Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, from 1973, is widely regarded as one of the finest horror movies to ever come out of England. It builds slowly but effectively to an absolutely riveting conclusion and it's expertly shot and very well acted from all involved, Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward in particular. It's a cult classic in the truest sense of the word and it holds up just as well today as it probably did when it first played over thirty years ago. Why, then, would someone choose to re-make it? Well, updates of The Hills Have Eyes and to a lesser extent Dawn Of The Dead have been enjoyable if unnecessary, maybe an update of The Wicker Man wouldn't be a complete disaster after all. Sadly this was not the case and this new and not at all improved version of the story ranks alongside such flops as recent takes on The Fog and The Haunting.
Our story begins when a California police officer named Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage) stops a car on the highway to give back a doll that the girl in the backseat dropped out of her window. All of a sudden, a huge truck comes out of nowhere and hits the car, killing mother and child and sending our cop flying. He later learns that neither body was found and that the car was never registered – in short, no one knows who these people were. He takes some time off and in that time receives a letter, without a postage mark on it, from his ex-fiance. It seems that since they split up, she's gone back to Summersisle, a private commune on an island off the coast of Washington State. There she's raised her daughter, who has since gone missing. Since there are no police on the island as it is a private community, she tells him that she has no one to turn to but him.
Malus heads north and hitches a ride with a harbor pilot to the remote island where he's greeted quite coldly by a few older women who instantly look down their nose at him. He wastes no time busting out his badge and the picture of the girl, Rowan, that was included with the letter but he's turned away. He takes a room for the night at the only place in town and soon reunites with his former flame, Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan). His investigation takes him around the island, to the school where he meets sister Rose (Molly Parker of Deadwood), the tavern where he meets Sister Honey (Leelee Sobieski) and to the dock where he winds up hallucinating that he has seen Rowan's body under the water. Soon he finally manages to figure out that the ladies of Summersisle, lead by the mysterious Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn) herself, are up to no good. Their ways are different than his own and it would seem they worship some sort of pagan deity to whom they make sacrifices in order to ensure a good harvest.
Despite some interesting nods to Hardy's original (look for a picture of actor Edward Woodward in the 'missing' section in the police station, not to mention the less obvious naming of Willow's character as a Woodward herself) this re-make has no spirit, and no suspense. What made the original film work was how the lead character was slowly broken and slowly sucked into the world that the island offered him. Here, Cage's character shows up looking for a fight and tries to instigate one at every opportunity. Add to that the Burstyn's (who just cannot replace Christopher Lee) character explains the ending to us before it actually happens and the fact that there are painfully obvious clues left laying around the island that even the most inattentive viewer should have no problem spotting and you've got a movie that is really hard to care about. Cage overacts in too many scenes (just try not to laugh when he hands Willow the doll and screams 'HOW DID IT BURN???' at her over and over again) and when the finale finally arrives, he's dressed in a bear suit (he even keeps the furry feet on for the big finish) which makes you giggle at him rather than fear for him. If that weren't enough, the filmmaker's also tack on a ridiculous 'bee' metaphor that runs throughout the entire movie, wherein Burstyn is obviously the queen and all the men of the island, who are dopey and don't talk, are the workers. They try, unsuccessfully, to tie this into Cage's character by giving him a serious bee allergy, but it doesn't work and you probably won't care.
It's a shame that the movie turned out as ham-fisted and uninteresting as it did, because one gets the impression as the film plays out that the filmmaker's were actually trying. The cinematography is nice, the locations are quite good (using the Pacific Northwest instead of the British Isles actually does work) as are the sets and the art direction. That problem is that Cage's character is shallow. He runs around and yells at everyone for the first two thirds and when he finally does do the sensible thing and confront Willow about what's going on, it's too little too late. His actions are dumb, they don't make sense. A real cop, particularly one who is way out of his jurisdiction, would play things safer and smarter than he does and the results are laughable rather than frightening.
A note about the alternate version of the movie (here there be minor spoilers:) The running time of the two versions of the movie contained on this DVD is almost identical. What happened was that when the film was originally submitted to the MPAA for a rating, it got hit with an R. Warner Brothers wanted a PG-13 so they removed some material and added some more. What has been removed is a fairly intense scene where Cage is 'prepared' for his date with the Wicker Man. This scene is pretty violent and it was removed from the theatrical cut. To keep the running time the same, a little post script was added to the theatrical cut that leaves room open for a sequel. So, in short, the theatrical ending is less violent and open ended and the original ending contains more violence and it more or less leaves the storyline closed. The original ending is far superior and it's nice to see it included on this release, though it doesn't help enough to actually save the film.
Both versions of the film are presented in their original anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios and while this transfer isn't quite as sharp as you'd expect such a recent movie to be, it's quite good. Color reproduction is decent though things look like they could have been a little bit brighter in the first half of the movie. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and there are no problems to report with mpeg compression artifacts and only some slight aliasing shows up here. Black levels are decent as are detail levels throughout the bulk of the film. The image is clean throughout playback and there are no problems with heavy grain or print damage. Not a reference quality transfer here, but a strong one even with some really minor flaws.
The film is presented in its original English language in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with optional subtitles provided in English, French and Spanish. While the rears are used primarily for the music, there are a couple of scenes – the car crash and the finale in particular – where the surround channels kick in nicely and add some depth to the proceedings. Dialogue remains clean and clear throughout and the levels sound properly balanced ensuring the effects and the score are loud enough but not so loud as to bury the performers. Bass response is strong and it helps to bring the more intense and active scenes to life.
Aside from both versions of the movie, Warner Brothers has also included a commentary track from writer/director Neil LaBute, actresses Leelee Sobieski and Kate Beahan, editor Joel Plotch, and costume designer Lynette Meyer. During the track we learn about how the filmmaker's wanted to use the original ending but were forced to change it, as well as casting decisions, location shooting, costume design and how they felt about re-making a classic of the genre. Again, one gets the impression that these people had their hearts in the right place, but sometimes that isn't enough. One does have to wonder why Cage wasn't involved in the track...
Rounding out the extra features if the film's original theatrical trailer, animated menus, and chapter stops for both versions of the film.
While the alternate ending helps things a little bit, this re-make of The Wicker Man still stinks. It's completely void of mystery and suspense and Cage, despite an honest attempt, isn't convincing in the lead role. The film isn't scary, and unfortunately it isn't even interesting. Warner Brothers has done a decent job on the DVD release even if more supplements would have filled out the package more, but even with that said it's hard to recommend this film. Skip it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.