When Neil LaBute’s remake of Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man arrived in theaters in September of 2006, it was as unwanted a trespasser as Nicolas Cage’s inquisitive inspector. LaBute knew people didn’t want the remake, saying in an interview, “You have to forge yourself ahead and say, I’m making something which, if people are fair with, I think they’ll see that you’re coming to this with good intentions and trying to retain the spirit of the thing without being slavish to it.” But the road to The Wicker Man is paved with good intentions, as Edward Woodward’s pious police officer found out in the original 1973 film; it didn’t turn out so well for him, either.
The 1973 Wicker Man is a quintessentially British movie—a paranoid, surreal, hilarious psychosexual folk tale about the hypocrisy of religion, about the perversity skulking within puritan prudishness. (That Radiohead’s sublime music video for “Burn the Witch” channels the movie tells you how relevant it remains to British culture.) Woodward’s devout Christian Sergeant Howie, upright and intolerant as he preaches the word of Jesus, is sent to the picturesque shores of Summerisle to investigate an apparent missing child case. With his exact speech and paradoxical platitudes, he is, like most tragic characters, a privileged fool, and in the end he pays for his sins.
Hardy’s film is, for most of its runtime, almost an oneiric comedy, not far removed from a Monty Python skit. The folk songs, at once sultry and silly, have no place in a proper horror film but are integral to The Wicker Man. The brilliance of its revelation, as Sergeant Howie is dragged to his death, is how articulately Hardy handles the tonal shift from hilarity to horror. Howie, having thought himself enlightened and the islanders heathens, is entombed in a looming man-shaped lumber edifice and set ablaze as a sacrifice. The islanders lock hands and sing a hymn to their God as whorls of smoke ascend into the sun’s spilling viscera. Howie prays and sings too, but his God lets him burn.
The remake’s tragic flaw is that this tonal shift never happens; it never finds a tone in the first place. Unlike the devout characters of the original, this movie is a noncommittal, unintentionally hilarious mess.
It fails as a movie but succeeds, exceedingly well, as meme fodder—testament to how its individual pieces amuse but never cohere.
Angelo Badalamenti’s sincere score belies the image of Nic Cage in a bear suit slugging a woman. And Nic Cage, whatever the hell he’s doing here, bellowing and braying and working his jaws like he’s desperate for some scenery to chew, belies LaBute’s attempt to make a serious melodrama. No one’s on the same page, or in the same book, or speaking the same language. It fails as a movie but succeeds, exceedingly well, as meme fodder—testament to how its individual pieces amuse but never cohere.
Remakes are not inherently evil. John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Paul Schrader’s Cat People all make persuasive arguments for the potential of remakes because they have purpose, singular visions. Carpenter, usurping the politics of Howard Hawks’ original, turns Cold War paranoia into a hyper-masculine pissing contest; Cronenberg updates a flaccid B-movie into a grotesque reverie on death and decay; Schrader imbues his movie with salacious flamboyance and synthesizers. These movies barely resemble their original incarnations.
The horror remake craze of the aughts began in earnest in 2003. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre, such an ugly and squalid cheapie, looks like a home movie left to fester in the sun. A remake with a budget was maybe not a great idea, but certainly an inevitable one. The Michael Bay-produced, Marcus Nispel-directed remake (which cuts the original’s ungrammatical space between “Chain” and “Saw”) could also be blamed for the ensuing deluge of horror remakes, but even that movie has a vision—an often inept one, sure, with more generic slasher tropes than you can shake a hatchet at, but it looks great, having been shot by the original film’s cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and it doesn’t entirely eschew Hooper’s deranged sense of humor. (See: R. Lee Ermey wrapping a body in bubble wrap like it’s totally routine.)
Self-seriousness can kill a horror remake, but Evil Dead, the 2013 reimagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 splatterpiece, is a notable exception. Its seriousness is its virtue, distinguishing it from Raimi’s absurdist films. It cuts the “The” from the title, as well as the campy humor, but it strives with fierce determination to be “the ultimate experience in grueling terror.” It spends a disconcerting amount of time relishing in the torment of its characters, all of whom get mutilated beyond belief, but director Fede Alvarez (of Don’t Breathe fame; read our review here) nails the precise rhythm and pacing for maximum impact. It proves that commitment is crucial. Why bother remaking a movie if you’re going to half-ass it?
Ultimately, a remake should be a personal reinterpretation of existing art, akin to what a great jazz musician riffing on a standard tune. The horror movie that does this best, and acts as the antithesis of LaBute’s Wicker Man, is Rob Zombie’s irreverent bastard Halloween II, the sequel to his maligned remake of John Carpenter’s proto-slasher. Zombie’s first Halloween decided to give Michael Meyers a humanizing backstory, which wasn’t such a great idea, considering that Meyers is known as “The Shape” in Carpenter’s film, and his humanity was never the point. But the director’s cut of Halloween II is an entirely different monster, aware of its own unwanted existence, unconcerned with the desires of others. Despite its occasional stumble into slasher familiarity, it feels like the work of an artist confident in his vision. Carpenter’s iconic theme music doesn’t even play until the final scene—the side-grinning signature of an artist claiming a work as his own.
The Wicker Man has no such vision or conviction. This is the affliction of the modern horror remake. They’re as indistinct as any of the flotilla of bees that engulf Cage’s face in that famously bad scene. “Ah, my eyes! My eyes!” Cage might as well be speaking for us.
Editor’s note: Just before press time, the author requested that the following line be inserted somewhere in this piece: “Not the B-movies! NOT THE B-MOVIES!!!”