Review Date: December 19, 2006
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 12/19/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Unconditionally, inexplicably even, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man
sits right up there on the pantheon of seventies horror films alongside Halloween
, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
as a true classic. While I’d like to think that it’s attained this position for its nihilistic, orthodoxy-bashing finale despite a slow, tensionless build, I have the sneaking suspicion Britt Ekland’s crazy nude dance is more the reason it has the following it does today. The story was one brooding with possibilities – a perfect vessel for hitting religious, political and iconoclastic commentary, but it was one never fully mined by Hardy’s amateurish direction. What great news it was to hear, then, that Neil Labute, writer/director of some of the tightest and most biting modern “horror” films, In the Company of Men
and Your Friends & Neighbors
, would write and direct the remake of Hardy’s original. Finally, the great concept would be mined by an auteur into a finer cinematic form.
Labute’s The Wicker Man
bombed. The director who had inspired high brow claps for his previous efforts was now seeing low brow guffaws as critics and audiences alike derided what was deemed absurd dialogue and embarrassing misogyny. Critics balked at the removal of the original’s religious subtext, and the idea of Nic Cage jump kicking Leelee Sobieski in the face immediately overshadowed any possible reading in seriousness of the film. So now it comes, only a few months later, quietly, on to DVD. A new “shocking alternate ending” has been added, but that likely won’t sway the minds of the majority. So how bad is it? A pagan piece of Hollywood sanitation, another empty remake, or a brave statement by a misjudged auteur? Put on your masks, let’s put this DVD up for Horrodvds.com sacrifice.
After Labute’s signature Aaron Eckhart appearance (this time just a cameo in a truck stop), the film picks up Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage
) in an off moment in the highway patrol. Malus mounts his bike and begins cruising the California coast before picking up a doll a little girl threw out her moving car window. Edward catches up and gives the girl back her doll, but before she can express her gratitude, a semi loses control and runs over mother and daughter right in front of Edward’s eyes. The incident leaves Edward traumatized, and it isn’t until an anonymous letter that he finally leaves his house. The letter leads him to the isolated town of Summersisle and to much more than he bargained for.
The letter was from a previous fiancé of his who up and left several years ago, but now has a daughter. Sister Willow (Kate Beahan
) claims her daughter – their daughter – is missing, and that she needs his help tracking her down on the island. When Edward arrives, hospitality is the last thing he receives (say it with me now, “You can’t piss on hospitality!”), as the locals all look at him with condescension. Something is not entirely right with the island though, as women run the city and outnumber the mostly mute males by large amounts. A society based on tradition and sacrifice, they do anything for the promise of a good crop. They had their worst ever harvest last year, but the queen ruler of the island, Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn
), has a few tricks to ensure this year won’t be a repeat.
As Edward probes deeper and deeper into the community for the missing child, his search leads him (literally) into treacherous waters. At first he finds what seems to be his daughter’s coat floating atop a basement well, but then a trip to the school reveals that perhaps his daughter doesn’t even exist. Sister Summersisle claims Willow’s daughter died, and still more confusing even, Edward appears to see her walking through the town at night. Edward finally finds the truth though, when he infiltrates a town ritual and discovers the dark secrets sheathed within the maternal community. The big secret though, is a flammable hundred feet tall body crafted of woven straw that Edward must confront in the films fiery climax.
Before a proper grade of the film can even be determined, the pervasive misogyny in the film must first be address and cleared. Initially, all signs point to Labute finally calling a spade a spade after making a series of films that started first as making women victims to cruel man’s games (In the Company of Men
) and ended before The Wicker Man
with woman being a vicious Pygmalion destroying man for personal gain (The Shape of Things
). Throughout The Wicker Man
, women are portrayed as cultish, manipulative and ultimately hostile as they puppet Edward around in their vicious game. Cage’s portrayal of Malus doesn’t help quell cries of misogyny when his every line to women is said with spite (climaxing with “You Bitches! You Bitches!”). Punching out about ten women before the end credits doesn’t help the cause either. But to take The Wicker Man
at face value is missing the point.
This is not the real-world battle of the sexes Labute has made a career out of mining, but instead obvious allegory. Labute’s fixation on bees is certainly a starting point, the matriarchy of the hive little different than the town of Summersisle – Burstyn is Queen Bee. The fact that the community is ruled by women has less to do with women and more to do with what they represent. Here Labute takes woman’s silent maternal bonds – the unspoken understanding between mother and daughter that men of similar circumstance are without, and uses it as a vessel for political commentary. In the way the women of Summersisle silently abide by Burstyn’s charismatic and authoritarian beehive rule, they form one of cinema’s finest fascist allegories. This is not a film with hate for women, but instead a hatred for the communal silence that gave rise to Hitler or Bush’s war on terror.
Labute has been mining the differences of the sexes with such pointed observation that here with The Wicker Man
he finally applies his findings to scrutinize less universal but more historically significant pursuits. When America had a recession it went to war on Bin Laden, and when Summersisle had a poor harvest, it sacrificed Edward Malus. Both are scapegoats to a veiled, sinister plot. The eirie animal masks of the original film return here for the remake, but here they wear with them the weight of illustrating a society without identity or responsibility. Under Hitler, his followers lost their sense of self amidst the overpowering uniformity of the whole. In The Wicker Man
, as the women dance with their communal animal facades, they make evident their lack of rationality in favor of Summersisle’s overriding religious furor. It is this cowardice, this hiding behind masks, that lets the final sacrifice occur, and surely for Labute, it is this blind devotion to Bush that has lead America into such global dissent as of late.
Labute was playing with fire when he made women the center of the film’s island cult, but with it he burned one of America’s most subversive attacks on its reigning political system. Did he deliver a horror film? No, unless you consider Borat
’s mining of racism and bigotry scary. The jump scares fall flat, and Labute’s typically economical shot setups and lighting certainly don’t lend the film the sort of style that comes with the genre. It isn’t frightening in the least bit, but as a reminder of the destructive possibilities of a silent fascist majority, it emerges as one of the most relevant, and sadly most misunderstood, of all recent horror films.
Labute took a premise that was little more than shocker fused on Hammer conventions and turned it into one of pointed and passionate political commentary. Instead of delivering the slick and hollow remake horror fans abhor (but yet seem to continually pay to see), he made one in the vein of the golden seventies – where films could change the world – and he comes out looking the chump. Most will be tempted to laugh through the film at face value, but beneath the mask of allegory those who look will find a somber and affecting little picture.
Remember how Anchor Bay’s DVD of The Wicker Man
had a cleaned up theatrical transfer with muddy director’s cut inserts strewn throughout? Fortunately this new DVD of both the rated and unrated cut does not suffer from such inconsistencies. Unfortunately though, most of the picture here looks like the latter. For a recent theatrical movie, this transfer is surprisingly pixilated. Looking as if everything was edge enhanced and then somehow magnified to look even worse, this is one of the weakest recent theatrical transfers I’ve yet seen. That said, it’s watchable, but really, the film, with its picturesque forest-laden island setting, should look a whole lot better than that. It still looks better than your average eighties slasher, say, but come on, this is Hollywood!
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix here sounds a little better than the picture looks. Labute’s movies are certainly not known for the pulse pounding soundtracks, so here at least it is nice to see a little bit of kick in the rears during a few burnings, water splashes and car crashes. Most of the film is kept up front, but even up in the left and right there is a nicely matrixed dispersion of audio, with plenty of directional effects. It still doesn’t compare to your usual blockbuster in terms of fidelity, bass and overall umph, but honestly I was expecting much blander.
The big draw to this release is the touted unrated cut with the “shocking alternate ending not seen in theaters”, and it is certainly of interest. The film was PG-13 in theaters, and while this new cut certainly doesn’t push the limits of gore, there are a few grislier additions. A scene with the airplane pilot’s eyes gouged out and mouth sewed shot is pretty cool (in a Birds 2: Land’s End
kind of way), and the visual depiction of Cage’s character getting his legs broken (heard awkwardly only in voice over in the theatrical cut) makes Kathy Bates’ ankle smashing in Misery
look tame. The real alteration though, comes in the finale, which ends much shorter in the unrated cut. The theatrical cut featured a tacked on “Six Months Later” scene, with Leelee Sobieski seducing a frattish James Franco that just didn’t work. It was a slice of gender politics when Labute’s pie was much more allegorical this time around. The new ending though, loses the whole scene and instead ends on the climax, allowing the dangers of fascism to ring with one last final zing. The changes between the unrated and the theatrical are not vast, but each little alteration makes the resulting film more somber and shocking.
A group commentary is featured on both cuts of the film, and it features Labute, Sobieski, Kate Beahn, editor Joel Plotch and costume designer Lynette Meyer. Labute, unsurprisingly, dominates the track, with everyone else sort of mumbling and uninterested. Labute certainly picks up their slack though, filling the commentary with the end to end dialogue that characterizes most of his films. He starts off pretty superfluous; “this was shot in Vancouver…the weather was nice…there was a lot of footage to edit...” etcetera, but as he gets more comfortable, he starts to really dig into the motivations of the script (and its changes from the original). He starts to liven the bunch up as it goes too, but still, this is Labute’s track, and he holds up pretty good. The theatrical trailer is the only other extra, but considering how badly the film tanked, two different cuts and a commentary ain’t all that bad.
In focusing all his research of gender differences and relations, Neil Labute takes The Wicker Man
into a much more pointed and political form of social commentary. The dangerous sisterhood depicted here characterizes not misogyny, but allegory to hazard of a silent fascism. It is political commentary for the Iraq-era, and one of the few modern horror films to revive the change-the-world seriousness of great seventies horror films. As a horror film it mostly fails, but as a meditation on social politics, there are few films more pointed and venomous. The picture quality looks like the telecine was smeared with honey, but at least the sound is better than one would expect for Labute. The unrated cut ads some key additions (and deletions) to the story, and that coupled with a good commentary makes the film worthy of revisiting for those who saw it in theaters. It was misunderstood in theaters, and it will be misunderstood on video (if enough people even see it), but if you are open to Labute’s musings, this remake burns almost all others out of contention.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - C
Sound - B
Supplements - B
- Running time - 1 hour 42 minutes (both versions)
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Subtitles
- French Subtitles
- Spanish Subtitles
- Unrated & Theatrical cuts
- Commentary with writer/director Neil Labute, actors Leelee Sobieski & Kate Beahn, editor Joel Plotch and costume designer Lynette Meyer
- Theatrical trailer