This week’s flick is the second consecutive Nicolas Cage flick I’ve had to pan, which pains me: Nicolas Cage is probably—and unironically—my favorite actor. At his best, his loose cannon hamming can completely make a picture. At his worst, he’s either too ridiculous—a caricature of his already cartoonish self—or too subdued, leaving the best arrow in his quiver unused.
In the case of this week’s film—The Wicker Man (2006), the abysmal remake of the 1973 classic—the poor presentation is, fortunately, not Cage’s fault exclusively. He does deliver a rather lackluster performance, lacking either the over-the-top insanity of Vampire’s Kiss (1989) or the wordless panache of Willy’s Wonderland (2021), but it’s only occasionally bad. Mostly, it’s just forgettable.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare any remake to the original (with the exception of John Carpenter‘s The Thing, 1982), but remaking this film was a bad idea. At least, the 2006 attempt is a very poor one indeed.
I loved the 1973 film, as you can see in my review. It captured the eeriness of the hidden-in-plain-sight pagan society that misled and bamboozled a civilized Christian officer of the law into his fiery death. The tension between two faiths—the fertility cult of the island dwellers and the Anglican Christianity of the protagonist—was central to the story, and made the protagonist’s death more poignant: he truly died a martyr’s death.
The protagonist in that film was also a virgin, and a major struggle he faced was holding onto his virginity (and, therefore, his principles). One memorable scene was while he was staying at the island’s inn, and one of the sorceresses began dancing erotically on the other side of the wall to his room, causing him to struggle with intense sexual desire—a major test of his purity and morals.
Perhaps the idea of a middle-aged man being a virgin in 2006 would have been far-fetched, but the remake completely throws the protagonist’s faith out the window. Rather than shouting prayers to God and glorifying Him as he burns, Nicolas Cage’s character just lamely insists that “I’m not one of you”—that he’s not a part of the weird, Celtic fertility cult.
There’s something to be said for setting, too. The original film took place on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. That is an entirely plausible place for an odd pagan cult to build its isolated society, luring in unsuspecting Christian virgins for fertility sacrifices. There’s even an implication that the sacrifices have not been resorted to in some time, but necessity requires them. Even the lord of the island acknowledges that, should the protagonist’s death not secure a good harvest, he will be on the chopping block next year.
The remake, on the other hand, takes place on an island off the coast of… Washington State. Not exactly an exotic or mystical locale, wreathed in ancient rituals and secrets. Sure, there’re some grunge types in Seattle and some granola chicks on the Left Coast—which at least makes the almost-entirely-female, highly matriarchal society somewhat plausible—but the location and its depiction on film lack the appeal of the original’s Outer Hebrides.
The remake follows some of the same story beats as the original, with Nicolas Cage facing a passive-aggressive local population that wants little to do with him, and also duplicating the scene in which the frustrated detective seizes a school attendance roster by force to prove the existence of the missing girl he’s been sent for to find. There’s also the grand conspiracy to lure the unsuspecting hero to his death.
But that’s about where the similarities end. The sense of foreboding that permeated the original film is rarely here. That might be due to the fact that the audience knows the ending already, but I think it’s also a failure of the filmmakers to capture that strange disquiet that accompanied the first film. In the original, the hero is totally alone on the island. In the remake, Nicolas Cage is reuniting with his estranged fiancée, who grew up on the island. That adds a lot of dewy-eyed filler to the story, but also seems to rob it of some its impact. Cage is also not just searching for a missing girl, but—as he is told—his missing daughter, a daughter he did not even know he had.
The main villainess, Sister Summersisle, pales in comparison to the villain of the 1973 version, the sinister Lord Summerisle, played gloriously by Christopher Lee. Lee’s portrayal is nuanced and creepy—Lord Summerisle is almost androgynous at times, and his every word drips with dual meanings and deceptions. Sister Summersisle, on the other hand, is about as menacing as a bony old socialite at the Macy’s checkout counter—sure, she’s going to terrify the clerk into ringing up her coupon that doesn’t work on clearance items, but she’ll be down for her afternoon Valium nap in a few hours.
The film’s chief sin, though, is one I already stated—it strips away the powerful conflict between Christianity and paganism. It also removes the inherent conflict between civilization and barbarism (or, at least, some alternative form of living contrasted against “mainstream” civilization). The pagans feel like a band of dour female hippies who just like taking the piss out of a man with some minimal authority (one woman even notes that he’s a cop in California, and has no jurisdiction in the State of Washington, which is true!)—pretty much every middle-aged woman of a certain puckered inclination.
Mostly, the 2006 The Wicker Man was just kind of boring. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the original masterpiece I’d appreciate it more, but I don’t think so. A film about an island of human sacrificing cultists should automatically be creepy and unsettling, but The Wicker Man 2006 utterly failed to capture that sensation for any significant length of time. I started out enjoying it, but quickly grew tired of it as I remembered scenes the 1973 original did much better.