Directed by Robin Hardy
Your response to The Wicker Tree is going to depend a lot on how you classify The Wicker Man. If you appreciate the earlier film as a classic example of the horror faced by modern man when confronted with the old ways and worshipers of the old ones (i.e., Lovecraftian), then you’re likely to be left very cold by Robin Hardy’s “spiritual successor”. However, if your attraction to The Wicker Man is borne of an appreciation for its unique fusion of humour, music and sexuality, and less so for its qualities as a straight horror film, then you’ll find The Wicker Tree to be a completely different film that is somehow imbued with many of the same qualities in a far more comedic package.
The Wicker Tree follows a similar structure to The Wicker Man in that contemporary, classically religious individuals are thrust into a Pagan world in a fictional Scotland and eventually led to a sacrificial demise, but the tone of the two films is incredibly different. Whereas in the original movie there was a constantly mounting sense of dread that culminates in one of the truly great horror film endings, The Wicker Tree starts off with a satirical, almost slapstick tone that never ends up feeling scary in the least. The plot centres around born again Christian and country singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her down-home cowboy beau Steve (Henry Garrett), who set off on an evangelical tour of heathen Scotland sporting chastity rings and a stack of hymn books. The premise of a couple of over-confident hicks heading to a civilized country to spread the word of God is pretty dang hysterical, and the genius casting and genuinely hokey performances by the two American leads contribute greatly to the guffawing.
Once in Scotland we’re introduced to Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), the menacing but also dryly hilarious son of the “Old Man” (who we know is really Lord Summerisle!), whose pagan motivations stem not in wanting to improve the harvest, but to rid his subjects of infertility caused by his nuclear power plant. Hardy insists there’s political commentary inherent in this, but mainly it just comes across as silly, especially when Lachlan intones that he’s like “The Simpsons”‘s Monty Burns. Something tells me they would never have gotten Christopher Lee to say that line. Speaking of the great man, he does make a brief flashback appearance in the film, but it mostly serves to remind the audience that even when Christopher Lee phones in his lines, he’s a helluva lot more menacing than pretty much anything else going on in The Wicker Tree.
Predictably Steve’s virginal status is immediately threatened by the local pagan sexpot Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), Beth volunteers herself as the May Day queen, and both go willingly like lambs to the slaughter. There are some attempts to ratchet up tension (near escapes, confessions of “it’s a trap”, etc.), but these again come across more slapstick than suspenseful. In the end it all turns out pretty much how you would have expected, minus the awful sense of helplessness and character revelation present in the original
The Wicker Man.
It’s well known that The Wicker Tree is based on Robin Hardy’s book Cowboys for Christ, and one can’t help but wonder if there were financial reasons for the seemingly unnecessary link to The Wicker Man. The two films share thematic and structural similarities, but it’s really only their titles and iconic wicker statue iconography that link them in any meaningful sense. Hardy would have us believe that he created a whole new genre with The Wicker Man and that his preoccupation with pagan religion, the odd musical number, and topless ladies is enough for him to recreate it. The Wicker Tree is a good comedy, but without its original title, and given the film’s menacing, evocative poster, most fans won’t be expecting it to be a humorous romp. Not every audience member is going to have the luxury of the director telling them before they watch that “it’s okay to laugh”, and those who come in expecting a film remotely resembling the FEEL of the The Wicker Man are going to be disappointed.
3 out of 5