Been a while since I've done one of these ("Under the Hood" columns, not blog entries, although I am aware that I've inexcusably missed an entire entry this week. I'll try to make it up next week, I promise...) Basically, the idea is simple--take a movie that failed on the script level, look at the basic premise, and try to make it all work better. This week, let's look at 'The Wicker Man'.
Not the original with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, which was an excellent piece of dark and twisted cinema. (If a bit insensitive to sincere pagans--I don't think it meant to slight the pagan faith, but I know a few people who felt that it was clumsy enough to be insulting.) I mean the genuinely stunningly batshit insane remake with Nicholas Cage, which failed on every possible level. Why, and how can it be improved?
First, you need to understand that the reason the original made use of paganism as the religion of its villain. It wasn't because the screenwriter thought that pagans were evil, it was because paganism is inextricably intertwined with British farming culture, and the film was playing on that fear of being somewhere isolated, well away from "civilization" and its rules, and unable to get in touch with Authority (in whatever form.) Woodward's character isn't faced with creepy pagans, he's faced with people who still follow the Old Ways of the founders of their village the way they always have, and don't have any intention of changing things on behalf of some outsider...even if he does have a badge.
So if you're going to transplant this to America, keeping the pagan thing doesn't make sense. America doesn't have a strong rural pagan tradition. The further out into the country you go, the more Christian you get. So what you'd want is a community that's gone back to the Old Testament, where God demands sacrifice from His people to win His favors...only because these are people, and people can get a little crazy, they've perverted the Old Testament to claim that God wants human sacrifices even more than animal sacrifices. (Yes, this is obviously not supported by scripture. The craziness is not in the faith, it's in the people practicing it, just like the original.)
The community would be in the American Southwest, for two reasons. One, it fits in with the idea from the original that this is a community that lives in marginal farmland, and the "magical thinking" that leads them to sacrifice people to ensure good harvests comes from their inability to control said good harvests. Two, there's less cell phone coverage in the Southwest, and you're going to need that to explain why the cop doesn't just call for back-up.
From there, things unfold pretty straightforwardly. The cop drives out to the middle of nowhere to investigate a mysterious letter about a missing girl. His car runs out of gas, and he can't refill it--the townsfolk don't use modern conveniences like motor vehicles. His concerns go from the girl, to being stranded, to being trapped, to being the potential human sacrifice in a re-enactment of Abraham and Isaac. (Perhaps the girl never even existed in this version--the photograph of her is almost a mystic "artifact" to them, to be kept carefully preserved and used to bring the Lord's bounty to them once again in times of tribulation.) The ending, of course, doesn't go well for the officer.
Probably wouldn't be High Art, but then again, neither was the original. But it has the potential for an effective thriller that wouldn't become legendary for its sheer comical badness, and isn't that something?