Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 16 News List

'Wicker Man' carries no sting

Nicolas Cage tramps around an island inhabited by blond matriarchal beekeepers in the unintentionally funny remake of Neil LaBute's classic horror flick

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Nicolas Cage stuggles to uncover the secret life of bees in The Wicker Man.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX

Some movies are so special that they need to be kept secret. The Wicker Man, not screened in advance for critics, appears to be one. Even though a reliable Web site had promised a noon showing on Friday at a 12-screen multiplex in downtown Brooklyn, the theater's display of titles and show times made no mention of The Wicker Man.

Still, the person who sold me the ticket and the person who tore it in half both assured me that even though it appeared to admit me to Idlewild in Theater 11, I would indeed be seeing Neil LaBute's remake of a semi-well-known 1973 cult horror film. Which I did.

Quite a few of my fellow patrons, on the other hand, were expecting to see Idlewild, and expressed their puzzlement when, instead of the members of OutKast frolicking in a 1930s nightclub, they saw Nicolas Cage tramping around an island inhabited by blond matriarchal beekeepers.

But the audience seemed less confused than Cage himself, who plays a highway patrolman named Edward Malus. One day, not long after witnessing a horrible (and never-explained) vehicle explosion, Malus receives a letter from his former fiancee, Willow (Kate Beahan), whose calligraphy is as impeccable as her grammar. She writes that her daughter, Rowan (Erika-Shaye Gair), is missing, so her haggard ex puts on a tie and some cologne, downs some pills and heads out to Puget Sound, where Willow has taken up with a sisterhood of organic honey ranchers, all of them named after plants.

Buzzing bees and echoey children's voices compete for soundtrack space with Angelo Badalamenti's pedestrian score, and Cage trudges through the woods, badgering women dressed in 19th-century homespun and expressing frustration, disbelief and bewilderment. Indeed, there is reason to wonder just what he is doing in this movie. Having recently seen The Ant Bully, in which Cage provides the voice of an ant, I could only conclude that either he or his agent has a special interest in the social insects.

Film Notes:

The Wicker Man

Directed by: Neil LaBute

Starring: Nicolas Cage (Edward Malus), Ellen Burstyn (Sister Summersisle), Kate Beahan (Sister Willow), Frances Conroy (Dr. Moss), Molly Parker (Sister Rose), Leelee Sobieski (Sister Honey)

Running time: 106 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today


The deeper question is just what LaBute, with his reputation as an intellectual provocateur, was doing when he set out to update one of the most enduringly creepy horror films ever made. The original, written by Anthony Schaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, imagined a remote island off the west coast of Scotland where a sinister form of pagan nature worship — involving quite a bit of outdoor nudity — had survived on the far fringe of modernity. Christopher Lee ran the place back then. Now Ellen Burstyn is in charge.

A movie like this can survive an absurd premise but not incompetent execution. And LaBute, never much of an artist with the camera, proves almost comically inept as a horror-movie technician. He can't even manage an effective false scare, or sustain suspense for more than a beat or two. Nor does the crude, sloppy look of the film turn into cheesy, campy excess. It's neither haunting nor amusing; just boring.

So why does it exist? After a while, as you wait for the bee ladies to stop messing with the poor cop's head and just tell him what's what, your mind may wander off in search of interpretation. Do the beehives — a symbol associated with the Mormon Church and the state of Utah — have something to do with LaBute's religious background? Did the residents of the island get kicked out of M. Night Shyamalan's village? Nothing so interesting: just another example of LaBute's batty, slightly hysterical misogyny, overlaid with some mumbo jumbo about ancient goddess religions that makes The Da Vinci Code look scholarly even as The Wicker Man reverses that film's mushy pseudo-feminism.

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