'The Wicker Man': Dreadfully Funny

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006

In an era of careful cost accountancy and focus-group testing, it's remarkable that a movie as truly, deeply, madly foolish as "The Wicker Man" escaped the asylum. But we must be grateful for the endless guffaws and gasps and outright stunned silences it unleashes on lucky audiences.

Directed by eternal bad boy Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Nurse Betty," both odes to misogyny) from a far better 1973 original, the movie is based on the notion of an obscurely surviving pre-Christian agricultural cult that secretly practices ritual sacrifice to ensure the bounty of the harvest. This durable rural legend got its start from Caesar's "Commentaries," where the old tyrant reported accounts (hearsay only, not eyewitness) of Gallic sacrifices involving humans incarcerated in large wicker statues of human shape, then torched to make sure the pommes were red 'n' plump.

The original -- which I cannot remember much of anything about except a certain dance sequence featuring Rod Stewart's then-girlfriend -- was fairly generic in its evocation of these nasty farmer-druids. Led by aristocratic Christopher Lee, then as now reliably ascetic and spooky at once, they cooked a poor cop played by Edward Woodward, later of "Breaker Morant" and "The Equalizer." The screenplay was by no less a scribe than Anthony Shaffer, who had already written his famous "Sleuth" and was the less-talented brother of Peter ("Equus," "Amadeus") Shaffer. Amusing trivia department: Some time after the end of the production, Shaffer married one of the actresses, Diane Cilento, an ex-wife of Sean Connery's. It's one of the few times the writer ever got the girl.

Now about the dance. The girlfriend, Britt Ekland, was naked and the dance was rather a -- hmm, how can I say this? -- rather a thrilling thing. It certainly made the '70s easier to bear. At the same time, it was long rumored (an urban myth, never proved or disproved) that Stewart, the rock millionaire, immediately bought up all the prints and had them destroyed and that was why, for so long, "The Wicker Man" was rarely seen. (The magazine Cinefantastique, whose account of this scandal I am remembering, had an excellent in-depth story on the legendary "Wicker Man.")

Only Stewart can say whether this is true, and he's not talking. I do believe that in a few years, Nicolas Cage will buy up all the prints to this "Wicker Man" and burn them . I'll be happy to help him.

Cage, looking for some reason unhealthily gaunt, plays a California state trooper who is traumatized, a la "Vertigo," by proximity to an accident he could not prevent. In that state of shock, he receives a letter from an ex-fiancee, telling him that she had been pregnant by him, that she had a daughter and now, six years later, the daughter is missing. She lives on an island called Summersisle in upstate Washington. Naturally, Cage's character, Edward Malus, goes to investigate.

Of course what seems to have drawn bad-boy LaBute to the project (he also wrote it and presumably was the prime mover) is a chance to redesign Shaffer's original cult along lines more to his liking -- or perhaps I should say, disliking. He conjures up a goddess cult, a matriarchal society in which men are tongueless slaves and toil anonymously in the background, while the ladies, dressed up like extras in "Gone With the Wind," preen and gibber in the foreground. The object lesson would appear to be something about the evils of matriarchy, and the Christopher Lee role is now filled by Ellen Burstyn in high dudgeon as queen bee (the bee metaphor is used throughout) and mayor-for-life, called Sister Summersisle.

Now let me tell you, you haven't seen anything till you've seen Burstyn, her face painted blue and white like a Duke fan, doing the hootchy-cootchy and shaking herself all about, as she leads the colony of revelers to the wicker man. I should add that everyone else in the mad parade is wearing animal masks; thus, the whole thing looks like a somewhat tawdry road-show production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the cast has gotten drunk on Rock Star and vodka and is staggering incomprehensibly around a haunted woods.

That's very enjoyable. I haven't had such a good laugh at the movies since the Bride cut off the top half of O-Ren Ishii's head in "Kill Bill."

But the fundamental problem is that the mechanics of the thriller are utterly alien to poor LaBute. He never builds a coherent chain of clues for Cage's character to follow; there's no sense of the conspiracy being unraveled, a layer at a time. There's almost no intellectual aspect to the movie at all. Rather, the scrawny Cage (son, eat some pancakes!) wanders about in a state of semi-hysteria yelling at old women and having hallucinations about dead children. It's quite unpleasant, when it isn't completely goofy.

The Wicker Man (115 minutes) is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

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