After ignoring the protests against the whole idea of rehashing a classic, a filmmaker unlucky or arrogant enough to proceed with the project faces a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Stay close to the original (most excessively in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), and what was the point of doing it all again? Change things the first film was praised for (cf: the Stephen King-approved TV version of The Shining), then you get reviews which list every instance in which the old movie was better.
Neil La Bute – losing a lot of credibility with this, his first ostensibly commercial project – wavers between both approaches, and muffs the moments lifted exactly from Robin Hardy’s well-remembered 1973 Wicker Man while fumbling equally with mostly silly new or altered material. The first hurdle of doing The Wicker Man anew (as with Psycho) is that it’s a story built around its twist ending, and even people who haven’t seen the original know it’s the one in which Edward Woodward winds up burned to death inside a giant wicker man. It would be cop-out hokery of the worst kind (remember the remakes of The Vanishing and Diabolique?) to tack on a happy ending, so the biggest suspense in this thrill-free thriller come from wondering whether LaBute will go that far to ruin the climax.
In transferring the story from an island off the coast of Scotland to one off the coast of Washington State, LaBute – who has written convincingly about misogyny, Mormonism and simmering violence in previous films – ditches all the meticulously-researched Paganism and makes up his own loony cult of bee-imitating witch women, complete with lobotomised menfolk. Fine actresses on hiatus from TV shows (Molly Parker, Frances Conroy) or still waiting for their careers to take off (Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski) trail around enigmatically but without a hint of the sexiness of the 1973 film, before Ellen Burstyn (in the old Christopher Lee role) takes centre-screen as a deadly diva who gets stuck with terrible speeches and a Star Trek-look half-woad make-up job.
The religious angle, which pit Christian copper Woodward against seductive but evil Pagans, is dropped in favour of a kind of Fathers for Justice nightmare as good guy Cage tries to rescue a kid who turns out to be his own daughter (ie ‘this time, it’s personal’) from a pack of women he sometimes takes delight in punching out.