The Wicker Man: religion, remakes, and the unholy pile-on

An ominous crow against a bleak, mountainous landscape.

Unpacking sources of dread in 1973 cult horror The Wicker Man and its much maligned 2006 remake.

In 1973, or thereabouts, a devoutly Christian policeman travels from mainland Scotland to the remote island of Summerisle. Having received an anonymous letter about a missing child, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) has come to learn what really happened to Rowan Williamson.

The 2006 remake of The Wicker Man begins in much the same way. When American cop Edward Malus (Nic Cage) learns his ex’s daughter has vanished, he flies out to Summersisle to find the missing Rowan Woodward.

If both men are compelled – by job or personality – to rescue a missing girl, the locals have other ideas. They claim they don’t know Rowan, that she doesn’t exist, and even that she’s dead.

As disturbing as their lies are, nothing can prepare either policeman for the islanders’ pagan rituals.

In defence of The Wicker Man

The story of The Wicker Man is an odd kettle of fish.

Robin Hardy’s 1973 film is now widely considered one of the best horrors ever made. However, 50 years ago production, editing and distribution problems sank the film before it could make a splash. It made it into cinemas – but only as the “B” picture in a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

In a 2023 interview, Hardy’s son Justin recalls:

“When it flopped, Robin Hardy left my mother and me and my sister. He came to see me at my school and said, ‘You won’t be seeing me for a while. The film has done very badly and I’m leaving.’”

Stephen Applebaum in The Independent (paywalled)

Ironically, the film’s second wind was due to Hardy’s press tour in – of all places – the American Bible belt. And even this was nearly stymied, because much of the original footage was destroyed. It’s of such stuff that cult classics are born.

Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake, on the other hand, is not a cult classic. It is quite possibly one of the most ridiculed films of all time.

Now, I’m not here to convince you the remake is better than you remember. That said, I’m yet to be convinced it’s as bad as it’s painted.

Of course, to determine whether that stands up, and what it might mean for The Wicker Man legacy, we need to take a closer look at both movies.

The Wicker Man 1973: God is dead

Like Rosemary’s Baby, the dread of 1973’s The Wicker Man lies in the era’s gnawing conundrum: is God dead?

Religions curtail social, intellectual and sexual freedoms; some stymie equality and free will. Without it, there’s greater liberty – yet, without God to fill the skies, the universe is a lonely place.

So, while the west embraced the progressiveness of the 1960s and 1970s, the horror genre reflected its void.

The Exorcist (also 1973) pits the Catholic church against the devil, only to reveal – perhaps for the first time – that prayer only offers 50/50 odds. The Omen (1976) likewise exposes religion as one more set of arcane rituals, with no certainty of salvation after all. Grim, no?

Modernity has a trick up its sleeve for Sergeant Howie, too. As a Christian, Summerisle’s primitive paganism is in endless opposition to everything he stands for.

Howie is a committed Christian while the islanders embrace the natural order of things. They have sex-on-demand, compulsively and without shame; Neil shuns sex out of wedlock.

The contrast is of fear and joy: just compare the dour Christian hymns with the music of Summerisle. Neil’s morality anticipates the rewards and punishments of an afterlife – and it’s not nearly so much fun.

And yet, the two religions aren’t so different (particularly if we consider their complicated shared history). Both have invisible deities, priests and rituals. Both believe in eternal life – though from opposing ends.

For Howie, reincarnation is a reward. For the islanders, it’s the circle of life in which all things die and are reborn, albeit not as themselves. “Nothing ever truly dies”, you might say.

Eventually, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) reveals the sacrilegious truth. When Howie asks about the “true God”, he replies: “He’s dead. Can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.”

The second coming of The Wicker Man

Neil LaBute’s retelling of The Wicker Man famously rings the changes, with the director telling Stephen Applebaum in 2006:

“I never felt the execution was so great that it couldn’t be touched.”

One inexplicable car crash and self-help tape later: ouch.

Still, strip away the gaudy excess, and you’ll find Hardy’s original staring back, complete with Anthony Shaffer’s script.

In fact, the most excoriating reviews of the remake – while highly entertaining – almost always criticise elements the first film shares.

  • Schoolgirls chanting “phallic symbol” may sound bonkers, but it’s in the original. There, the teacher goes on to spell out the island’s veneration of the penis. As you do.
  • 2006: crow-in-a-desk. 1973: beetle-on-a-string.
  • Fans in 2005 were upset about losing the film’s iconic Scottish setting. However, David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual – the inspiration for The Wicker Man – was itself set in Cornwall.
  • 2006: policeman in a bear suit. 1973: policeman in a clown suit. Both intentionally make a fool of the protagonist.
  • Sister Summersisle’s revelations in the final scene – and even Edward’s oft ridiculed pleas for mercy – are almost identical to the earlier film (just swap out honey for apples).
  • If it makes no sense for the islanders to drown Edward when they mean to sacrifice him, Sergeant Howie has a similar near-miss. If he’d given into Willow’s seduction he wouldn’t be a virgin, thus thwarting the ritual.
  • In fact, the remake makes a meal of the near-miss. Edward’s run-in with the bee helmet would have killed him; Dr Moss revives him with his own epi-pen.

The second film pays homage to the first

Not all of the remake’s changes work, and some are decidedly ropey. Most, though, are in the spirit of homage.

For instance, when Edward finds the dead pilot – now missing a hand – it mirrors Howie’s discovery of a corpse.

The corpse’s hand later reappears as a sleeping spell (‘the hand of glory’), a red herring designed to lead Howie by the nose … exactly as Lord Summerisle does quite literally during the ritual.

Other echoes:

  • Rowan’s surname is now Woodward, but she’s also Edward’s daughter, a nod to Edward Woodward, i.e., Sergeant Howie.
  • A ‘missing’ poster of Edward Woodward is in frame in the police station. Ostensibly it’s Howie, though this makes zero sense to the updated era and location.
  • Edward’s letter with the bee logo mimics the letter sent to Howie (though any close-up of it is missing from the restored version of the film).
  • The iconic maypole of the 1973 film appears near the school in the second film, though isn’t remarked upon.

Of course, homage alone doesn’t riveting horror make. Unfortunately, it’s where the remake peels away from the original that it suffers the most.

The Wicker Man 2006: unleash the bees

Here’s the thing: The Wicker Man has a built-in kill switch that makes it particularly tricky to remake this side of the millennium. Aside from the occasional echo (Ad Astra), we’re no longer shook by the death of God.

Now demonic forces flourish in horror, while religion is no more than a magic token. In our stories, “God” is interchangeable with “Poseidon”; even Batman is a more reliable cinema saviour.

However it comes about, Edward Malus is a very modern Everyman, i.e., not religious at all. That may be better for box office, but it lessens the story’s impact, leaving its pagan weirdness unresolved.

And, after all, the horror of the original is turning a God-fearing man into a mockery of the martyr he worships.

The remake serves up quite a different opposition. Here, Summersisle is a woman-dominated gynaecocracy, an interesting concept swamped by bee metaphors:

  • The island ‘colony’ venerates bees, and is distraught when the harvest fails
  • Apian emblems are everywhere, from hives to hexagonal windows
  • Malus is allergic to bees (i.e., he’s an outsider)
  • Like bees, men on the island are breeding tools (a reversal of The Handmaid’s Tale). Similarly, after sex “the drone must die”.

Outlandish, yes, but its environmental-flavoured angst, is as much a product of its era as the godlessness of the original.

Other differences between the two movies

The 1973 movie is a musical: song and dance are critical to the story and our experience of it

Aside from the spiritual gear-shift, the biggest difference between the two films is their soundtracks. The 1973 movie is a musical: song and dance are critical to the story and our experience of it.

The cheerfulness of these melodies heightens that sense of disorientation, too, in fine contrast to the story’s weird images and disturbing ideas.

Needless to say, you can’t sing along to the remake.

It doesn’t have a virgin policeman either (probably now a bigger deal breaker in a mainstream movie than the whole God thing). However, this means Howie is tempted in a way Malus can’t be – and it reveals him as a human and tragic figure long before the sacrifice.

While that sacrifice is a one-time remedy for a ruined harvest, in the remake there are hints of cyclical sex and death. Hence the film’s “six months later” bar scene, as well as the image of bee-stung guy in bed at Sister Summersisle’s house.

LaBute’s film also makes Malus an unreliable narrator via pills, hallucinations and dreams. It’s a common story strategy these days, but Sergeant Howie’s adventure is all the more nightmarish for being played completely straight.

A diabolical game

The path to punishment may vary, but the outcome is the same. Each protagonist is blinded by their status, and the illusion of free will.

“You came here to find Rowan Morrison, but it is we who have found you, and brought you here – and controlled your every thought and action since you arrived.”

Lord Summerisle

It’s the locals who sent those mysterious letters (invitations, no less). They lure the men to the island, then feed them just enough information to make them believe Rowan is to be sacrificed. In fact, Rowan is the bait; she’s the mechanism that delivers them to the wicker man.

The bigger trap, however, is destiny. Everything is preordained according to the rules of ritual (i.e., religion, albeit under a different flag).

The rules dictates Sergeant Howie must be a virgin with the power of the king (i.e., a man of the law). And he must be a fool, a requirement Howie ticks off when he steps into the costume of the vindictive Punchinello.

Edward Malus, meanwhile, must be a stranger, but one connected to the island ‘by blood’.

Crucially, both men must come to the ritual of “free will”, which is a curious, paradoxical detail. Does free will stand if one party rigs the game, or each turn of the dice is predestined?

The reward for their goodness is to burn in the wicker man (no small irony given Christianity’s treatment of heretics and witches). A martyr’s death assures them ‘life eternal’ alongside saints, gods and goddesses … and that’s no comfort at all.

An appointment with destiny

In the end, the most curious thing about The Wicker Man movies is that they’re so much the same, yet received so differently (although even the first film was called unsaleable).

Reactions by the original cast and crew to news of a remake were widely hyped and, given the film’s cult status, may have influenced the strength of feeling against it.

Woodward was offered a role in the 2006 film, though was polite (or politely brutal) about the script. Lee said he didn’t believe in remakes, and was nonplussed about the gender reboot.

Robin Hardy was unimpressed by the bee plot, saying it “sounds like a really old-style horror film”. He took legal action to have his name taken off promotional material – though because it wrongly credited him for the screenplay.

“I have had to have my lawyers call them, not because I particularly care, but it’s clearly wrong that it should be out on websites and in the trades and everything.”

The Scotsman (emphasis added)

If the odds were against a remake from the start, Cage has reportedly since claimed the film was intentionally played for laughs. This is surely misguided. For better or worse, the remake is recognisably a part of horror history. Sometimes, you just have to keep your appointment with the wicker man.

The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy

The Wicker Man (2006), directed by Neil LaBute

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Picture credit: Ahmed Fahmi, Callum Hilton (composite)