Aug. 30, 2006 — -- Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alyssa Milano, Elizabeth Montgomery and Cher long ago shattered the Hollywood image of witches as cackling old crones. As the years go by, witches seem to get increasingly hot.
But just when it seemed that Hollywood witches had become a celebrity hot-list of modern day beauties, Nicolas Cage comes out with a remake of "Wicker Man" -- one of the most chilling films to draw on the European pre-Christian religious traditions from which modern witches trace their spiritual roots -- this Friday.
In the 1973 original -- a classic that influenced "The Exorcist," "The Omen" and other horror films of that era -- Edward Woodward is a Scottish police officer who comes to a strange island to investigate a little girl's disappearance. He begins to think the inhabitants might be planning to sacrifice the child as part of their religious practices, only to find that that very fate awaits him.
One might think modern day witches, who've revived ancient traditions in the Wicca faith, would be outraged by the film, as they were with "The Blair Witch Project," and other negative depictions.
Instead, many witches like the original "Wicker Man," and are eager to see what new twists Cage and director Neil LaBute have brought to the remake.
"The original plays on Christian fears of the old traditions, and if you take it literally, it's a horror story," says Phyllis Curott, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, author and priestess of the Temple of Ara.
"But if you take a literary perspective on 'Wicker Man,' it's really a story of repression versus sexual liberation and eroticism," Curott says. "You see the charming children dancing around the maypole and other old traditions that sustained societies and were lost."
Woodward's character is indeed devotedly Catholic, decidedly uptight and shocked to find the islanders so comfortable in their nudity and so reverent of sexuality.
It's significant that the film hit theaters in the early '70s, when the free-love hippy culture was still going strong. It was also about that time that the Wiccan faith was starting to take root.
To be sure, human and animal sacrifice -- a practice in many ancient religions -- has no place in contemporary Wicca. But if you look beyond that, many witches say that "Wicker Man" was one of the first popular films of its time to consider some of the aspects of the ancient traditions that make them relevant today.
"You clearly have to take the film as a product of its time, and as a piece of art and fiction, not documentary," says 40-year-old Australian-born witch, rock star and TV and radio personality Fiona Horne, who spoke at Harvard University earlier this year at a conference called " Witchcraft and Paganism in Contemporary Media."
"The conflict within the 'Wicker Man' character reflects on the conflict between Christians and pagans, especially when it comes to attitudes about women and sexual freedom," she says.
Horne says she met with director LeBute and had dinner with Cage three years ago, when they were first making plans for the movie, to share her views on the film and how it should be updated but had no formal role as a consultant.
"I really respect the work of both those guys," Horne says. "So it should be interesting to note what they will produce."
LeBute -- best known for "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "The Shape of Things" -- is famous for examining the power struggle between men and women in sexual relationships.
In the new film, which has not been screened for critics, the island where Cage looks for a missing child has a female leader -- played by Ellen Burstyn -- and they live in a society that's been isolated from the contemporary world, without cars, TVs or any modern means of communication.
While "Wicker Man" has not been screened for critics, in promotional material for the film, the islanders are said to have a "strange, vaguely pagan belief system."
What attracts many people to Wicca is its belief in a god and goddess, and its celebration of nature and, especially, fertility. By some estimates, there are more than 200,000 practicing this faith in the United States, and perhaps as many as 1 million, with proponents claiming that it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.
But Wicca remains a controversial subject. Even the "Harry Potter" book and film series have come under attack from some religious groups for its depiction of witchcraft. Curott says that some publishers have been pressured not to stock her latest book, "The Love Spell"
"You don't see book burnings today," Curott says. "But things are going on that are, in effect, the same thing."