Horror History

Daily Horror History, August 7th: Alexandre Aja’s Birthday; ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973) Comes to the U.S.

A couple of days ago, we saw the anniversary of 1988’s The Blob, (which is the subject of a fine write-up over at BMD), a genuinely good and justifiable remake if there ever was one. On the other end of the remake scale is, of course, the disaster that is the 2006 version of The Wicker ManFortunately, today is the anniversary of the outstanding original from 1973.

If any film can make a case for being spoiler-proof, it’s The Wicker Man. The title and virtually all of the associated cover / poster art gives away a pretty major, shocking moment that occurs late in the film. But The Wicker Man is as much about the journey as it is the climax, and having a sense of where things are headed, in this case, just adds to the dread. It being a horror story, you already enter the film aware of the 50/50 chance that we’ll arrive at a conclusion so dire and certain it seems predestined. Horror is soaked, perhaps to its detriment, with stories where the ostensible right and sensible thing to do turns out to be a fatal mistake, or a useless act in a situation that was hopeless to begin with. Earning such a conclusion, as opposed to just arriving at one, makes a significant difference, and The Wicker Man ’73 more than earns its ending.

While we’re on the subject of endings and remakes, The Wicker Man gives me a chance to examine (or harp on) what actually constitutes a “remake.” Here’s the thing, when a movie is based on source material, such as a novel or short story, can a newer adaptation really be said to be a remake? In the BMD article linked above, The Blob is ranked alongside The Thing and The Fly as yet another example of a great horror remake, yet both of the other movies are newer adaptations of literary works. Even if they have references / homages to the earlier film adaptations, does that make either of them a remake, particularly when The Thing sets out to hew closer to the source material than does the original adaptation, while The Fly deliberately goes in the opposite direction, being far less faithful than its 1958 predecessor? Or, for a different example, is the Hammer Horror Dracula thought of as a remake of Universal’s Dracula? Is the Coppala film considered a remake of either? Nah, right? And yet…

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is explicitly and deliberately a remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, as opposed to an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s original novel. It tries its best to duplicate virtually every shot of the earlier film, copies the set and even costume design. The fact that it’s based on a novel is incidental. Van Sant was experimenting (pointlessly, in my opinion) with replication. It’s as about as literal as a film remake can possibly be.

Both versions of The Wicker Man are based on a lesser-known novel titled Ritual, written by David Pinner. So is Neil LaBute’s terrible-by-any-measure version of the film more remake than adaptation? We need look no further than the aforementioned title and ending; Ritual does not wrap up with the story’s “hero” facing a giant burning sacrificial effigy / vessel. Indeed, it has a very different fate for its lead detective, separating it from either film. So while Pinner’ goes uncredited in Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, but gets an acknowledgement in the 2006 film, the proof is in the print regarding the latter film’s remake status. It leans harder on the onscreen adaptation than the literary inspiration. It is a remake, and possibly the worst of all time. Yes, including ’98’s Psycho.

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man jumped the Atlantic to come to U.S. theaters on August 7th, 1974.

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Today is also the birthday of director Alexandre Aja. Speaking of remakes, he has two under his belt: Piranha 3D and The Hills Have Eyes. Maybe two-and-a-half considering Mirrors started as remake of the Korean horror film Into the Mirror, but Aja took the general concept in a different direction, enough so that they are effectively two very distinct creations. The Departed to Infernal Affairs it is not.

Aja’s most notable and argued work, probably, is still his directorial horror debut Haute Tension aka High Tension. One of the films that stuck out during the “New French Extreme” movement that saw violence and sex and other subjects taken to, well, extremes, the film is remembered for its over-the-top slasher violence, and also its twist ending, which is either considered clever, absurd, forgivable, ruinous, irrelevant, or some other thing that I’m forgetting. Put me in the “absurd-but-near-irrelevant” camp: it’s not smart and makes no sense, and partially invalidates a lot of what we’ve seen as it can’t be reconciled with most of what preceded it. But given the suspense and tension built up by the film through its first two acts (which, to be sure, is conspicuously similar to Dean Koontz’s Intensity) it’s almost irrelevant, nonetheless. I say almost because, as is often the case with twist endings, the movie seems to think it has outsmarted us and momentarily revels in what it believes to be a moment of brilliance, when all it’s done is pull out the latest version of a now-trite twist.