The Wicker Man 2006 (2006)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan

Directed by: Neil LaBute

Rating: 1 2 3

Nicolas Cage burns in The Wicker Man 2006

Remaking The Wicker Man? Surely even these people can't be that mad! But no, Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that, 33 years after the release of Robin Hardy's strange, beautiful and cruel cult classic masterpiece, it's time The Wicker Man received a US makeover.

The good news is, it's not nearly as bad as you think it's going to be. In fact, if I hadn't been continually comparing it unfavourably to the original, I'd probably have given it four stars out of five rather than three. My two greatest fears - that this would be a pointless line-by-line remake, like the recent reinterpretations of The Hills Have Eyes and The Omen, and that a surprise happy ending would be engineered out of nowhere, The Vanishing style - fortunately proved to be fallacious. (Okay, that was a spoiler, but at least now you can all relax, safe in the knowledge that our hero is going to burn.)

Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summersisle and Nicolas Cage as Edward Malus in the remake of The Wicker Man

Like Zack Snyder's 2003 remake of Dawn of the Dead, The Wicker Man 2006 takes the concept of the original film and runs with it, creating something new(ish). So our upright, uptight Christian hero Sergeant Howie is replaced by kindly Californian cop Edward Malus (the ever likeable Nicolas Cage) and the pagan western Scottish isle of Summerisle makes way for a matriarchal colony off the coast of Washington, Summersisle, famous for its production of honey and ruled over by glamorous queen bee Ellen Burstyn, in the Christopher Lee role.

Unlike Sergeant Howie, poor Edward is already somewhat shaken and stirred before he even arrives on the seemingly idyllic shores of the island, having witnessed a mother and child burning to death in their car in a traffic accident. So when he receives a letter from his ex-fiancée, who ran out on him many years ago, asking him to help her find her missing daughter, Rowan Woodward (put the names together yet?), he's already hallucinating small blonde girls with plaits and red cardigans everywhere he looks. So far so Don't Look Now - but Edward's problems have only just begun.

When Sergeant Howie first lands on Summerisle, everything seems harmless enough - a bit weird, admittedly, but not exactly dangerous. However, from the minute Edward sets foot on Summersisle, it's clear that there's something rotten at the core of this seemingly puritanical, self-sufficient colony. And therein lies the problem with this film - it lacks the ambiguity of the original. From the start, we're firmly on Edward's side: he's the good guy, plunged into a strange, unnatural, sexless world where women are the bosses and men are subservient, speechless drones, policed by creepy beekeepers in sinister masks, and there are just way too many freaky sets of twins in evidence.

The signs pointing towards Rowan's sacrificial fate are far more obvious (she's drawn a burning man on the bottom of her desk with 'help me' scrawled across it, for crying out loud), and while Sergeant Howie can't find anyone who'll tell him for sure whether Rowan Morrison even existed, Edward's ex, Willow (Kate Beahan, proving that, while mobile phones and cars may be banned from the island, botox and collagen certainly aren't) is adamant that she does exist and is in terrible danger.

All the irony and subtlety of the original are stripped from the new, more straightforward, multiplex-friendly plot. The matriarchal goddess worshipping cult which dominates the island can be traced back to the inhabitants' Celtic ancestors - this is no cynical social engineering experiment to keep the workers happy, it's simply tradition. And, as poor Edward is finally dragged by the heels into the wicker man (which, incidentally, looks exactly the same as the Summerisle version, but that doesn't stop it being any less frightening - although shouldn't it really have been a wicker woman?), there's no sense that next year, Sister Summersisle could be next. In fact, as a rather lame, Hostel-esque epilogue makes clear, if the crops fail again, there'll never be a shortage of gullible young men eager to take Edward's place.

The ladies of Summersisle - The Wicker Man 2006

I think perhaps the scene which best sums up the differences between the two films is the moment in the schoolroom when our hero throws open the desk he assumes belongs to Rowan. In the original Wicker Man, Howie finds a beetle tied to a piece of string, slowly winding around a nail towards own death: a perfect symbol for his own presence on the island. In The Wicker Man 2006, Edward flings open the desk to find a big, black crow. It makes us jump, but it doesn't mean anything.

If you haven't seen the original Wicker Man, you'll probably think this film is pretty good. It has some nice ideas (I may have criticised it, but the goddess worship business still makes for a nice twist on the original concept) and it looks beautiful, with some charming attention to detail such (I particularly liked the way almost all the furniture is octagonal, like a bee cell - although aren't bee cells hexagonal, come to think of it?). Nicolas Cage gives an appealing performance as Edward Malus, Ellen Burstyn is suitably regal as Sister Summersisle and the climax is still shocking and moving. But if you only see this sanitised, demystified, unsexed version of The Wicker Man, devoid of any real sense of irony, complexity, religion or faith (and, of course, lacking the gorgeous folk soundtrack), you'll simply never understand the true meaning of sacrifice.

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