Saturday, February 13, 2016

The folly of remaking something unique

I'm away for the weekend and supposed to be taking a small break from blogging, but the wifi is strong where I'm staying, and I've got a moment alone with my computer and my morning coffee on a balcony, so ... instinct took over.

Last night at this resort where we're staying near Phillip Island (about 120 k from Melbourne), I finally got started on some personal viewing at around 11 p.m., so I sought out the shortest thing I'd brought with me -- which happened to be the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, borrowed from the library. It clocked in at a brisk 84 minutes, so it was easily the winner.

Having seen the Nicolas Cage/Neil Labute remake almost exactly eight years ago -- to honor the 366th day of 2008, February 29th, with something notably awful -- I'd always harbored a curiosity about the original, and whether the seeds for what went so wrong in the Cage/Labute version were visible there.

They were, but not in the ways I had expected.

It wasn't that the original was so deliciously campy and that Labute had either deliberately or accidentally brought the same tone to his remake. Rather, what was wrong was the decision to remake it in the first place.

I was riveted by this odd movie, directed by a guy I'd never heard of named Robin Hardy. I'd never heard of him because he didn't make another movie for 13 years after The Wicker Man, and then it was 25 more years before his next (and most recent) directorial effort ... though he's still going at age 86, and has a project on wikipedia whose release date is listed as TBA.

Well, if I'd been a film industry person who'd seen The Wicker Man in 1973 (which would have been tricky as I was being born that year), I would have given Hardy his next job right away. It's strange and mysterious and discomfiting, while also being kitschy in just the right ways -- and while also sort of being a musical.

A musical? Yes, there are about five different songs in this movie, sung by the actors. They're front-loaded, as that kind of thing drops away in the second half, but they are honest-to-goodness songs, some sung diagetically, some sung as apparent commentaries on the action. Some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs, and some are gloriously cheeky early 70s flower children songs with a sinister undertone. All work perfectly in terms of orienting us in the film's time period and all make the action a bit more chilling than it would be on its own.

The action? It's like the plot of Labute's remake in many ways, if I remember correctly, which is certainly to be expected. But so different from it in key ways.

One difference that I found unaccountable, and even more damning of Labute's project once I know about it, is that Labute chose to make the central pagan group (religious sect? cult?) into an entirely distaff affair. This key choice to have it an organization composed entirely of women is simply not present in Hardy's film. There are certainly powerful women who appear here, but no more centrally then some powerful men, notably Christopher Lee as the group's leader (called Lord Summerisle, named after the very beautiful Scottish isle on which this movie was shot). There's also one chilling scene where a female teacher is instructing a class of entirely girls on the phallic symbolism of the maypole, a scene that was recreated in the remake (as I was reminded by watching an awesome five-minute "best (worst?) moments of The Wicker Man" video on youtube). There's definitely something provocative about the fact that they are all female in that class. But Hardy's movie does not go on to suggest that the women have a dominant position in this society, and that makes Labute's choice to extrapolate that reading all the more problematic ... especially when their ungodly sacrificial tendencies are so feral, so unambiguously evil. This also majorly complicates the gender dynamics in any scene where Cage is forced to punch one of them out (this happens multiple times) and even, in one case, fell one with a karate kick. These scenes are simultaneously comical, which gets at exactly the moral complexity of what goes wrong in Labute's film, which certainly invites charges of misogyny when taken in comparison to the original.

The other thing that humorously weighs Labute down is his decision to fixate on bees. Some of the moments of greatest humor from that five-minute youtube video involve Cage's reaction to having a mesh chamber that resembles a fencing helmet placed over his head, and having bees poured into that helmet, which attack Cage's face and inspire some of his most outrageous acting. (Though I'll be damned if I remember that actually appearing in the film version -- I wonder if it was a deleted scene.) Labute incorporates bee imagery into some other allegedly disturbing images he includes in his film. That's not in the original either. Although this pagan group wants to make a sacrifice to return its harvest to its former glory, it's a harvest of produce, particularly apples. Maybe Labute just thought Hardy would have made his movie about bees if it were possible to create digital bees in 1973.

Another thing I found particularly striking about the original is that Edward Woodward's police detective is a man of strong Christian faith, which sets him up in opposition to the pagans (and makes him an ideal candidate for sacrifice in their view). That may have been present in Labute's film as well (eight years and more than two thousand films has a way of clouding the memory), but it didn't register much to me at the time, or if it did it was also in that realm of the unintentionally comical that suffuses the whole movie. Woodward seems like a true believer, which lends extra conviction to everything and makes the contrast all the more powerful.

In a way, it was a stroke of cinematic good taste for someone to have seen a film like Hardy's The Wicker Man and imagined that its eerie goodness should be brought to a modern audience. But especially with the film's indispensable flower child quality, it isn't really translatable to 2006 without losing a good portion of the mood that gives it its power. Also, it should have been perfectly evident to this person of good taste that this is a singular movie, one that maybe never should have existed in the first place, and certainly shouldn't exist twice. The same good taste that served them in recognizing the greatness of Hardy's movie abandoned them in informing their judgment about a possible remake.

As I am trying to be a bit more measured in my praise of films in terms of their star ratings, I gave The Wicker Man four stars on Letterboxd, though I toyed with that additional half star. It's a treat for anyone who likes those niche horrors that seemed to have jumped out of the 1970s and escaped our universe altogether. That sense of being untethered from what we know and have seen before is absolutely a good thing.

And absolutely something they never could have captured in a remake.

Though I probably shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that Labute did give us something completely out there, in the sense that his Wicker Man has become something of a modern classic in terms of movies that are so bad they're good. I shouldn't close this piece without acknowledging that there's some value in having done that -- in fact, great value. I'm glad I live in a world where this awful version of The Wicker Man exists, a version we can all laugh about together.

And without that awful version, I might never have discovered the chilling original.


Wendell Ottley said...

Yes, the biggest folly was trying to remake this in the first place. The original is something so wholly unique it's practically impossible to do it justice woth any sort of revamp. To make matters worse, Labute watered down everything that made that first movie interesting and, as you say, chilling. It is a musical where hedonistic pagans (cultists?), who have sex wherever and whenever they want, believe in human sacrifice and clash with a devout Christian over a missing child who may have been sacrificed. What about that screams out for a PG-13 update?

Derek Armstrong said...

Ha! Yeah, but oddly the PG-13 version is a lot more mean-spirited than the original, what with Cage punching out women every chance he gets. However, part of me does want to now circle back around and watch the remake again, just to marvel over how much Labute et al strayed. Fortunately, the more dominant part of me values my time more than that.

Thanks for the comment!