Even before the cameras rolled, Neil LaBute saw trouble looming over his Hollywood "re-imagining" of the British cult classic The Wicker Man. The playwright and film-maker had already run into controversy with his adaptation of AS Byatt's Possession by Americanising the leading male character. Now he was risking the wrath of Wicker Man fans by replacing the Scottish pagan community led by Lord Summerisle (an imposing Christopher Lee), of director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer's film, with a matriarchal society off the coast of Maine.
"I learnt nothing from Possession," LaBute told me, "because I'm willing to be taken to task again." Asked why, he said it was because he "loved" The Wicker Man. "Yet, I never felt the execution was so great that it couldn't be touched. I thought, whether it's bested or not, it could be done again. It's been 30 years and I think I've got a legitimate idea about it. It's an island of women and Nicolas Cage; that sounds an evenly matched game to me."
Feted or hated, the remake - that's what it is - is unlikely to trouble the reputation of the 1973 original. "The increasing number of university courses devoted to cult film may also have boosted the film's cultural prestige," notes Dr Stephen Harper, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Portsmouth.
Eli Roth, whose recent gore-fest Hostel paid homage to The Wicker Man, says: "It's a brilliant film that was way ahead of its time. It explored the differences in religion from every angle - from sex to death, and, ultimately, to sacrificing yourself to your god."
That clash of beliefs could hardly be more relevant. However, it was in a spirit of fun that Hardy, a Christian, and Shaffer, a Jew, conceived their story. "Tony and I were great horror-film buffs," he recalls, "and used to see lots of the original Hammers. We wondered why it was that they always centred on pentacles, garlic, stakes in hearts and all those other things to do with black magic. We thought it would be fun to go back to the religion on which all this hokey witchcraft stuff was based - the old religion - and recreate a contemporary society that was pre-Christian."
Shaffer, who died in 2001, suggested they do something on the nature of sacrifice. "I don't think a serious film on the subject had been done before," he told me in 1996. "The subject opened the world of horror and terror, but also had an intellectual content that gave us a chance to do something quite thoughtful and provocative."
In the film, Sgt Howie, a bigoted but "honest Christian copper", played by Edward Woodward, arrives on Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. An audacious sleight of hand, typical of the writer of Sleuth and Frenzy, means that all is not as it seems. "He doesn't know it, but he is the sacrifice," Shaffer said. "The islanders waltz him, and us; everything they tell us is untrue."
Hardy spent six months poring over tomes such as The Golden Bough and a Victorian collection of traditional English songs. The latter, some rewritten by Shaffer's brother Peter, provided the basis for many of the songs that give The Wicker Man its texture. The songs fill in details about the islanders' beliefs and poeticise the conflict.
"Peter had a boyfriend, Paul Giovanni, who was a good musician," Shaffer said. "He said, 'Why don't you give Paul a crack at this?' I talked to Paul and I was impressed by his enthusiasm and knowledge. He took the challenge and rose to the occasion."
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When Hardy read the remake's script, he says, it cleaved closely to the original but had no obvious musical element. This vital ingredient appears to have been a problem. "Canal+ told me they had a very prestigious Italian composer who had done a lot of really important films," he reveals, "and then I was told they had fired him just a couple of weeks ago and decided to completely re-do the music. But if they were really going to try to capture the spirit of the original, I think they would have had some songs in it. And, as far as I can make out, they haven't."
However good or bad it turns out to be, LaBute's film will at least be released. The Hardy/Shaffer original had to fight to be seen after it was used, Hardy believes, as a pawn in a political battle over the running of British Lion. When the film was eventually released, it played second fiddle to Don't Look Now on a double bill. Not until Hardy took the film to America, and magazines such as Cinefantastique started taking note, did its cult status take root.
Shaffer told me he had written a sequel, which, incredibly, brought back Sgt Howie. "It's difficult to start with a hero who's been burnt to a crisp, of course," he laughed. "Regeneration could be involved, or maybe the cavalry really do arrive and he comes out badly burned. Now you have one vengeful copper, and the gloves are off between him and Summerisle. It's damn difficult to beat the climax of the first one, but I think we've done it."
Hardy has not read The Loathly Worm, as the script was apparently called, but he has heard that all the major characters return 30 years older. "I, personally, didn't like the idea of that," he says, "so I was never involved."
Hardy has now re-entered Wicker Man territory himself with a new novel, Cowboys for Christ, for which he's trying to raise film funds. A cracking read full of sex, suspense, black humour, and, of course, music, the book sticks with The Wicker Man formula by sending two young American evangelists, Beth and Steve, on a mission to Scotland to "save" the locals, only to find themselves being "waltzed", to borrow Shaffer's term, in an increasingly grim dance of death.
"I thought it would be interesting to do a film using a much more contemporary group of Christians, ones who frankly are in the news, our fundamentalist friends, and also to do a number, really, on American innocence," Hardy says. "To fit it into Wicker Man territory seemed a good way of doing that; confronting them with something that is completely strange, but which they don't realise is strange because everything outside the US is strange to them."
In the meantime, his Wicker Man looks set to cast a shadow over LaBute's release. On 3 September, it returns to the big screen at the Curzon in Soho before being re-released the following day as a three-disc DVD package. As Lord Summerisle might say: "Mr LaBute, the Wicker Man awaits."
Neil LaBute's 'The Wicker Man' opens on 1 September
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