Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Vs. : The Wicker Man (1973) and The Wicker Man (2006)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 4, 2007

Like comparing apples and oranges, except the oranges are also apples

Those posters really say it all, don’t they? The first–mysterious, gothic, unsettling. The second–CREEPY EVIL KID. I had the pleasure of watching both the Robin Hardy-directed 1973 UK version and the Neil Labute-updated 2006 US version of The Wicker Man, and let me tell you, it’s hard to pick which I liked more. Both movies had their own rustic, disturbing, hilarious charm.

For the majority of critics, this Vs. would be something of a slam dunk–the UK version was named the sixth best British film of all-time in a recent Total Film poll, is apparently a big influence on the freak-folk music scene for its soundtrack, and won the 1978 Saturn for Best Horror Movie, while the only accolades the recent Wicker Man received was a slew of Razzie nominations (including Worst Picture, Worst Actor and Worst Screen Couple for “Nicolas Cage and his bear suit”). These critics just aren’t using the right criteria, though. That said:

(oh yeah, spoiler alert, btx)

Best Unhinged Protagonist: Edward Woodward makes for a great semi-unsympathetic protagonist in the original. He spends the film in various states of appalled disgust, ranging from aggravated disregard (“No, I doubt it, seeing you’re all raving mad!”) to outright horror (“Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests… and children dancing naked?!??“), bringing his outraged Christian superiority more to the extroverted forefront in every scene. Not to mention that the character is unmarried and thus a virgin, and spends a great deal of the movie losing his mind with lust for Britt Eklund.

Still, Nicolas Cage has gotten the character type down to such a science that he could put “Unhingred Protagonist” on his business cards. No man can play furiously aggravated the way Cage can, wide-eyed, flailing and of course, yelling. Watch him shout “HOW’D IT GET BURNT?!?!” four consecutive times at his ex-girlfriend–a fairly unimportant question about a somewhat innocuous plot point (he found a burned doll or something in what was supposed to be his daughter’s coffin), it’s inspiring stuff. Officer Edward Malus was clearly the unhinged protagonist Cage was born to play (and a montage of some of his character’s highlights can be seen here)

Winner: Wicker Man ’06

Best Sinister Crop: The people on the island in the original Wicker Man just grow apples and the like, making for the climactic quote “Killing me won’t bring back your apples!” Eh.

The people on the island in the ’06 Wicker Man, however, cultivate honey, so the island is filled with loud, deadly bees (and, wouldn’t you know it? Guess the one thing Malus is allergic to?) This makes for lots of unnecessary queen/drone bee metaphors in the island’s society, and more importantly, lots of Cage-panicked-over-bees scenes, including one where bees are poured onto his head through a large funnel for no particular reason. It also leads to the climactic line, “KILLING ME WON’T BRING BACK YOUR GODDAMNED HONEY!!” No contest.

Winner: Wicker Man ’06

Best Supporting Cast of Creepy Chicks: The original Wicker Man has this in spades, from the beautiful but probably demonic Willow (Britt Eklund’s character) to to Lord Sommerisle’s bizarre female companion and the too-cheery teacher and shopkeeper.

The Wicker Man has some good ones, from Deadwood‘s Molly Parker as the sinister schoolteacher, Ellen Burstyn as the island’s matriarch (who wears Braveheart facepaint in the final scene), and the underused Leelee Sobieski as a mysterious “I just do as I’m told” worker who randomly attacks Nicholas Cage at the end of the movie. But the transofrmation of Willow from creepy seductress to whiny Fiona Apple-lookalike clinches this for the original.

Winner: Wicker Man ’73

Best Evil Leader: Once again, you’ve got Ellen Burstyn doing a pretty solid job as the island’s Queen Bee in the modern Wicker Man, her steely eyes and white hair making her an especially good fit for detached lunacy. But then you’ve got a 70s-ed out Christopher Lee (a.k.a. Count Dooku Sarumon Scarmanga) as the original’s leader, spouting lines like “I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.” Could this guy ever play a normal person?

Winner: Wicker Man ’73

Biggest WTF Moment: Both of these movies have plenty of “…did that really just happen?” moments. The biggest from each have to be the two dream/fantasy sequences. In the first one, Sgt. Neil Howie (Woodward) sees Willow go into her room at night and fantasizes about a very naked Eklund singing a siren’s song to him, the scene of which is presented as if it’s actually happening (and for all I know, I guess it could be).

In the remake, Malus is consistently haunted by a memory of his trying to save a young girl who was killed in a car accident at the beginning of the movie (which gives his character motivation for wanting to save the girl on the island). He sees a young girl on his ferry ride who looks like the girl who got killed, and you can tell that he’s flashing back to the time of the accident, as he starts to walk towards her. But just before he can get to her–BAM! She gets clocked by a truck. (She’s actually all right, of course–people don’t get hit by trucks on ferrys very much).

Both are great, but really, for sheer WTFness, nothing can compare to the sight of a nude, singing Britt Eklund, sashaying around her room and pounding on the doors.
Winner: Wicker Man ’73

Best Furthering of the Director’s Agenda: It’s actually not quite clear who Robin Hardy was criticizing more in his 1973 original, Pagans or Christians. The Pagans are clearly not sympathetic people in this movie, but aside from the whole sacrificing an innocent thing, they don’t seem nearly as bad as Sgt. Howie makes them out to be. The Christians, on the other hand, as represented by Howie, are repressed, condescending, intolerant and ethnocentric, even if they tend not to murder quite so often.

Pagans and Christians are of no concern to director Neil LaBute, however, who singles out the enemy as clearly in the modern Wicker Man as he does in all his other movies–women. The matriarchal society of the modern Wicker Man is one in which men are barely used and are not allowed (or possibly unable) to speak. When asked about this gender divide, Queen Bee Bursyn answers “Why, we love our men! Breeding is one of the most important jobs in our society!” or something to that effect. Classy stuff, Neil. I really need to see In the Company of Men again.

Winner: Wicker Man ’06

Best Wicker Man: I was surprised at how few allusions there were to the actual Wicker Man in these movies–I figured you’d see parts of it, or hear lots of mentions of it, or at least see people working on building it before the climactic reveal at the end. Still, that probably makes it all the more shocking when you actually see what the Wicker Man is–of course I had the ending ruined for me in that 100 Scariest Movie Moments Special they rerun every Halloween (thanks a lot, Bravo).

Both rare pretty jarring, but I’d have to give this one to the original. The silent, steadily approaching camera is just more horrifying than the loudly soundtracked, played for maximum effect reveal of the original. Plus I feel like Nicholas Cage really could have knocked that fucker over if he had rocked back and forth hard enough. Dude didn’t even try.

Winner: Wicker Man ’73

Best Post-Wicker Man Coda: In the ’06 Wicker Man, after Cage gets burned to a crisp we see a card saying “Six Months Later,” and are now suddenly at a bar/club where Leelee Sobieski and one of her evil friends pick up two unsuspecting dudes looking to party. As Leelee propositions her guy, we hear the increasingly loud sound of bees buzzing (I half expected her to turn into a bunch of bees herself, “Triumph”-style) and the sound of Nicholas Cage screaming in the background. Then, the screen goes dark, and the movie’s dedication is revealed: “For Johnny Ramone”.

The original doesn’t even have a post-Wicker Man coda. Pffft.

Winner: Wicker Man ’06

Reactions of People I Saw Them With: Both Wicker Mans elicited their fair share of cheers, jeers and uncontrollable laughter from the crowd, but one of the girls fell asleep while watching the ’06 version (her reaction when she woke up: “Was that version really different? It sounded really different.”) The people have spoken.

Winner: Wicker Man ’73

Final Score: Wicker Man ’73 5 – Wicker Man ’06 4

I guess the critics might have a point after all.

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