So Bad It's Good: Perspectives on 'The Wicker Man' (2006)
Our first online watchalong film series of 2021 will again focus on movies we love. Sadly, we are mostly alone in these feelings, as the films are more typically described as bombs, stinkers, career-enders, and flops. But here at MoPOP nerd headquarters, we embrace all types of fandom, even when the content we love is roundly criticized. So, join us for beloved (to someone!) classics likeCon Air(February 13), Anaconda(March 13), Battlefield Earth(April 10),Troll 2(May 8), andCatwoman(June 12) as part of our 2021 film series,So Bad It's Good.
But because we couldn’t fit all of the films that we alone love in our watchalong series (sorry Striptease, apologies Dirty Grandpa, much love Pluto Nash, nothing butrespect, Glitter), we’ve decided to post a series of blogs where one of our MoPOP film geeks writes lovingly about a film they think has been given short shrift (or no shrift at all!). And if you want to advocate for a film, let us know your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #MoviesAtMoPOP and prepare for the internet to pelt you with virtual garbage or, as Edward says to Bella in Twilight, “you’d better hold on, spider monkey.”
So Bad It’s Good Title: The Wicker Man (2006)
So Bad It's Good Advocate:Misha Laurence, MoPOP Volunteer
Though most of their viewers may not believe in magic, the spell that occult films cast on their audiences is very effective and real. Unfortunately for the 2006 version of The Wicker Man starring Nicolas Cage (as Officer Edward Malus), that spell is mostly hocus-pocus. As I started the film, I expected an overall mediocre performance, the now-familiar story of a guileless police officer being drawn into an arcane conspiracy. What I did not expect was to find myself scouring my library, cracking open my old anthropology textbooks, and frantically skimming for scholarly references for some of the religious motifs of the film. One tiny scene of an islander’s “book of ancient rituals” sent me on my own detective mission, into the thickets of early anthropology, folklore, and modern spirituality.
The centrality of anthropology to The Wicker Man cannot be understated. The campiness of the 2006 film obscures the seriousness of the research behind its acclaimed 1973 predecessor. Robin Hardy, director of the earlier film, credited Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough for the film’s mysterious charm. This multi-volume work, first published in 1890, details Frazer’s vision for the underlying mythology of all world religions: a solar god-king, partnered with an earth goddess, is ritually sacrificed in a fertility ritual at harvest, and resurrected in a similar ritual in the spring. Controversially, he also asserted that Christianity followed the same pattern as the more “primitive” religions he cites. Like other Victorian-style rationalists, Frazer also believed that human cultures progressed in stages, from magic to religion to science. Though Frazer’s “armchair anthropology” is not taken seriously today, it has held significant sway over not just subsequent scholarship but also emergent neopagan religions, which planted their own roots in the mythologies meticulously “unearthed” in The Golden Bough.
But the 2006 version of The Wicker Man is not simply a sunny rehash of the same material. Though both the 2006 film and the 1973 film are based on the same story, the more recent film’s spiritual outlook has been completely renovated. In the 1973 film, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (like his counterpart in the source novel Ritual), is a devout Christian, who reacts with visceral disgust at the idolatry and immorality of the pagan villagers. Officer Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage), on the other hand, is a secular blank slate for the audience to project their own spiritual inclinations. His approach to the islanders’ superstition is crudely skeptical. And though Malus spends the first part of the film strutting around Summersisle with the cultural tact of an actual Victorian, a palpable shift in tone and perspective has taken place.
The 2006 film essentially reflects modern, progressive, secular American values — as well as anxieties about threats to those values, whether from external sources (an isolated community) or internal ones (i.e., the main character’s own allies). The 1973 British confrontation between the Christian and the pagan has been succeeded by a battle of wills between the irrational and the skeptical, the cultist and the scientist. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that even Malus himself — and even, at times, the viewer — cannot always tell apart reality from his traumatic flashbacks and hallucinations. Malus enters Summersisle as a clueless but critical investigator, only to have his aggressive accusations (or perhaps projections) of irrationality reflected back to him.
Many other events since 1973 spurred the cultural update in the remake as well, namely a shift in American perspectives on witchcraft and Satanism. Although a “satanic panic” gripped many American audiences throughout the 1980s and 1990s, by 2006 those fears had been increasingly discredited. Furthermore, those anthropologically inspired pagan religions like Wicca (which, to be clear, does not practice human sacrifice) had become far more mainstream since 1973. To many viewers — or at least this critical one — there is very little that is “real” about the dread of an actually existing, actually supernatural, hidden cult. The horror of the 2006 version of The Wicker Man does not come from a civilized Christian locked in religious conflict with hopelessly “primitive” pagans, but from an exceedingly rational man grappling with the seemingly nonsensical and alien ways of a people who cannot be comprehended and thus not dissuaded from their violence.
The film’s various shortcomings make these themes difficult to appreciate for viewers with exacting standards. If you approach this film hoping to feel deeply frightened, you will likely walk away deeply disappointed instead. But for audiences who can bear to take off their critical lenses for a while, The Wicker Man (2006) can be enjoyed for what it truly is. The Wicker Man (2006) may fail at horror, but its attempt at ethnography says just as much about the horrors haunting the culture of Summersisle as those underground specters haunting our own.
Interested in a bit of further reading? We've got you covered:
Wright, Stuart A. “Satanic Cults, Ritual Abuse, and Moral Panic: Deconstructing a Modern Witch-Hunt.” In Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America, edited by Helen A. Berger, 120-136. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
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