While a religious cult plays a major role in Robin Hardy's film "The Wicker Man," the cult that's built up around the trippy and creepy 1973 drama is nearly as fervent.
Facing that kind of devotion, Neil LaBute acknowledges he's taking a creative risk in remaking and updating "The Wicker Man."
"I think, coming from theatre, I'm very used to interpretations of a play that I have written or trying to interpret somebody else's play," LaBute points out. "I almost directed 'Hamlet' recently, and so many people have taken that on that, why do it again? Well, why not? It's material that you like and you have some take on it."
LaBute, best known for the barbed social commentary of "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty," is still aware that just as every interpretation of "Hamlet" isn't necessarily greeted with enthusiasm, some genre fans are already sharpening their claws for what might as well be called "In the Company of Wicker Men."
"People just generally in life like to compare and contrast: is this better or worse, or what's different? I think there's no reason you can't like both of them," he insists. "You can say, 'I like what the original had and I like the direction of this one, too.' Inevitably people will look at it and say 'I like this or don't' and some people, sort of because it's a kind of cult film, the more rabid fans may not even give it that time of day. They may say, 'I don't care if it's good. I don't want you to touch it.' So that's a hard nut to crack.
In LaBute's take, Nicolas Cage plays a police officer who travels to a remote island in search of a missing girl. There, he discovers a spooky cabal of women, led by Ellen Burstyn's Sister Summersisle, a change of pace from the original, in which Christopher Lee played the local elder.
"They are still pagan and you see that he's Christian, but it's just not hammered home in the same way as the original," LaBute explains. "It still becomes more entangled in this kind of figure who has all the trappings of this White American male authority figure: a policeman, carries a gun around, and he has this kind of unspoken sense of entitlement."
Transforming the pagan community from a patriarchy into a matriarchy inevitably opens LaBute up to the charges of misogyny that he's deflected since his first film.
"I have been probably interested less in misogyny than I have been in power," he says. "From something like 'Lysistrata' on up, you hear the idea thrown around of, 'Well, if women were in power, this is how things would be different.' And the movie, if anything, probably looks at the idea that there would be the same kind of danger in place anytime a like-minded group gets together and has no obstruction. Power can become corrupt and it really just looks at that I think more than it does at 'women are bad.'"
In addition to changing the power structure from the original, LaBute has removed the folksy songs that turned Hardy's film into a near musical. Few fans will miss those numbers. Many, however, will wonder what happened to the legendary nude scene featuring Britt Ekland and her body double, a racy digression that has no place in LaBute's PG-13 interpretation. One thing that remains untouched, LaBute swears, is the dark ending of the first film.
"I loved the ending," LaBute says. "A lot of people when they say, 'I love 'The Wicker Man,' they're talking about that kind of amazingly horrific ending. That's, I guess, really the thing that allows that movie to get plunked down in the horror genre as often it does, because it's sort of an anti-horror movie in many ways."
Viewers can decide for themselves when "The Wicker Man" opens everywhere on Friday, Sept. 1.