Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The Wicker Man" -- two films, and my own screenwriting project


It’s useful to compare one of my own screenplay ideas with something comparable in “the literature.” So, I’ll introduce the two films “The Wicker Man.” The title refers to a wooden effigy used by northern European societies in ancient times for human sacrifice. Both films have a policeman or detective visiting a remote location to track down a missing girl, with a tragic conclusion for the man that is not hard to predict, spoiler or not.

The 1973 film was directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer, produced by British Lion and distributed in the US by National General and later Warner Brothers. It is now thought of as a classic “art” horror film.

In the British version, Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) goes to the remote Hebridean island if Summerisle after receiving a letter that a girl Rowan has vanished. The island is run by a Lord (Christopher Lee) and the people seem to form a pagan cult. He is tempted by a dancer at the inn, Willow (Britt Ekland) and led to ponder his “Christian” moral beliefs about marriage. Later he will learn that Rowan (Gerry Cowper) had set him up to lure him to the island to the final sacrifice. There is a pagan parade in masks (reminding one of the May Day Parade down Bloomington Ave. in Minneapolis every year), and Howie is trapped by the lord. In the final scene he is stripped and sacrificed. In this version Willow is the daughter of the landlord and Howie has a fiancée back in Britain.

The 2006 version is directed by Canadian Neil La Bute (of the good old DGC), and is filmed largely in British Columbia, with Summerisle off the Pacific coast. Nicholas Cage (whose company Saturn Films is one of the production companies for Warner Brothers) plays the policeman Edward Malus. It has a back story to set up the conflict, where Malus cannot save a girl from a car hit by a truck before it explodes, in a scene in spectacular interior areas of British Columbia. This time Willow (Kate Beahan) is his ex-fiancee, and Rowan is his daughter. He receives the letter from Willow about Rowan’s disappearance. The island will turn out to be a matriarchy run by the Sister (Ellen Burstyn) whose role is like that of a queen bee. The cult is organized like that of social insects, with the males like silent “second class citizens.” They are used for “breeding, you know.” The stories converge toward the end with a pagan parade, and Malus is trapped. This time, his legs are broken (like in “Misery”) and his head is stung by bees poured into a canister. The back story shows him allergic to bees, but the Sister gives him a shot to revive him so that he can experience the final wicker sacrifice. Curiously, the shirt is never removed.

The films have lots of little clues and subplots. The incidents in the older film tend to have specific religious or cultural meaning. In the second film, the writing is more formulaic, posing crises for Cage to get out of – except that we know he will go to his demise. Once again, Rowan has enticed him to his demised, and here she even lights the wicker fire. The theatrical release has an epilogue in which he is out looking for the next sacrifice.

This reminds me also of a gay short “Bugcrush”, directed by Carter Smith (Strand), in which a high school student lures an attractive but impressionable classmate to a remote location for an ambiguous ritual (perhaps some bizarre “rite of passage”) than may lead to his demise.

So, I have a feature script myself that has a story a bit like this. My working title for this sci-fi film is “Titanium” but I may change it. Here, the protagonist is an enthusiastic late twentyish white male technology reporter Justin, with a pregnant fiancée that he plans to marry. She disappears near a rural commune, and at the same time the media has reported UFO sightings. There is initial evidence that really suggests she could have been abducted. He wants his boss to let him go investigate, and quickly finds that the police suspect him of arranging it because he has another girl friend (and African American) who already has a child, to whom he has somewhat bonded.

But Justin still has another streak, a curiosity about rites of passage, a desire that is a homoerotic, something that he wants to experience. He has befriended an older man and freelance writer Bill (like me), and learns about a right wing cabal with an “academy” near the site. He starts to travel out to the area and meets several different characters and pieces together the evidence that indeed an alien contact will occur, and that it will have a radical effect on the way Americans live. An interesting piece of evidence comes from an idea in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” when he received a mysterious beta hi-fi tape, which had to be made back in the 1980s and which provides an important clue.

There is perhaps not the urgency that commercial film investors want. The police threat remains, but the evidence is ambiguous. He could endanger himself legally if he keeps investigating when the police are willing to bug off, and he is more interested in the “story” than in his fiancée. The “friends” he makes around the commune question his motives and character, and the evidence on the “lost” tape helps him connect the dots, with the new friends and his own character. But gradually he learns more about the initiation ceremony which the commune members will attend, when the secrets of the alien visits are revealed and when Doreen (and her baby) will appear.

So, he, along with his new companions, have to undergo a rite of passage, leading to the climax that will take the last twenty minutes of a 110 minute film. But this is not a “sacrifice”. There is no “wicker man” even if there is a pyre (involving lightning strikes and perhaps a brief “abduction” after all) of sorts. Instead, there is a transformation, affecting several characters. For Justin, however, the "initiation" (on what I call a "Night Hike") is a kind of hajj, a kind of rite of passage and guilty pleasure that he has always craved to experience just once, or maybe just once more -- after all, he already has more than one woman. What happens to the characters becomes the clue to what must happen to everyone else in the world. If this is a horror movie, it is more like a social or political allegory than horror for fun or even for irony.

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