watch a mother and her daughter burn to death in a car accident, so already we have a hero suffering from a trauma. The bodies are never found - bum bum buuummmm! but you shouldn't care about this as it has no bearing on the subsequent plot. Remember how in The Wicker Man Howie went to Summerisle because a little girl was in danger? Well, here Malus goes to Summersisle (sic) because he was romantically involved with the girl's mother once. Obviously the facts that he's a policeman and a girl is missing aren't enough to motivate him alone.
There are two creepy women who talk in unison, which is realistically impossible. Malus goes traipsing through the upper floors of a ricketty old barn - gosh, who'd have thought the floorboards would give way and leave him dangling? We have pointless dream sequences. We have a smashed radio - of course it's the only one on the island. (The only surprise is that we don't see the radio operator's corpse until later) The island's main export is honey and gosh again if Malus isn't allergic to bees. Most laughable of all, it turns out that Rowan's his daughter. I'm afraid so, that's how bad it gets.
Everything has to be bigger. When Howie opens the schooldesk he finds a trapped beetle struggling to get away. When Malus does so, a whacking great crow that has hitherto been silent immediately swoops out of it. Malus is intentionally trapped for the night in freezing water, despite the probability that he could well die from exposure or drowning - it's almost up to his neck - and thus ruin everything. The worst part comes at the end. Howie gets burnt to death. Malus gets his knees crushed, his head covered in bees and then burnt to death. It borders on the sadistic. The Wicker Man's ending is disturbing but dramatically valid. The Wicker Man's ending is simply waving atrocity in our faces, saying 'Look! Look! Isn't it gross?'
That would be bad enough if there weren't a nasty undercurrent flowing through the film. Whilst the islanders may get pregnant and rabbit on about fertility, that's not the real concern. There's no maypole. No rite of losing virginity. No gambolling in the park, if you get what I mean. I could get very academic about this and say that The Wicker Man knew that fertility needs both a man and a woman whilst The Wicker Man simply doesn't care... in a sense, I'd be right. In The Wicker Man the women rule. We see only a few men and they never talk - the implication is that their tongues have been cut out. They do the menial work. The crowning scene comes in the first meeting Malus has with Sister Summersisle. He points out that the society seems to be controlled by the women. She protests that men are very important... for breeding.
Malus asks in a roundabout way whether the islanders ever feel the need for romantic love and Summerisle replies in a roundabout way that that's unimportant - they do as the Goddess commands. At this point I was wondering whether they were accidentally filming the script for Wild Women or some other jungle b-movie from the 1950's where white male explorers find a primative tribe of Amazons who 'have no use for men!'
The unfortunate thing is since the men we see are constantly pushed to the background, the film is like a misogynist's dream movie. Look how those bloody feminists want to subjugate us blokes! (And here I remember the sadism of the ending...) Intentional or not it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It's ultimately a creepy film to watch, but in all the wrong ways.
Thank heavens then for the fifty-year old cliché drinking game and for Cage's performance. Honestly, it's one for the ages. The man cannot act out rage and anger competently; combine this with the dialogue ('You are the biggest liar of all!' Goodness, officer, how mean!) and you can see how hilarious it can get. Cage pulls a gun on a cyclist, punches and kicks several women into unconsciousness and his final cries ('WAUGH! NOT THE BEES! WAUGH!') slightly make up for what's going on. Howie's final and brief cries in The Wicker Man were a wicked blend of fear and pain, but Malus's protracted bellowing only portrays pain. Badly.
There's one final predictable element for the end - the person who lights the Wicker Man? It's Rowan. Wow, immolated by his own daugher, how, er, well, how something. Actually, the ending is slightly problematic plot-wise. In The Wicker Man Howie is chosen as the victim and has to go through all the rigamole of an investigation because he needs to come for the right reasons to the Wicker Man, at the right time and he is also crucially a virgin. Malus is not a virgin, so why is he selected? Because he is part of the Summersisle community as Rowan's father but also a stranger. Now pagans sacrificing virgins is practically expected in these films, but sacrificing quasi-strangers? Which religion requires that? It's grasping at straws, and the film makers know it.
Last summer I compared Lisa and the Devil with The House of Exorcism to show how re-editing and a little re-shooting can entirely destroy a film. The twin Wicker Mans give a great example of unwanted remakes failing to live up to the original.