FILM REVIEW: The Wicker Tree

Six years ago Robin Hardy, director of the original Wicker Man film, came to Aberystwyth to do a signing at the Arts Centre for his follow up book ‘Cowboys For Christ‘.  The prospect of this sparked such excitement that the Abertoir Horror Festival was created to coincide with the event and Robin became their first guest of honour.

Last year he returned to the festival with preview footage from The Wicker Tree, a filmed adaptation of Cowboys For Christ, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.  It was funny, sexy, creepy and featured a cast of characters as unique, quirky and British as the beloved original.

After the disastrous Nic Cage Wicker Man remake it seemed like we were finally going to get the follow up we longed for.  This year the film was shown in full at Abertoir and I found it to both exceed and disappoint in equal measure.

The story follows singer Beth and her cowboy boyfriend Steve, a pair of borna-again American Christians who sacrifice three years on a journey to Scotland to convert the ‘heathens’ (some of whom – get this – some of whom don’t even believe in Angels.  I know!)  Finding their door-to-door routine an abject failure they accept an offer from Laird Lachlan Morrison to come to the village of Tressock for the May Day celebrations.  The warm welcome they receive masks dark intentions however, and their earnest sacrifice may just become a brutal and bloody reality.

The film is gorgeously shot, making the most of the beautiful countryside locations.  Of particular delight is ‘the Laddie’s castle’ and the wicker sculptures dancing on the top of a hillside.  As with the original, music forms an essential part of the fabric of this film and we are treated to some great tunes here, epitomising the simplicity, catchiness and power of the folk tradition.  ‘Go Laddie, Go’ is particularly strong and I find the refrain still popping into my head days later.

Beth and Steve are attractive people but their characters are so naive it is hard to engage with them.  Emminently more watchable are the collection of barmy cultists, with particular credit going to Graham McTavish as Laird Lachlan, Clive Russell as his manservant Beame and Honeysuckle Weeks as the luscious Lolly.  It’s nice to see a cameo from Christopher Lee but a little disappointing that more wasn’t made of him regarding his role in the first film.

It should be noted here that at the preview last year, Robin Hardy was at pains to state that this is not a direct sequel, rather a spiritual sequel, taking up many of the themes and the tone of The Wicker Man whilst doing it’s own thing.  I’m pretty sure every viewer was contructing in their heads a way in which the ‘old man’ here was definitely Lord Summerisle and how his teachings and influence may have come to Tressock.

The film has a twinkle in it’s eye as it tweaks the nose of Christianity.  It is a hymn to life and lust, breaking taboo with mischievous glee at every turn.  The gags come thick and fast and, whilst not an outright comedy, you will find yourself grinning an awful lot (especially when you see the ambulance drive past.)

There are some problems with the film, to my mind.  The power station guards weilding guns stands out as a cultural booper (though thankfully only on screen for a couple of seconds).  The pacing seems off-kilter with several scenes feeling stilted and awkward.  Preaching from the missionaries feels over-egged and is excruciating at times, though whether this is intentional or not is hard to say.  It is possible Hardy was giving the characters rope enough to hang themselves.  We do find out a little bit about why the cult has arisen, what they hope to gain from it and what it’s leaders personal motives are.  It’s a two edged sword though.  On the one hand the insights are fascinating and flesh out the context of the role religions play (old and new) in society.  On the other hand by showing more of the monster, metaphorically, it reduces its power to scare.

In The Wicker Man we were innocent, as was Sergeant Howie, the policeman investigating the cult.  We knew nothing of their beliefs or why they practiced them.  Here we find ourselves complicit, eager to see what is going to happen to our sacrificial lambs.  (Just to let you know, it isn’t a straight re-tread.)  It is a disturbing realisation, but undeniably true.  Central to this is the Otherness of Beth and Steve.  They are outsiders, easily ridiculed through the extremity of their beliefs and their obvious naivety.  When they drive into tressock then, it is as much us peeking out at them with anticipation as the frankly bonkers villagers who like to sing lovely little songs whilst killing people.  A neat trick on the film-makers part.

Does it match up to The Wicker Man?  It makes a good stab at it, but ultimately I think not.  We can still appreciate the blend of tones and have fun with it, but the surprise factor is gone.  Comparitively I found the humour is a little too broad, the horror too understated and the protagonists too bland.  Taken wholly on its own merits however The Wicker Tree is an enjoyable romp with a deliciously dark edge to it.

3.5/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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