Monday, September 1, 2008

Wild in the Country

THE DARK (2005)

Explore undead children and menacing mutton in THE DARK.

JOHN Fawcett’s THE DARK - based very loosely on Simon Maginn's 1994 horror novel Sheepbuckles under the heavy influence of other bodies of film, especially the 1973 THE WICKER MAN and Nicolas Roeg's DON’T LOOK NOW. Cliff-jumping sheep point to a Jim Jonesesque cult on the Welsh coast, but far from being worried by these sheep, you’ll find yourself counting them during this often laughable film. It opens with Adèle (Maria Bello) and her daughter Sarah (Sophie Stuckey) visiting estranged husband James (a disinterested-looking Sean Bean). While out by the sea, Sarah vanishes and appears to drown; later, a young girl named Ebrill (Abigail Stone) - who apparently died over fifty years ago - suddenly materialises. Adèle starts investigating and her search leads to Annwn, a portal hidden under the sea.

In Welsh legend, Annwn ("afterlife") is said to be accessed by the living through a door located at the mouth of the Severn once a year. Inhabitants would welcome the living for feasting and celebration, upon the condition that they took nothing back with them to the human realm. Surviving from pre-Christian Celtic mythology, it's neither Heaven nor Hell in the Christian sense, as humans can enter spiritually or corporeally. Shot in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, the film looks stunning, yet only wakes from its slumber when Adèle crosses the watery threshold late on. On land, its haunted farmhouse and neighbouring abattoir settings are sadly unscary, and when things do turn grisly with harrowing flashbacks of child torture, it feels like the scenes are an intrusion from a different work altogether.

The unintentionally hilarious Hollywood remake of THE WICKER MAN - watch for Nicolas Cage in his bear suit.

When a major American studio release with two Oscar-winning stars opens without press previews, one assumes the distributor is trying to hide the film from critics. In the case of Neil LaBute's THE WICKER MAN - a pointless remake of the fabled cult curio - it's entirely possible that Warners wanted to conceal it from audiences as well. This reboot sees California motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) receiving a letter from his ex-fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan), begging him to find her missing daughter. Malus heads out to the island of Summersisle, where he discovers a matriarchal society of beekeepers.

Robin Hardy’s original THE WICKER MAN serves as a working definition of a cult film: initially overlooked and offloaded as a support feature (to DON’T LOOK NOW), the unclassifiable project now has a sizeable following; when viewed today, it suffers from a flower power feel and a slew of honey-dripping folk songs. By throwing Hardy's meditation on pagan faith and Christian sacrifice out of the window, screenwriter/director LaBute rips the heart out of the ethos, turning Summersisle into a bizarre community where men are "drones" and the women mead-quaffing harpies led by Lady Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn in a Mel Gibson mudpack). The script is riddled with jaw-dropping declarations ("killing me won’t bring back your fucking honey!") and the production wastes an array of strong actresses (Leelee Sobieski, Francis Conroy, Molly Parker et al). But what's most curious is it's utter sexlessness - the nude dancing and orgies that made a palatable case for earth worship over Christian repression in 1973 is replaced by Cage’s hangdog investigator barking at and punching women in the face.