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MOVIE REVIEW

Clever 'Wicker Man' remake is both creepy and comical

``The Wicker Man," Neil LaBute's bonkers remake of the 1973 horror flick, stars a lean, mean Nicolas Cage as Edward Malus , a California highway cop who gets a beseeching letter from an old flame. She wants him to come to the private enclave where she lives near Puget Sound -- it's called Summersisle -- and find her missing daughter. He goes, and discovers immediately that's he's wandered into a gynocentric nightmare. The Wicker Man is a great big tower where the women present sacrifices as part of a harvest ritual. And Malus thinks the missing girl could be this year's offering. Not exactly.

None of the island's male residents can speak; they just haul. And the women are either burly, surly matrons or younger, milkier maids. Both varieties look like they're waiting for Beowulf to return home. And most of them are named for plants, flowers, and sweet things: Dr. Moss (Frances Conroy), Sister Honey (Leelee Sobieski), Sister Rose, the schoolteacher, and her twin, Sister Thorn, both played insinuatingly by Molly Parker.

Officer Malus cuts through the medieval propriety and estrogen force fields with comic impudence: Where's the girl? No one seems to know, though everyone smirks. Even the pig tailed lasses in the schoolhouse Malus barges in on play dumb. To be fair, Sister Rose was in the middle of her lesson on signs. ``Will you tell us what man represents in his purest form," she asks the class. ``Phallic symbol! Phallic symbol!" the girls exclaim. Malus rolls his eyes.

Halfway through the film, Ellen Burstyn turns up as the hallowed Sister Summersisle, a sage of fierce Celtic stock and amazing hair and skin. (What's her secret?) ``I'm the spiritual heart of this colony," she intones, taking the movie's apiary images and metaphors to the hilt. ( Malus, naturally, is allergic to bees.)

The women are intimidating in this picture (as they are in any LaBute production), but as the punishing finale and amusing epilogue demonstrate, they're also flagrantly evil. It's hard not to laugh at LaBute's jokey misogyny, however. The film, almost a satire of movies that hate women, suggests Margaret Atwood's novel ``A Handmaid's Tale" reimagined as ``The Beguiled," that old Clint Eastwood vehicle.

As it is, LaBute has cleverly repurposed his creepy source material. This ``Wicker Man," which wasn't screened for critics, is a nutty atonement for the gender assaults of his filmmaking and playwriting past, including ``In the Company of Men," ``Your Friends & Neighbors," and ``The Shape of Things." Of course, he's saying sorry with two fingers crossed behind his back. And the deception is a guilty pleasure.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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