The latest needless cover version of a 1970s fright film, "The Wicker Man" does no justice to its source, a 1973 cult hit distinguished by a darkly amusing screenplay from Anthony Shaffer ("Sleuth") and a madcap performance by Christopher Lee. The revival is misconceived, miscast and, where suspense is concerned, thinner than a Katie Couric publicity photo.
Nicolas Cage plays a California motorcycle cop haunted by an accident that killed a woman and her daughter despite his heroic efforts to save them. When he receives a letter from his former fiancée asking him to help find her missing little girl, he travels to her home, a remote Pacific Northwest island ruled by a cultlike matriarchy. The secretive sisterhood is studiously unhelpful, deflecting his questions with non-answers but piquing his suspicion with hints of sacred death rituals and fertility ceremonies. Eventually, he learns the perils of trifling with Mother Nature.
The film is refreshingly not-in-your-face, achieving most of its tension through slowly mounting unease rather than the raw gore favored by most of today's shockers. The men on the island are mute beasts of burden who know their place, the women mysterious sphinxes who know everything and reveal nothing. This muffled atmosphere of suppression is intriguing at first, but soon becomes tedious as we wait for the payoffs, scares that never come. Writer/director Neil LaBute dribbles skillfully but he can't put the ball through the hoop.
LaBute, best known for his mysogynistic, Mamet-inspired chamber dramas "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "In the Company of Men," layers on plenty of smart, arty touches. The island's trees become metaphorical prison bars, and images of pollination, reproduction and phallic symbolism are salted into dozens of scenes. But the film also features unnecessary dream sequences and shock cuts that feel as if they were added to placate focus groups demanding more excitement.
Like the increasingly wild-eyed Cage, the film veers into laughable last-reel silliness: I can't recall the last time I saw an Oscar winner scurry through the woods in a bear costume. This is the kind of miscalculation that only very talented and imaginative people can make.