I would like to begin this Case File by admitting upfront that I am now officially cheating. When I began this project many, many years ago (I suspect it was some time back in the mid-70s) I vowed not to cover films that flopped critically and commercially but boasted significant cult followings. But now I'm writing about Wicker Man, a movie that's shaping up to be the Showgirls of this decade. I wouldn't be surprised if hardcore Wicker Maniacs are already purchasing elaborate bear suits just so they can attend midnight screenings where they pretend to beat up fellow devotees dressed as honey-loving little girls.
So why am I contradicting the holy living fuck out of myself and the stated parameters of this project? I guess because The Wicker Man was just too goddamned tempting to pass up. Besides, people have been asking me what I thought of The Wicker Man for months now so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and make it in the next My Year of Flops entry. And boy am I glad I did. You can officially count me among the film's growing cult.
Since rocketing to notoriety with the visceral one-two punch of In The Company Of Men and Your Friends And Neighbors Neil Labute has alternated between big studio projects no one cares about, like Possession and the god-awful Nurse Betty and theatre-based personal projects no one gives a mad ass fuck about, like The Shape Of Things. Labute is a notoriously divisive figure but my reaction to The Shape Of Things was an indifferent shrug.
On one level The Wicker Man is a big studio project but it also seems like one of Labute's most personal films: it's a paranoid misogynist's extended fever dream. Suggested alternate titles include Nicolas Cage On The Island of The Demonic Ultra-Bitches and Fear Of A Female Planet. The entire film feels like a nightmare I might have had after falling asleep during a particularly hardcore Women's Studies class in college. Yes, I came very close to majoring in Women's Studies. No, it did not help me get laid though it did help me appreciate The Wicker Man, as crazy as that might seem.
The first of Labute's many reverse master-strokes involves casting Nicolas Cage–a man who has devoured live cockroaches on camera and named one of his children Kal-El after Superman's real name–as the lone voice of reason and hard-nosed practicality in a world spinning madly out of control. Cage here plays a sane man in an insane world who devolves into uncontrolled hysteria as he struggles to comprehend the sinister ways of the fairer gender.
In one of his best/worst performances Cage plays an uptight cop who travels to a mysterious island to find the missing child of a past love. Cage is treated with disdain veering into contempt by pretty much all the locals, a matriarchal bunch that views Cage as little more than an apoplectic sentient penis. Once Cage arrives on the Island pretty much every line he utters is a variation on "What the fuck is going on here?". Wicker Man charts Cage's slow-burning rage as he gets angrier and angrier the more he's jerked around by the island's man-hating power-brokers.
(Spoilers Ahead) Clearly something wicked and Estrogen-fueled is happening on the island and Cage's escalating rage can be traced by the ever-increasing volume of his demands. After a certain point Cage begins screaming every line with hilarious urgency. When that doesn't suffice Cage starts punching and kicking random women in the face. Just when it seems Wicker Park has reached an untoppable apex of jaw-dropping ridiculousness Cage dons a bear suit and starts yelling things like "Killing me won't bring back your fucking honey!" It is at this point that Wicker Man becomes unbelievably, almost inconceivably awesome.
The film's misogyny is so over-the-top and hysterical that it almost comes full circle and becomes a bizarre burlesque of sexism. As an atmospheric thriller Wicker Man is an unabashed failure. Heck, it's more than that. It's a fucking fiasco due to its complete dearth of atmosphere or suspense. But as an insane black comedy it's a loopy delight, especially in its delirious third act. That's exactly how the film's cult has embraced it. These days Wicker Man belongs as much to the dude or dudette who posted the notorious "highlights from Wicker Man" reel on Youtube that jump-started the film's cult as it does to Labute or Cage, who also produced the film, God love his batshit-crazy soul.That's how cult movies work: ownership eventually reverts from the people who made the film to the people who've embraced it with the out-sized passion of a zealot.
Wicker Man is one of those giddy paradoxes that make movie-going so much fun. It's a great bad movie whose cult will only grow with time.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Secret Success