Saturday, November 6, 2010


In the past month I've watched both the original Wicker Man and its remake. The remake is famously terrible (as you can tell just from watching the recut comedy trailer, which in some ways is more effective than the movie itself), but I'm not sure that it's more terrible than the first. Both films follow a cop as he traipses around an isolated island, searching for a missing girl and dodging the glances of the creepy residents, and both twist the end into (what is supposed to be, at least) a terrifying surprise.

The first film, made in 1973, doesn't give its horror away for a while; we open on a seaplane gliding as much on the bagpipe soundtrack as on the air currents. The protagonist goes to church, is called to the island, goes, is met by reticent and obviously guilty conspirators, etc., but while the shadows start falling over the plot the music grows more whimsical and folksy, so that if we were only listening to the soundtrack we might think the movie was about the joys of pastoral living, or of love found in rural communities. At times the music works to counter the horror of the story, but at other times it overwhelms it entirely.

And then too there's the religious tension. The narrative is concerned with the contrast between the island's paganism and the protagonist's Christianity, almost to the point of absurdity (it is difficult to believe, for example, that this 40-something police sergeant is a virgin and sleeps in his jammies and is thrown into a guilty sweat when the local vixen tries to seduce him).

The update wisely ditches the religious tension. The paganism is still there, but it's not played against anything; the contrast is just between strange and normal, and the protagonist doesn't have to be a prude, and can swear in entertaining ways ("You have my stay out of my fucking way!"). There's a gender element here too, a nightmare feminine dominance, in which the men are mute slaves and Cage's character is too dense to notice they've had their tongues removed. The movie might still survive all this, however, if it weren't for the campy acting, almost forced by the campy moments in the script. For example:

Well, for all that, I (alone, probably, in the world) still prefer the latter film; its story at least isn't weighted down with religious angst. It's a fairly pure example, in fact, of a subgenre I love, which I'm going to clunkily call explhorror: a subgenre which places its central characters within alien and self-contained and inescapable environments and forces them to explore, usually with ever more disconcerting surprises, in pursuit of survival. (Often, for whatever reason, these stories are not told so well.)

Here are some other stories I would shelve under this heading:

Resident Evil 4 (or, really, most of the Resident Evils)
The Terror
The Thing

This list could stretch on far down this page. These are all stories that I've enjoyed (if sometimes guiltily), and which leave me wanting more. I'm curious: do these kinds of stories exist in mainstream literature? Do full-length literary novels ever exist primarily to send their characters skittering desperately along, one step after the other, through the water-filled tunnels beneath churches and through mud-thick basements and into the cramped and gothic bedrooms of crumbling houses? I'm not even sure that they can, given the requisite attention given to mood, puzzles, desperation, and terror.

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