Secrets of the Beehive

The Wicker Man. Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, and Kate Beahan star in a film written by Neil LaBute, based on the original screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, and directed by LaBute.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

photo_01_hires.jpgAdmirers of playwright-turned-film-director Neil LaBute may wonder what he was doing taking on what might appear to be a standard-fare horror/suspense number. At times, the film seems strangely labored and lame, like the work of a director out of his element. In these fallow moments, the viewer wonders, “Is the director sleeping or slumming on the job?” Alas, The Wicker Man is more than it appears, and the narrative twists, accelerated in a deliciously dizzying finale, rewarding the patient viewer.

Moreover, there are dramatic elements in this material, an adaptation of a 1973 British horror flick, which suggest classic traits from LaBute’s own material (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty). Included on the emotional menu are wildly ulterior motives, cruel intentions, and whiplash surprises.

In some ways, the story is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, involving isolationist social groups who create a parallel universe for themselves outside the realm of the age of McDonald’s and the Internet. In this case, the milieu is a severely matriarchal micro-society on an island off Puget Sound known as Summersisle. On this island, girls rule, to a frightening degree.

Minimalist acting school specialist Nicolas Cage, who still talks without moving his lips much, takes on yet another haunted cop/emergency worker role, in the shadow of World Trade Center and Bringing Out the Dead. Contacted by ex-fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan, perfect as a doe-eyed zombie) about her missing daughter, Cage is sucked into the island’s scenically beautiful yet potentially lethal netherworld. There, he encounters a world run by women and happily out-of-sync with modernity. The cool queen bee in charge — as bee culture plays a key role here — is Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn, the most awesome acting talent on the gig, who glows eerily onscreen).

Less interesting as a horror genre exercise than as a slow-burn creep-out, The Wicker Man sneaks up on the viewer willing to go the distance, in a trip also nicely lined by Angelo Badalamenti’s mock-stately musical score.

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