Purple Clouds
Matthew Shute's thoughts on pretty much everything

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Oh why, ye gods?

I’ve finally seen the trailer for the American re-make of one of my favourite films, The Wicker Man.

I posted a review of the original 1973 version here, and I described many of the things I love about the movie.

The new version of The Wicker Man is apparently set in an American neo-pagan community (located in Maine, I think) and stars Nicholas Cage in the Edward Woodward/Sgt. Howie role.

My hopes for this re-make have been low ever since I heard sketchy rumours about the project years ago. The trailers I’ve now seen appear to confirm a few of my specific expectations.

Hollywood, for all its obvious strengths, is not exactly renowned for making subtle and intelligent thrillers like Anthony Shaffer’s original cult classic. Instead, what Hollywood IS known for is making a fair number of good-versus-evil cliché-fests that appeal to a large demographic and have plenty of special-effects wizardry to pad them out.

For starters…: I fear that this remake of a much-loved film is going to be an exercise in Christian propaganda (the demonizing of a rival religion) dressed up as film entertainment. A crude and simplistic approach to horror films where Christian “good-guys” face off against witches/vampires/Satanists/warped-scientists, typified by a great many British Hammer Horror films of the 1960s, is the very thing the first Wicker Man film was trying to get away from. Despite the famous ending, this film never portrayed any symbolic struggle between “forces of good and evil”.

The tensions in the original film relate to a fundamental clash of cultures; a collision of diametrically-opposing beliefs. The film passes judgement on neither side and treats all in an even-handed manner.

The puritanical Sgt Howie is likable and compassionate, but he certainly has his faults – chiefly his hypocritical dismissal of a religion that is far older and no less rational than his own Christianity.

Similarly, the islanders are also likeable but flawed characters. Their culture is shown in a positive light, I think (it almost makes me want to become a pagan – they certainly have more fun than their Christian neighbours), but still their implacable faith leads to something quite awesome and terrible in this instance. In other words, strong faith surely has its benefits for the devout believer – but sometimes these benefits come at a hefty cost.

Can we expect a similar balanced treatment of Nicholas Cage’s character and his neo-pagan friends in this new film?

NC often plays quintessential “good guy” characters. He has one of those faces, I suppose, and a kind of Jimmy Stewart way about him. After seeing the trailer for the new WM film, I’d like to bet he’s going to come across as a typical saintly figure in this role, strong and virtuous in the beginning, then all teary-eyed and hopeless in the face of injustice.

In stark contrast, it appears that the neo-pagan community will be portrayed as sadistic fiends, relishing every torment NC goes through, delighting in his agony for its own sake.

There is a bizarre scene in the theatrical trailer where NC is wearing a mask filled with bees, screaming as they all sting his face. Why are the islanders torturing him like this? What does this strange act have to do with any pagan beliefs?

In the original movie, the only motive behind the fate set up for Howie is that the crops are failing on the island. The merry dance the islanders lead him on throughout the film is playful and darkly comic, but hardly sadistic. Once they confront him with his fate, they treat him with the kind of reverence reserved for a Christian martyr. They anoint him. Lord Summerisle even attempts to soothe Howie by describing a wonderful afterlife where Howie will sit with the saints in heaven. The motivation of the islanders has nothing to do with sadism at all – they just want a better harvest of apples in the coming year.

But then here comes Hollywood with its interpretation. A black & white patchwork of clichés about good and evil is as much as they think their target audience could appreciate or understand. So they turn a cult-classic film into a tacky B-movie with none of the subtlety of its inspiration.

Christianity: good. Neo-paganism: evil. Anyone with a decent grasp of history can see that Christianity is the more blood-soaked religion of the two, but you’re supposed to forget all that because neo-paganism is all “spooky”.

I wonder what real neo-pagans in America and Britain will make of this film. Can you imagine if somebody made a horror film demonizing Jews or Hindus as evil sadists? The original Wicker Man related to an obscure pantheon of gods and goddesses no longer widely worshipped (if at all) and the film did not portray anyone as “evil”. But neo-paganism is an active religion (or a category of religions) followed by many people alive today. Depicting these people as sadistic fiends is surely questionable, to say the least, from a moral standpoint.

There are other strange anomalies I noticed in the trailers. Are the islanders in this new film all dressed in frumpy, old-fashioned clothing harking back to the days of the pioneers? If so… why? These are supposed to be neo-pagans, not Christian puritans.

A fun thing about the original (and something that also rang true) was that the pagans were more like hippies with a free-love ethic, contrasting with Howie’s uptight personality and appearance. Their colourful religion involved phallic symbols, fertility rites, jumping naked over bonfires – their liberal attitude towards nudity and sexuality is one of the very things that enrages Howie’s strict Christian take on morality.

But nobody at all was walking around in a buttoned-up pioneer outfit in the 1973 film. What were the makers of this new Wicker Man thinking of?

I wonder if the new version will have the same kind of atmospheric soundtrack or any of the songs from the original. I’m sceptical. The makers probably opted for some dark mood-music that explicitly tells us “this is a scary bit of the film – now here comes another scary bit of the film.” And this sums up my pessimism about the whole venture – this is likely to be a dreary and overtly dark/gory 2D cartoon (possibly a tacky propaganda piece) with none of the fun or creativity of the old version. We’ll see.

After seeing a few clips, accompanied by a gravely voice warning me of the evils of neo-paganism, my expectations for this project are now just about nil. I’m sure it will appeal to Pastor Ted Haggard and his congregation, but for everyone else it will be so-so – a bog-standard horror flick.

If anything good can come out of it, maybe it’ll inspire a few people who haven’t seen the 1973 film to check out the restored 99 min version on DVD - with all its magical spirit still intact.


Btw, I owe a few of you emails and things. Lisa, Lo, everyone else I owe - I'll email you all next time I'm on.

Peace and love and all that good stuff,


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