In the pantheon of horror films, 1973’s “The Wicker Man” occupies a unique place. While well-reviewed at the time, it wasn’t a commercial success, perhaps because, despite the appearance of Hammer horror alum Christopher Lee, it was a much folksier, more naturalistic approach to horror. Years later, defunct genre publication Cinefantastique described the film as “the ‘Citizen Kane‘ of horror films,” and ever since the movie has reached the rarified air of being a horror film that even movie snobs take very seriously. (There was, of course, the ill-fated 2006 remake that replaced the original’s healthy suspicion of paganism with flat-out misogyny. Oh, and Nicolas Cage covered in bees.) So it makes a certain amount of sense why original writer/director Robin Hardy would return to “The Wicker Man” well with “The Wicker Tree,” even though it’s only tenuously connected to the original film, sharing more of a thematic link more than anything else, and none of the first film’s visual sophistication or uneasy sense of dread.
The set-up for “The Wicker Tree,” based on Hardy’s novel “Cowboys for Christ,” is intriguing enough, following a pair of born again Christian missionaries, Beth (Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), as they travel to Scotland to spread the word of God. In an interesting subplot that’s never really explored, Beth was once a Britney Spears-style pop tart, before finding her faith (the internal tug-of-war between her formerly sexual self and her current chasteness is barely touched upon). After being dazzled by Beth’s concert at a local church, the couple (who wear matching purity rings) are picked up by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonardas) to come preach in their small village community of Tressock.
Anyone with an even passing familiarity with the original “The Wicker Man” will know where this is going and, quite honestly, you’d think that Beth and Steve, no matter how Christian and trusting they are, might have started to get the heebie-jeebies as well, especially when the local villagers openly talk about their allegiance to the ancient goddess Sulis and their elaborate preparation for the pagan celebration of May Day. Somehow, no matter how good Beth’s gospel songs are, there’s no turning these heathens.
For a while, at least, “The Wicker Tree” manages to be quite fun and bouncy, as it hops from one absurd sub-plot to the next. None of these subplots, mind you, add up to anything besides contributing to the overall sensation of out-there weirdness, but they are fun nonetheless. There’s the subplot about how a local nuclear reactor (run, no less, by the community’s leader Sir Morrison) has led to all of the women being infertile, a situation the locals believe can be undone, of course, by crazy mystical hoo-ha. There’s the detective who is posing as a local police officer to gain information on the group (in a distant echo of the original ‘Wicker Man’ plot). And there’s Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), a free-spirited (i.e. frequently nude) member of the cult who tempts Steve and actually feels kind of guilty when things become all evil towards the end. Oh yeah and “The Wicker Tree” is pretty much a musical, full of both honky-tonk Christian ditties and more traditional chants from the cult (but, no, nothing tops “Willow’s Song” from the original and not just because this one doesn’t feature a very naked Britt Ekland).
The original “Wicker Man” has left a profound impact on British cinema, referenced everywhere from Edgar Wright‘s action movie send-up “Hot Fuzz” to next week’s brilliantly bizarre horror film “Kill List,” and yet “The Wicker Tree,” armed with the chief creative force from the first film, can’t evoke that original film in any real way. The basic story beats are similar but wonky and overtly familiar, and for some reason when the real horror starts (around the time Steve is designated to become the Laddie, a local tradition where the villagers chase a single chosen man), Hardy chooses to pull back. Instead of having the atrocity shoved in our face (as he should), he instead elliptically cuts around the event, in a way that is both unsatisfying for the audience and artistically unsound. There was no way that “The Wicker Tree” was going to live up to “The Wicker Man,” and while Hardy and various cast and crew members have said there is no connection, well, if there wasn’t an intended link it probably wouldn’t have such a similar title.
Part of the problem is the cast – Graham McTavish has none of the devilish charisma or otherworldly forcefulness of Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. (And, in truth, Lee was intended to play the Sir Morrison part before being sidelined by an injury and reduced to appearing in an odd flashback for no good reason). Sir Morrison’s speeches don’t come across as seductive; they’re just bad – flat and hammy at the same time. Nicol and Garrett, too, aren’t convincing enough as the Texas youngsters. The satire in “The Wicker Tree” is fairly broad but there’s no excuse for them to be quite so cartoonish or phony.
While “The Wicker Tree” is respectably strange (how many pagan horror musicals are out there right now?), it fails to capture the moody tension of the original, while offering nothing in the way of visual sophistication or stylization. (From a visual standpoint this thing doesn’t even deserve to be on British television, next to handsome productions like “Downton Abbey” or “Sherlock“). Hardy is clearly interested in the collision of celestial Christianity and earthy paganism, from both a dramatic and comedic standpoint, but in “The Wicker Tree” the satire is a bit too out-there and the horror not quite intense enough. “The Wicker Tree” almost skates by because it’s so fucking weird, but that only goes so far. In the end, it needed to be something more. Anything more, really. The “Citizen Kane” of horror film sequels, it’s not. But at least it’s free of Nicolas Cage and bees. [C-]