‘Wicker Man’ unpredictable, but not so scary

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2006


  "The Wicker Man" 1 hour, 46 minutes Warner Brothers AP Photo/Warner Bros./Alan Markf

"The Wicker Man"

1 hour, 46 minutes

Warner Brothers

AP Photo/Warner Bros./Alan Markf

It may seem a tad early, but it appears that the Hollywood horror season is upon us. Much like nearly every other commerce/marketing-based industry, Hollywood starts its holiday celebrations early, and Halloween is no exception. Sure, there’s been the occasional scary movie peppered throughout the summer, but September starts the terror in earnest.

Upcoming is the sure-to-be-ridiculous sequel “The Grudge 2,” and the sure-to-be-gut-wrenching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” This is all welcome news for fans of the genre, but not so welcome is the first film out of the gate: “The Wicker Man,” a confused mess of a remake that, despite its obvious potential, falls apart like a pile of loose sticks.

Nicholas Cage is Edward Malus, a California Highway Patrolman who, after undergoing a traumatic roadside accident, decides to take some time off. Conveniently coinciding with his leave is the arrival of a mysterious letter from an old love, beckoning him to the remote island enclave of Summersisle, there to help search for a missing girl.

Despite the inherent weirdness of the letter, Malus decides to help. His eagerness is soon dampened, however, when, upon arrival at Summersisle, he finds a bizarre cult of the feminine, replete with subservient men, lots of creepy twin girls in pigtails and veiled stories of ritual sacrifice. Also bees. Lots of bees.

Malus tries desperately to solve the mystery, but the more he uncovers, the less he knows. Luckily, he has the sympathies of the audience as we watch a decent idea slowly unravel as it lurches to the inevitable “shocking” ending.

The conclusion, which has the benefit of being, at least, unexpected, does serve to explain some of the weirdness preceding it, but not all. In the end you are left feeling unfulfilled by a story that seemed to promise so much more. Though it prevents me from airing some of my gripes about the film, it would be unfair to reveal the ending. Suffice it to say that I didn’t see it coming, though I should have.

Granted, I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre. There was a time, I guess, when I could have stood to watch movies like “The Hills Have Eyes” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but after a while rampant cruelty and gore starts to wear on a person.

On the other hand, horror is just an offshoot of scary, a type of movie that almost everyone, despite protestations, likes. “The Wicker Man” falls into this category, being more about the terror of the bigger picture than of the severed limb. This is more like the original “Omen” or “Rosemary’s Baby.” Interestingly, “The Wicker Man” is a remake of a movie of the same name, made around the same time as those, and is a huge cult favorite in Great Britain. Apparently, the source material was good, so what happened?

It’s hard to say. At first glance, a team like Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage and critically acclaimed director-writer Neil LaBute would seem like a great start, but in the end these two are the biggest liabilities. As far as acting goes, in a movie like this most of the characters have to do little more than seem enigmatic. Stare off into the distance and look as though you have a terrifying secret, and you’ll be fine.

Cage’s job, as the protagonist, is really to be us — amazed, intrigued, confused and then imbued with a dawning horrified realization of the truth that will leave our minds blown.

As Malus, however, our star seems more manic and irritated than anything. It almost felt as if Cage was acting in a different movie, maybe a slightly darker “Honeymoon in Vegas.” I never could nail down his motivations — is he in love? Is it all about the law? Which lost little girl is he searching for? And what did the opening roadside accident have to do with anything? He’s definitely acting, and working hard at it, but the character he creates is completely out of place.

In turn, LaBute’s directing is so haphazard, his story construction so sloppy, I felt I was watching a first-timer with his first big budget. Granted, this probably his biggest movie to date, but this is a guy who makes statements with his art, not silly thrillers.

He has an interesting body of work, ranging from angry battle-of-the-sexes dramas “In the Company of Men,” and “Our Friends and Neighbors,” to the dark comedy “Nurse Betty,” to the religion-skewing theatrical piece, “Bash — Latter Day Plays,” which created a rift with his church that eventually led to his leaving the faith altogether.

There is a hint of a political message here — the feminist cult is so broadly drawn that it’s hard to see it as anything but a criticism of feminism altogether. Maybe I’m reading that in, but with a director like LaBute, I expected the movie to be saying something.

When it’s all said and done, “The Wicker Man” will leave you feeling confused and frustrated, not because of the complex ideas and dark visions it conjures, but because of the entertaining movie it fails to be. Grade: D+

“The Wicker Man” is rated PG-13 for language, brief gore and frightening images, including Nicholas Cage in a bear costume.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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