One of the definitions of a “classic” film is one that should never, ever be remade.
Forget what Coppola said about movies being like operas, with new generations of artists taking their shot at interpreting classic texts. He’d be the first to bitch if somebody pitched Paramount on a new “Godfather” trilogy.
In Hollywood, where “intellectual property” and “rights” are everything, they’ve flirted with “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind,” and that upstart Spielberg fellow had the temerity to take Coppola at his word and attempt his own “West Side Story.”
Horror classics are particularly prone to remake. But in the case of the best of them, Hollywood should recognize how resistant some stories are to this urge. Whatever your fondness for TV’s “Bates Motel,” does anyone remember the remake of “Psycho?” Or “The Wicker Man,” infamously brought back from the dead as a Nicolas Cage vehicle (2006) that lives on only in a sort of “awful movies” purgatory in most fans’ minds?
Watching the original anew reminds us that you should never touch any iconic story with a “big reveal” at the end. Once you know who Norman Bates’ mama is, you can’t unknow it.
Whatever spoiler title screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (“Frenzy,” “Sleuth,” the 1970s “Death on the Nile”) chose to pin on David Pinner’s novel “Ritual,” until you actually see “The Wicker Man” in the film, you have no idea what its purpose is, even if the metaphor in it grows more obvious every time our protagonist, a brittle and fragile Scottish police sergeant (Edward Woodward) opens his pious, Christian mouth.
The first thing that strikes you in the film’s opening credits is a reminder of how the Brits long-revered the word and the writer who writes it. It is billed as “Anthony Shaffer’s ‘The Wicker Man.'” Sure, it’s based on Pinner’s novel. Robin Hardy directed it, one of only three films he managed, one of which was a disastrous revisiting of the material, “The Wicker Tree,” which was based on his own novel in a “Wicker” vein.
Shaffer, a barrister and advertising copy writer who turned to novels, plays and then screenplays, is the artist most responsible for this compact and still-creepy-after-all-these-years horror parable.
The penny-plain plot — Sgt. Howie (Woodward, later of “Breaker Morant,” and TV’s “The Equalizer”) flies to remote Summerisle, piloting his own float-plane, to chase down a missing person. Someone there wrote him that a girl had gone missing.
The villagers aren’t keen on helping, even declining to provide a dinghy to get him to shore. “The Lord” needs to be consulted, and they’re not talking about The Almighty. Not exactly.
The Sgt. finds himself trotting out “official police business” threats to one and all as he is stonewalled at almost every turn on this agricultural Scottish island. No, nobody there remembers “Rowan Morrison,” the object of the unarmed sergeant’s search. And they have “our ways,” which this stranger won’t understand. The suggestion that he “go home” is broached by more than one local.
But there is a pub and rooms to let. Surely they must get the occasional tourist, you think.
Sgt. Howie gets a glimpse of what goes on there, the history of the place, through photographs and moments where the locals appear to perform pagan rituals and pass them on to their children.
“They never learn anything of Christianity?” He is shocked.
And as he pokes around, finding evidence that the girl no one “can recall” or has ever heard of was enrolled in school, and “died” but has no death certificate, as the gorgeous barmaid Willow (future Bond girl and Peter Sellers’ ex Britt Eklund) comes on to him in the most frank ways, this puritanical policeman (the “extended cut” of the film shows he used to be a preacher) turns to sputtering rage.
Can I do anything for you, Sergeant?
” No, I doubt it, seeing you’re all raving mad!”
Then, at long last, he meets Lord Summerisle. And despite the fact that Christopher Lee — Britain’s greatest horror icon — plays him, Sgt. Howie doesn’t have the good sense to flee.
“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”
There’s a high-mindedness to the theological debates between the Sgt. and the Lord, a gloom that hangs over the story when we start to fear for this arrogant, brusque outsider who cannot see there’s an island full of simple folk who plainly do not want him there, not for May Day (the next day).
It’s a film that capitalizes on its location — Plockton, Dumfries & Galloway Scotland, and environs — and the now almost-lost sense that there are islands off Britain where time stands still and quaint, strange and disconnected-from-modern-reality things go on. Remember, this came out just a couple of years after “The Prisoner.”
I love the tidiness of “The Wicker Man,” the lack of wasted scenes or moments in Shaffer’s lean, drumtight script. Every character is on screen to make a certain point, and only on long enough to make that point. There’s a shrugging “Just go home” warning in their brush-offs and a shrugging “Well, you asked for it mate” acceptance of his fate when the Sgt. doesn’t heed those warnings.
Woodward’s sputtering self-righteousness, his “One Way” blind faith, is beautifully-contrasted with Lee’s whimsical, long-haired (he even sings), laid-back Lord Summerisle.
“And what of the TRUE God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?”
“He’s dead,” Summerisle quips. “Can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.”
That sort of flippant swipe at Christianity is particularly, peculiarly British and very much of its era. Monty Python ruled the TV and shots at Protestantism and Catholicism were all the rage, and part of a long tradition in the UK.
And that’s another reason “Wicker Man” would be nigh on impossible to Americanize. We don’t have that tradition here.
I’ve long thought that it’s the flawed adaptations of literary masterpieces, period pieces or biographical films of great lives that should be remade, not “classics.” Yes, a fresh take on “Casino Royale” was justified. “The Beguiled? Maybe. “Catch-22” was worth taking another shot at. No, George Clooney wasn’t the right guy to attempt it.
But looking at “The Wicker Man, now coming up on 50 years since its release, its tidy, compact and menacing perfection is easy to grasp. Attempts at longer cuts of the film only unraveled some of the mystery that is a vital component of its appeal. And unlike most “out there” scenarios, this is one case where “It needs a little more Nicolas Cage” simply does not apply.
Rating: R, violence, nudity, re-rated
Cast: Edward Woodward, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee.
Credits: Directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, based on the David Pinner novel. A British Lion film, released by Warner Brothers — on This TV, Amazon, other streamers.
Running time: 1:28