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Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Wicker Man

It’s like a knife in the heart every single time. I went to see The Wicker Man at the Essex Cinemas this past weekend and mentioned to delightful Dana, a longtime popcorn princess at the refreshment center, that I was looking forward to seeing this version of the movie because I enjoyed the original and she gave me the blank stare. You know it, that stare that says “What original?” and sure enough neither she nor any of the other staff working that day knew that there ever was another version. Because they are all too young. Sigh. I’ve reached a point in my life where the studios are now remaking movies from films I saw as an adult. That is a sad, sad thing. And worse yet, I am surrounded by people in my world who don’t even know it. I feel like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense except “I see dead movies everywhere.”

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for 1973’s The Wicker Man because one of my dearest friends in the world considered it among her favorites, and we saw it together at least a dozen times. We lived in a city where there was a small theater that rotated double features of classic movies daily and whenever The Wicker Man was on the schedule it was not a matter of if we were going to go but what time. Carol would call me with the time, we’d meet, grab the popcorn, and she’d curl up in her seat, mesmerized as if she’d never seen the movie before. I never could understand what it was that drew her so intensely to the story, and, sadly, Carol passed away a couple of years ago, so I guess I’ll never really know. One thing I do know, however, is that Carol was also quite fond of Nicolas Cage, so the fact that he is starring and producing this new The Wicker Man would surely make her smile. And with good reason.

The Wicker Man is a beautifully filmed, well-produced and downright creepy-in-the-daytime thriller that builds to a stunning and unexpected climax I’d venture to say you’ll not see coming unless you’ve peeked at the classic version. There are changes, however, and most are for the good. Purists are going to be unhappy on many counts, but I’d prefer not to nitpick the differences and concentrate on the merits of this film. It always troubles me when people feel compelled to slam a remake based only on its’ comparisons to the original rather than appreciating (or debasing) the new film on its’ own merits.

Nicolas Cage (World Trade Center) stars as Edward Malus, a highway patrolman who in the opening minutes of the picture experiences a tragedy when he is unable to save a woman and her little girl from a fatal car crash. Afterwards, he descends into a world of pills to cope with his post traumatic stress disorder and is relieved of duty for the time being. Out of the blue he receives a letter from his ex-fiancée, Willow Woodward (Kate Beahan; Flightplan), asking for his help in locating her missing daughter Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair; RV). Even though it has been years since he has seen Willow, Edward decides to go and see what he can do.

This requires a long trip to a remote island community called Summersisle, located
off the Washington coast. Edward is surprised to find it so difficult to get to the island. He even has to bribe the supplies delivery man who flies his private seaplane there every week or two. Apparently the residents have made it quite clear that they want their privacy.

Once he is on the island, however, Edward finds that the “welcoming committee”
who are less than amiable at first do eventually show him their hospitality and direct him to Sister Beech’s Mead House where he can also find lodging. Sister Beech (wonderful character actress Diane Delano; tv’s “Northern Exposure”) is a tad less pleasant, but gives him a place to stay and so Edward begins his investigation.

Edward finds adjusting to the island life odd at best. The community seems to be living a 19th century communal existence similar to the Mennonites or Amish, although these women do apparently embrace cosmetics since every single one is well-coiffed and wearing lip gloss and eye shadow. Still, besides finding indie fave Leelee Sobieski (In A Dark Place) as an almost-goth waitress, what Edward uncovers in the next few days becomes even more disturbing than that, if you can believe it. First, no one on the island will admit to knowing that young Rowan even existed. Then he finds that the men are all mute (think “Ellen Jamesians” from The World According To Garp) and treated like farm animals to do manual labor, carry heavy loads, and breed as needed. Summersisle, you see, is a matriarchal society, where women rule. It was founded by refugees from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and is basically one big Michigan Women’s Music Festival or Lilith Faire without the music. This no doubt explains why nobody has a sense of humor and looks like they are a heartbeat away from castrating poor Nicolas Cage all the time when all he wants to do is help out a friend.

In the midst of all this new information Edward meets a few more people with pieces to the puzzle, though none are giving up their secrets willingly. Frances Conroy, best
known for her work on “Six Feet Under”, plays the enigmatic Dr. Moss, who may celebrate the “Olde Rituals” but is not above some more modern techniques like abortion as a way of genetic manipulation. The doctor and the other women of the island are preparing for the annual May Day ritual called "the time of death and rebirth". What Rowan’s disappearance has to do with this seems obvious to Edward and he is determined to prove what these witches are planning, but he has no idea how. And that’s even before he meets the Queen Bee of this hive, Sister Summersisle herself, played with reserved fury and dripping self-righteousness by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn (tv’s “The Book of Daniel”).

What happens next is not the stuff of typical horror movies, and this, I must remind you, is not what I would call a “horror” movie. It is a thriller, closer to the works of Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan than anything of the Friday the 13th series. Teens may be bored by the lack of gore they’ve come to expect and the quick cuts from one scene to the next, but for those who can appreciate a slower
build-up of tension and can enjoy the feeling that comes as the excitement grows exponentially with each new secret Edward uncovers, then this is the movie for you.

The Wicker Man, now playing at the Essex Cinemas, is a gorgeous example of what can go right when updating a movie that most people never thought needed the facelift. Check it out. It’s
the best of what’s out there this week.

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