When a major studio release with two Oscar-winning stars opens without press previews, one assumes the distrib is trying to hide the pic from critics. In the case of Neil LaBute's remake of "The Wicker Man," however, it's entirely possible that Warners indeed wanted to conceal a ludicrous misfire from auds as well.

When a major studio release with two Oscar-winning stars opens without press previews, one assumes the distrib is trying to hide the pic from critics. In the case of Neil LaBute’s remake of “The Wicker Man,” however, it’s entirely possible that Warners indeed wanted to conceal a ludicrous misfire from auds as well. Once derisive word of mouth starts to spread, only connoisseurs of high camp and curious devotees of disasters will be queuing up at the box office.

Yet another needless “re-imagining” of a ’70s cult fave that, truth to tell, is better remembered than actually viewed, LaBute’s folly follows the basic plot outline of the 1974 Brit horror opus of the same title.

Original pic, directed by Robin Hardy from a script by Anthony Shaffer, featured Edward Woodward as a forthright but uptight cop who investigates the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island community where pagan rituals are a way of life.

The cop finds himself repeatedly unsettled by the ubiquitous celebrations of sensuality encouraged by Lord Summerisle (an authoritatively flamboyant Christopher Lee), the community’s despotic leader. One celebration requires the ritual sacrifice of an innocent.In the Americanized remake, the island community lies somewhere off the coast of Washington state. Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), the serenely self-assured local leader, is a high-priestess type who runs the place as matriarchal fiefdom with an absolute minimum of 21st century technology.

Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage), a California motorcycle cop, journeys to the island after receiving a plaintive letter from one of its residents: Sister Willow (Kate Beahan), a skittish, sad-eyed beauty who just happens to be Edward’s former fiancee. Willow claims her daughter has mysteriously disappeared.

But just about everyone else in the community — including a doctor (Frances Conroy), a hotel maid (Leelee Sobieski), and a teacher (Molly Parker) — insist the girl never existed. And if she did, she’s dead.

At first, it’s modestly amusing to see how LaBute — the writer-director of such notoriously nasty battles of the sexes as “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “In the Company of Men” — develops the concept of a normally competent, doggedly rational man (a cop, no less), who is repeatedly frustrated and humiliated in a matriarchal society based on ancient religious rituals. But the novelty of this role reversal — “In the Company of Wiccans,” anyone? — wears thin long before the pic plods to its predictable conclusion.

And any provocative questions LaBute might have wanted to raise are totally obscured as the rising tide of absurdity gradually overwhelms the entire enterprise.

After the jarring events of the opening scene — Edward frantically tries, and tragically fails, to save a mother and daughter from a fiery auto mishap — aud may be inclined at first to interpret the cop’s manic behavior as the result of post-traumatic stress. As “Wicker Man” unwinds, however, and Edward’s vertiginous mood swings vacillate ever more wildly, it becomes increasingly clear that Cage — who is one of the pic’s producers — is working in his OTT mode.

There are times, of course, when that spectacle can be amusing. (Witness “Vampire’s Kiss,” for example.) In this context, however, Cage’s over-emoting only makes a silly scenario seem more ridiculous.

For the most part, the supporting perfs are unremarkable. (A glaring exception: Beahan’s fidgety turn as the weeping Willow is remarkable for all the wrong reasons.) Paul Sarossy’s lensing and Angelo Badalamenti’s music suggest at least a half-hearted attempt at recapturing look and feel of ’70s genre pics.

The Wicker Man

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment and Millennium Films presentation of a Saturn Film and Emmett/Furla Films production for Equity Pictures Medienfonds, KGIII and Nu Image Entertainment. Produced by Nicolas Cage, Norm Golightly, Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson. Executive producers, George Furla, Joanne Sellar, Trevor Short, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager, Danny Dimbort, Elisa Salinas. Co-producers, Zygi Kamasa, Simon Franks, Shawn Williamson, Gerd Koechlin, Manfred Heid. Co-executive producer, Jochen Kamlah. Directed, written by Neil LaBute, based on a screenplay by Anthony Schaffer.

Crew

Camera (color), Paul Sarossy; editor, Joel Plotch; music, Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Phillip Barker; costume designer, Lynette Meyer; sound (Dolby), Daren Brisker; assistant director, John McKeown; casting, Heidi Levitt. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Aug. 31, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Edward Malus - Nicolas Cage Sister Summersisle - Ellen Burstyn Sister Willow - Kate Beahan Dr. Moss - Frances Conroy Sister Rose/Sister Thorn - Molly Parker Sister Honey - Leelee Sobieski Sister Beech - Diane Delano

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