THE WICKER MAN is a revered classic of subtle dread with an incendiary pay-off. The remake with Nicolas Cage has also become the stuff of legend – internet memes about those darn bees!
Ballyhooed as “The CITIZEN KANE of horror films” (whatever THAT means) THE WICKER MAN (1973) has had a long and tortuous history. It exists today only in multiple truncated versions with no director’s cut ever to be realized as key footage remains missing.
Based on a 1967 novel RITUAL by David Pinner, THE WICKER MAN was penned by Anthony Shaffer of SLEUTH and FRENZY fame and directed by Robin Hardy in his directorial debut. The film deceptively opens like a police procedural but slowly turns into an orgiastic nightmare of pagan sacrifice.
A devout Christian, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) in search of a missing girl, journeys to an isolated island of Summerisle, off the coast of Scotland.
He soon learns that the islanders ruled over by a mysterious Lord (horror icon Christopher Lee) have reverted to the ancient rites of Celtic paganism.
Howie is not only a stranger in an even stranger land, the chaste, tightly-wound stiff-upper lipped Brit is an moral Alice thrust through a godless looking glass to a world of tree-hugging, nature worshiping sexual deviants – none of whom will answer any of his questions.
And this being the 1970s, Summerisle is that not far removed from the many hippie communes of the day – all spouting peace and love and psychedelics. Yet, for every Woodstock, there was a hidden Altamont hidden within – a leering Charles Manson whistling up devils.
But the island locals are not Satan worshipers.
Their beliefs go back to far olden times, before Christianity was imposed upon them by the conquering armies of Rome. The days of the druids and the worship of nature – the Phallus dance of the Maypole and the curing of coughs with a well-placed toad in the mouth. The churches lay in ruin, the graveyards bereft of proper Christian adornment. Worse still, to the repressed Howie, are children frolicking in the nude.
Incensed, an indignant Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, “Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?”
“Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost,” Summerisle replies.
In this swirling miasma of weirdness and heathen ritual, rebuffed by the villagers, Howie continues to search for the missing child Rowan Morrison. He is led to believe she never existed.
The inn-keeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland) attempts to seduce him with a rhythmic, erotic nude dance that shakes the very foundations of Howie’s virginal reserve. But he shall not falter to the lure of pre-marital sex without honor!
He soon learns that the imaginary Rowan not only exists but is very much alive, although not for long as she is intended to be sacrificed.
As a festive parade wends to its point of final destination – martyred within a great wooden colossus, Howie, disguised as a medieval fool, suddenly realizes just WHO is about to be flame broiled!
“A man of his own free will…by representing the law…come here as a virgin… come here as a fool!”
The villagers force Howie into the stickiest wicket of all and set it ablaze as he damns them all to hell.
Released the same year as the green vomit spewing pop phenom, THE EXORCIST, THE WICKER MAN seemed lost in the shuffle – cut and then recut for the bottom half of drive-in double features. The WICKER MAN owes more than a hat tip to Jacques Tourneur’s subtle masterpiece of druidic horror CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) in which a disbelieving man of science, Dana Andrews, is forced to believe – trapped in a nightmare world of dark magicks.
Over time, like most cult classics, its rep continued to grow, finding new audiences on VHS and DVD until the time was ripe… for a remake!
Enter Nicholas Cage, hapless hero for hire.
Written and directed by then-indie darling Neil LaBute, the remake is a near note for note rehash. The isolated island, now off the coast of Washington, is a neo-pagan matriarchy ruled by EXORCIST star Ellen Burstyn. As for Cage’s clichéd cop – “This time – it’s personal!”
After a harrowing opening in which California Highway Trooper, Edward Mallus (Cage) attempts to rescue a child from an accidental inferno, he receives a letter from his long-lost fiancé Willow that her daughter has disappeared. The pill-popping Cage, prone to hallucinogenic flashbacks and visions, travels to the private island that specializes in exporting organic honey. He soon learns that the missing child is his own daughter!
Way out of his jurisdiction (and quite possibly his mind) Cage proceeds to badger, abuse and taunt the female islanders with waaaaaaaaaaaaay over-the-top thesping.
“I don’t need anybody’s goddamn permission!” a feral Cage snarls. “I’m gonna search every inch of this town and anybody who interferes will be brought up on murder charges – got THAT?! You have my permission to stay out of the fucking way!”
Unlike the original, key scenes are inserted for shock value to reassure the audience that they are indeed watching a horror film. Of course, once we learn Cage’s character is allergic to bees, he falls prey to the island’s most precious commodity.
Naturally, this is all one big set up for the Gaea Mother Earth worshippers to conduct their traditional blood sacrifice to insure a good harvest. And guess who’s about to get more than THE DEADLY BEES in his face?
By the time, Cage gets his flaming comeuppance, we could care less. And neither did movie goers whose abject indifference made THE WICKER MAN one of the biggest box office bombs in history. After it was unceremoniously dropped on home video, the flick suddenly became a party-hearty fave – as an unintentional comedy.
After being pilloried on the internet, Cage, who produced the film, took the Pee Wee Herman defense, saying “I meant to do THAT!”
But even a cursory viewing reveals that the filmmakers were trying to play it straight.
The all-too deserving THE WICKER MAN was nominated for no less than 5 Golden Raspberry Awards including Best Couple (Cage & his Bear Suit). It won none.