Let it be known that I am not inherently opposed to Hollywood remakes. In fact, I think there are a good number of remakes that even improve upon their predecessors. It can be exciting to see a filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh, for example, take a marginal movie like the original 'Ocean's Eleven' and, with a fresh perspective and genuine purpose, refashion it into great entertainment. Of course, even with talent and passion, the formula for crafting an imaginative remake is not foolproof.
Which brings us to the 2006 version of 'The Wicker Man,' a big-budget redux of the 1973 cult classic that is driven so clear off the tracks by director Neil LaBute that it truly boggles the mind. Tossing aside genuine mood and suspense for corny genre gimmicks, LaBute's 'The Wicker Man' became a unlikely campfest and perhaps the most critically and commercially crucified remake in decades.
LaBute, who also penned the script, retains the original film's basic narrative quite faithfully, with the only signifcant derivation being his choice to replace the original's religious extremist antagonists with evil feminists.
Nicolas Cage stars as detective Edward Malus, whose former fiancee Willow (Kate Beahan) left him years ago without any explanation. When Edward receives a letter from Willow saying that her daughter Rowan is missing, he travels to the private island of Summerisle, where his former lover now lives in a strange ritualistic bohemian community comprised entirely of women. After Willow reveals to Edward that he is Rowan's father, he's compelled to investigate her disappearance. Who are these women? Who is their matriarch, the seemingly benign matriarch, Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burnstyn)? What does his daughter's disappearance have to do with the clan's upcoming yearly sacrifice ritual? And just who -- or what -- is the Wicker Man?
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen LaBute's past work (including the highly controversial 'In the Company of Men' and 'Your Friends & Neighbors') that he has turned the 1973 film's confrontation between spiritual beliefs into a battle of the sexes. But this choice ends up being the film's fatal flaw, as 'The Wicker Man' is simply doomed at a conceptual level. LaBute has been called everything from this generation's most astute commentator on gender politics to cinema's worst misogynist. Until 'The Wicker Man,' however, he's never seemed inept. Yet somehow, in refashioning the unisex cult of Pagans from Anthony Shaffer s 1969 novel (the author also penned the script for the 1973 film version) into something more akin to 'The Stepford Wives,' LaBute fails to realize how antiquated and sexist his vision of a rampaging band of man-hating feminists really is. He even has Cage resorting to knocking the women around, which instead of coming off as "incendiary" non-PC muckraking just seems like two frat boys behaving like bullies. The original 'Wicker Man' was exciting because it utilized genre conventions and a terrific ending to inspire serious discussion about faith and religion -- the controversy the film generated was not cynical, but sprang organically out of the tough questions it asked. LaBute's 'Wicker Man' on the other hand, merely exploits gender issues with glib condescension, and funnels his "vision" through the worst cliches of bad horror films.
Had LaBute at least made a decent thriller, his poor college thesis dramatics might have been more easily forgiven. But instead, 'The Wicker Man' is one of the most hilariously campy movies I've seen in years. You haven't experienced true cinematic lunacy until you've seen Cage, dressed in a big furry bear suit, being chased by a gaggle of feminists, led by Burnstyn in full 'Braveheart' face paint. To her credit, at least the Oscar-winning actress looks like she realizes she's stuck in disaster of epic proportions, and gamely plays along with a smirk plastered on her face the whole way through. The same can't be said of Cage and the rest of the cast (including Leelee Sobieski, in a what-in-the-heck-happened-to-her-career supporting role as "Sister Honey"), who seem to have no now idea how bad the dialogue they're being forced to recite truly is.
In another misfire, LaBute also tries to appease the horror crowd with film school-level plant and pay-offs, like making the Cage character allergic to bees, when -- wouldn't you know it -- the island women just love to make honey. Gee, how do you think that might come into play? Too bad all the supposed scares and plot secrets are obvious from a mile away. By the time we get to the big climax, even those who've never seen the original are left howling with laughter instead of gasping in shock. The theatrical screening I saw of 'The Wicker Man' ultimately turned into an open mic night of sorts, with the crowd throwing out their best liners as Cage finally comes face-to-face with the "Wicker Man."
Note that this HD DVD release presents the Unrated version of the film, although runtime is identical to the PG-13 theatrical version. (Spolier alert: if you haven't seen the film, you may want to skip this next section.) After the film was first submitted to the MPAA for review, the original, rather violent climax earned the film an R rating. Warner subsequently toned down the ending, and tacked on a silly coda leaving room open for a sequel. Thankfully, the original ending is restored here, which is much more finite. Unfortunately, it still can't save the movie.
Well, at least 'The Wicker Man' looks good. This is another one of Warner's HD DVD-to-Blu-ray replicants, where they simply take the original HD DVD encode and slap it on a Blu-ray disc -- identical bitrate and all -- and voila, two releases for the price of one. So the video quality of the two releases is frame-for-frame identical. (Note: This disc is not a combo DVD release as originally announced by Warner.)
Both this HD DVD and the Blu-ray feature 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 video transfers, and the results are quite good. 'The Wicker Man' benefits from sharp, colorful photography and nice widescreen compositions. The source print is in pristine shape (very smooth and film-like), and I noticed no compression artifacts.
Stylistically, the first half of the film is a bit softer and more muted -- I didn't see any sort of big thematic relevance to this approach, but colors do brighten up closer the end, as does sharpness. Hues remain very stable and free of noise throughout, while fleshtones are generally accurate (except for Ellen Burnstyn's ridiculous blue war paint). Detail is also quite strong, with daylight exteriors the most impressive. I liked the nice golden halos around the hair of the various Pagan women, and in a couple of shots I could even make out Leelee Sobieski's bad split ends (don't they believe in conditioner on Summerisle?)
Matching the strong video transfer, 'The Wicker Man' sounds good, too. However, the HD DVD release has the edge here, getting a full-blown Dolby TrueHD track while the Blu-ray has to settle for a 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. (This HD DVD version also includes a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 option at 640kbps as well).
Unfortunately, the film's front-heavy sound design and overall lack of excitement really doesn't benefit much from the extra oomph provided by the TrueHD lossless format. By far, the biggest beneficiary is Angelo Badalamenti's score, which nicely fills out the rear channels, with clear harmonics that offer the only hint at the increased resolution of TrueHD. Otherwise, only the car crash scene and the climax offer much surround activity. However, I did detect an increase in ambience as the second half of the film kicks in, which is quite effective -- the nature sounds become a bit more pronounced, delivering far more dread and mood than anything else in the movie. Finally, fidelity is as slick as you would expect for a major studio effort, with expert dialogue reproduction and healthy dynamic range. Still, this is no 'Batman Begins' or 'Poseidon.'
Believe it or not, writer-director Neil LaBute, co-stars Leelee Sobieski and Kate Beahan, editor Joel Plotch and costume designer Lynette Meyer all sat down together to record a commentary for 'The Wicker Man.' I can only hope this session was recorded before the movie came out, because if it was after, these people are seriously deluded. Though Sobieski says about three words, and the rest only chime in with occasional back-patting, LaBute seems completely unaware of his own film's failings. These kind of tracks have an appeal similar to that of those awful 'American Idol' auditions, inspiring jaw-dropping incredulity that the people involved can't see the obvious truth right in front of them. To be fair, there is a bit of interesting discussion about the film's retooled climax, and LaBute makes an earnest case for why he wanted to remake a genre classic. Sadly, though, the only real reason to listen to this track is to mock.
The only other extra is the film's Theatrical Trailer, presented in widescreen and 480p video.
A masterpiece of unintentional camp excess, 'The Wicker Man' is the most hilarious piece of hack work I've seen in ages. This HD DVD looks and sounds perfectly swell, and even gets a Dolby TrueHD track that it probably doesn't deserve. The disc also includes a somewhat interesting commentary that must have been recorded before the movie came out, as no one seems to realize they've made a box office catastrophe. This one is for Pagans, cinema sadists and Leelee Sobieski fans only.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.