Robin Hardy’s ‘The Wicker Tree’ a spiritual companion piece to the director’s own occult horror ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973) has been severely maligned since its festivals debut last year. To be fair to Hardy I do not think he ever attempted to try to top his much-celebrated previous work as I think he knew he could never achieve such a feat especially after a stonking near forty years gap. It is a far less dark, edgy and gritty affair being an updated black comedy version of the themes presented in the original film that borders on parody wrapped up in a very similar narrative.
Young naïve born again Christians former pop star now gospel singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her cowboy fiancé Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett) are members of an evangelical group in Texas called “Cowboys for Christ” (the title of Hardy’s novel the movie is adapted from) that travel to the “heathen” parts of the world preaching Christianity to these non-believers. Beth and Steve are sent to Glasgow, Scotland on a soul saving mission to enlighten the residents there but are met with a negative reception. Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) the laird of a small village called Tressok in the lowlands of the country and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonardas) invite them to stay with them so that they can preach their message to the friendlier locals there. The Morrisons has other plans for the couple though to make them the centrepiece of their approaching May Day festival celebrations. Beth accepts the role of Queen of the May and Steve becomes the “Laddie” both oblivious to the fateful consequences that awaits them.
‘The Wicker Tree’ just amps up everything from its predecessor lacking any of its mysterious subtly making a joke out of all of the elements that made it harrowingly disturbing containing none of its power and suspense. An underlying humour was always present in the first film but here it is brought to the forefront. Instead of Edward Woodward’s uptight prude Sgt Howie forcing his Christian beliefs upon the people, we have a dim-witted young couple showing off their purity wearing matching rings to symbolize their chastity and a cartoonish antagonist in the form McTavish’s Sir Lachlan Morrison as opposed to the creepy yet charming Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. Lee actually makes an ill-advised cameo here as a mentor to Lachlan’s younger self in a forced and badly shot flashback who may or may not be Summerisle. According to the director, it is but Christopher Lee denies it. The rest of the pagan community is made up of much more exaggerated weirdo villager types with far more kooky characteristics. The acting overall is quite solid especially in the case of the always-good Graham McTavish who seems to relish his over the top villain role. The folk songs and the sex are here but it is all depicted in a much campier way and none of these scenes is as memorable as in the original.
It is no less forgiving in its portrayal of religions as powerful manipulative brainwashing taking a smart satirical stab at both Christianity and Paganism alike and this is where the movie works effectively in this respect offering an amusing watch as Robin Hardy makes us laugh at the expense of religious fanatics. An atheist myself, this is where the film really has charm for me. It is just that Hardy does not attempt to do anything new with the material rendering this just a comedic rehash and nothing more. There are no surprises, twists and turns as the story is just one big nodding reference to the ‘The Wicker Man’ with just some minor tweaks to the formula. The failure of the island of Summerisle’s harvest is replaced here with the village of Tressok’s infertility caused by Sir Lachlan Morrison’s nuclear power plant with Beth and Steve’s sacrifices being their saviours. This is not a spoiler as the majority of the running time is just one long build up to the inevitable.
The eye-catching locations are all beautifully filmed enriched with a colourful palate with some very nice shots sprinkled throughout (except of course the aforementioned flashback scene) and is further emphasis on my appraisal of the Red One camera. Going back to my review of the recent short House Call (2011): “If some of you are sceptical about the use of digital cameras rather than traditional celluloid, the Red One camera is a very high resolution and is unique in that it is 100% digital but yet it looks wholly just like film. It should not be confused with HD, as it is its own original technology.” Apparently, the director had trouble funding the production and what with Red One being cheaper to film on this may have swayed Robin Hardy’s decision to use it. It turns out to be one of the movie’s redeeming qualities.
‘The Wicker Tree’ is not quite the complete train wreck it has been made out to be but I could not call it good either as it is far too much of a mess for that albeit a watchable one. Hardy succeeded in making a satire on religion in the brave bold move of sending up his own much lauded seminal work but fails to dare to do anything innovatively new for this modern take on the subject matter. To go in for a first viewing you need to bear in mind what you are letting yourself in for considering the direction that has been taken and you just might appreciate it for what it is but still it is nothing memorable lacking the presence of the hauntingly twitchy atmosphere of the superior original.
One thing I can safely say for sure though is that it is leaps and bounds better that the utterly dreadful and un-intentionally hilarious Hollywood remake that starred Nicholas Cage in 2006: “OH, NO! NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH! OH, THEY'RE IN MY EYES! MY EYES! AAAAHHHHH! AAAAAGGHHH!”
** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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