Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Wicker Man (2006) (Unrated)

31 Days of Horror, Day 8
I don't like to admit to lapses in judgment, but I was unjustly biased against Nicolas Cage for a good long while.  And, sure, he's been in some pretty awful movies and he's been known to overact a teensy bit on occasion, but I actively avoided The Cage for almost a decade. 
I would have been first in line to break his legs here.  Which means I own a horse costume, I guess
I don't know what changed my mind --- probably either the awesomeness of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or the awfulness of Season of the Witch --- but I now look forward to raging with The Cage.  He might not make good movies regularly, but he can be pretty damn entertaining, nevertheless.  Last October, Danny O'D suggested I check out The Wicker Man (2006), based on the fact that I enjoyed the original movie and because this compilation of scenes is hilarious:

Okay, that's pretty funny stuff, but it's obviously taken out of context.  The issue is whether this American remake can possibly live up to the weird (and fairly UK-centric) wonder that was The Wicker Man (1973) and still have all that goofy shit in it.  Show me what you've got, Cage!

The Wicker Man is the story of Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage), a California policeman, as he investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, Rowan, on the island of Summersisle in Washington state.  The disappearance is mysterious for several reasons.  First of all, the entire island is an enigma; its only contact with the world at large comes from a seaplane that runs supplies to and from the island --- visitors are not welcome.  Second, the person requesting Malus' help is his ex-fiance, Willow (Kate Beahan), who Malus hasn't spoken to in years, and the girl is her daughter.  Thirdly, there is a huge issue of jurisdiction; why would you call a California cop to police things in Washington?  And why would he agree to this?  What's wrong with Washington's police force?  Seattle seems nice enough.  Finally, the island is mysterious because it is a place where weird things happen.

Is that BZZ Top?  ...Because her beard is made of bees.
Whatever reason he had, Officer Malus did, indeed, come to Summersisle.  Once he arrives, he is surprised to find a matriarchy where there is a lot of talk about "the gods" and little girls recite their lessons on phallic symbols.  That would just be unsettling if it was not for the fact that Malus can't get anywhere with his case.  He can't even get the locals to acknowledge that little Rowan even existed at some point.
"Tell me what happened to Rowan, or I will punch you in the face.  Yes, I'd punch a woman"
Eventually, Malus meets the matriarch of Summersisle, the aptly named Sister Summsesisle (Ellen Burstyn), and she does little to lower his suspicions.  Not only is Rowan (probably) missing, but this is a culture that practices pagan rituals, like the "celebration of DEATH...pause...keep pausing...longer pause...and rebirth."  What the hell is going on in this town?  What really happened to Rowan?  And is there a police officer role that Nicolas Cage won't take?
"I can't believe they still let me keep this!"

Have you ever had your mind blown?  The acting in The Wicker Man (2006) absolutely blew mine.  Aside from the last half-hour or so of The Cage being The Cage, the movie is surprisingly well-acted.  Ellen Burstyn was slumming it a bit, but she played a strong, confident and ruthless a female character as well as it could have been played.  Kate Beahan was not as good, but she played her character well.  Her character was kind of annoying because she apparently had an allergy to clear exposition, but it serves a purpose in the overall plot, so I won't complain about it.  Much.  Even the smaller parts were handled capably; I don't think Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, or Diane Delano did anything spectacular, but their actions seemed natural enough.  Leelee Sobieski was a little weird, but I'll give her credit for taking a movie karate kick believably.  As for Nicolas Cage...well, he's Nicolas Goddamn Cage, people!  For the first 75 minutes of the movie, he was just a slightly condescending and strange policeman with odd line delivery.  For the last thirty minutes or so, though, he turned it up to eleven and went completely batshit ridiculous.  I thought he was hilarious, but I doubt that was the original intent of the filmmakers.
Then again...

Director Neil LaBute also wrote the updated screenplay for The Wicker Man (2006), so that means he's doubly responsible for what made the final cut.  From a directorial standpoint, I think LaBute has a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to make a horror movie.  He uses the soundtrack to clue the audience in that something scary/important is about to happen, which would normally be fine, but he does this often and with no good reason.  Why would we need the minor chords of horror soundtracks within seconds of getting on the island?  Implying scares and not delivering them is not the same thing as building suspense.  Given how silly the movie can look when taken out of context, I was surprised at how serious the tone in this film is.
"Does that mean...?  Oh my God.  You're not in on the joke...!"
From a writing standpoint, I would feel better if the Writer's Guild of America burned his membership card.  This has nothing to do with the fact that he had the main character dress as a bear and start punching women.  I don't even want to know how the stupid doll got burned.
Best guess: falling asleep while smoking after doll-sex
What bothers me about the writing is that there are large chunks of this movie that could have been better spent elsewhere.  The entire prologue with the car crash was completely unnecessary.  The only reason it needed to exist was to provide motivation for Malus to go to the island; too bad the plot provides him with two better reasons for going.  Having Malus repeatedly flash back to that scene was also stupid and worthless.  The script is also jam-packed with red herrings that provide nothing to the overall story, like those fetuses that appeared to be embalmed in honey.  Things like that make me wish the tagline to this movie was "The Wicker Man: Wait...What?!?" 
...and this would be the movie poster
Even basic plot points, like the disappearance of Rowan's picture, were handled poorly.  The missing picture was an important piece of the puzzle in this story, but the way it was noticed --- a broken picture frame with broken glass all around it --- was clumsy.  If someone wanted to hide the picture, wouldn't they have just taken the whole frame?  Or at least swept up the glass?
Subtlety takes a back seat when you're wearing Braveheart makeup

The most frightening thing about this remake is that it's not all bad.  There are some interesting ideas in place here, even if they weren't executed very well.  For instance, naming all the women on the island after some sort of plant was a pretty cool idea, although it would have been cooler if The Cage didn't call it out relatively early in the film.  Not very many movies make use of bees, which made this isolationist society unique in appearance and language.  And then there is the whole matriarchy in place here; while it didn't quite fit in this plot, an aggressive female-centric group could make for a great horror story.  There's a lot that can be done with that idea through cinematography, too.  Speaking of which, there were some fairly striking visuals in The Wicker Man (2006)
AAA!!!  Post-coital elephant man!!!
They weren't all of pretty things, but the set design and makeup teams did some good work.

The Wicker Man (2006) is simply a collection of parts that was never going to be good, but then had the opportunity to be so much more.  Even with the solid acting, the script and direction guaranteed that this film would be a miss.  This is essentially a mystery, but is treated with the same "gotcha" moments that you would find in a crappy slasher pic.  If you want to compare this to The Wicker Man (1973), go right ahead.  Everything that makes the original unique --- the disturbingly cheery tone, the subtlety, the randomness, and the religious aspects --- is missing in the remake. 
The original is missing bee-related hilarity, though

The first hour and fifteen minutes are boring to watch --- they're obviously bad, but not enough to amuse anyone --- but the viewing experience for The Wicker Man (2006) is saved by that last act.  The movie goes from being something worth occasionally snickering at to having layer upon layer of Lefty Gold.  Remember those scenes that were funny when taken out of context?  It turns out that there is no proper context for them.  Those scenes are always that funny, and they come out of absolutely nowhere.
This is Cage's "What's in the box?" moment
With that knowledge, I will watch this movie again, although I certainly won't be sober.  And I will be secure in my viewing choice, because I know how ridiculous the ending is.  Without that knowledge, I can see someone being worried that they're wasting their time with The Wicker Man (2006).  And that's a fair concern, because this is a truly awful movie, more than deserving the scorn heaped upon it.  As a reasonable bit of legitimate cinema, this movie truly fails. 

But this is one of those rare movies that is so consistently ridiculous that you can find brand new things to laugh at every time you watch it.  I might actually buy a copy of this movie, as long as it's the unrated one, because the theatrical version is missing the "not the bees" scene.  This is easily the best so-bad-it's-good movie I have seen in a long time.  It earns a Lefty Gold rating of

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