Cult viewing

The Wicker Man is a cultural phenomenon, a film about a cult which became a cult. I’ve just watched Neil LaBute’s remake, which was widely slated as an exercise in predictable misogyny. I think it’s marginally better than the original: better acted, edited, directed, but then this isn’t saying much.

We don’t usually think of cults as good things: they are the branch of religious belief we associate with brainwashing, or adherence to particularly rather than generally dubious ideas. It’s always been a bracing shock to me, brought up in the mainstream of the Catholic faith, to find my old religion in France referred to as “le culte Catholique” (even in churches).

I’d like to think that this is a reflection of the clear-headedness of post-revolutionary France, but I suppose in reality it’s just that the word doesn’t carry the same baggage in French.

Still in English it’s fully loaded, which makes it all the stranger that when it comes to film or other creative efforts “cult” becomes a more or less positive thing, a thing for the cognoscenti. Cult films are mostly those that might have been under-appreciated in their time, but which have since gathered a select following of those who think they understand what was really going on.

I love horror films, even Hammer horror films, and I came to the original Wicker Man with happy expectations. It was already a cult at the time (I was still a boy when it was originally released), so by the time I got to the end, though suitably shocked by its twist, I was wondering if I’d missed the point. It felt I’d sat through something with all the ham-fisted amateurism of a Hammer horror, but with a torrid portentousness to evaporate the doomy innocence which makes those lurid films so delightful.

The original Wicker Man’s enthusiasts like to talk about the powerful counterbalancing of puritanical Christianity and a vibrant paganism. I think movies probably aren’t a very good medium for theological argument: what I saw was one set of bollocks up against another, and Edward Woodward’s hopeless Christianity at least had some pathos, which I rather doubt was the makers’ intention. I imagine they did want to evoke the way paganism might share the horrific ruthlessness of nature, but watching Christopher Lee and his acolytes skipping around murderously with flowers summoned only bathos.

I’d guess that Neil LaBute was alert to all this when he sat down to write his own screenplay for the remake. I’d guess his starting point was the depressing but frequent alignment of feminism with a dumb paganism, the dismal assertion of nurture as the guiding spirit of womanhood (a nurturing urge may or may not be a part of how any human beings feel about their lives, but it seems to me to have little useful to contribute to the righteous struggle for female equality in our patriarchal society). That’s a more promising premise for a remake: LaBute himself has shown that film can be pretty good at political misanthropy, but sadly his version never escapes the confines of the original plot. Instead we get some even sillier ideas about bees, queens and drones, and the trouble is that the silliness easily overwhelms any horror.

I’ve long had a soft spot for those stories or films where a young couple went into a community, felt threatened, and then found out the whole community were witches intent on their murder. I’ve long enjoyed the idea that an insanity might sit beneath the oppressive conformity of respectability. When we approve of creative cults we’re positioning ourselves against mainstream respectability, but as a teenager of the punk generation I have an equal problem with so-called counter cultures. I don’t understand why you’d want to oppose one pile of bullshit with another. Reality might be tough, but we owe it more than a retreat into myth, whether that myth is a fantasy of the Right or Left.

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