Written and Directed by: Robin Hardy
Starring: Brittania Nicol, Henry Garrett and Graham McTavish
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Accept our sacrifice.
Robin Hardy’s follow-up to his British occult classic The Wicker Man has been long gestating, and the good news is that not even 2006’s ill-conceived bee-stung remake didn’t stop it from happening. The bad news is that maybe it should have, as this spiritual successor and loose sequel is somehow worse than a movie that featured Nic Cage punching people while wearing a bear suit. Even more disconcerting is that The Wicker Tree actually aims to be funny and wildly misses the mark, plus there’s very little disconnect between earnestness and execution that can even make it enjoyable in an unintentional sense. This is just a bad movie whose high, broad camp aspirations turn the original film inside out while re-treading its similar ground.
Once again, Christianity clashes with Scottish paganism when a couple of evangelical dolts (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) bring their chastity rings and Jesus’s gospel on a missionary trip. Upon arrival, they’re greeted by the emissaries of Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and the locals are preparing for their annual May Day celebrations. But since we’ve been here before, we know their fate--and indeed, the film itself treats it as such, as there’s no creeping terror or pot-boiler mentality. Instead, Hardy digs for the subtly campy undertones of the original and lavishes them into the forefront with an almost farcical display that attempts to shed light on dogmatism, just as he did nearly 40 years ago.
And this isn’t an inherently bad idea; in fact, it may be the film’s best joke because Hardy is constantly toying with expectations as he thoroughly flips the concept on his head. Instead of presenting a rigid, off-putting police detective like Edward Woodard to clash against some charming, stately locals, he presents two impossibly goody-two-shoes types that fall prey to a group of obviously sinister pagans. Since there’s no surprise to their goals, Hardy at least tries to shake up the formula to get there. The only problem is it just doesn’t work--the characters are just a little too wacky and one-dimensional, so much so that you can’t be quite sure if the performances that bring them to life are embarrassingly bad or intentionally bad. Nicol and Garrett’s exaggerated twang and cloying evangelism are too one-note, as if Hardy opted to take the easy way out by removing any sort of nuance. You grasp the dynamic between these two and the ensuing culture clash rather early on, as Hardy plays up their ignorance not only of their own fate, but of their own religion that they’re blindly spreading across the land.
Woodard’s Sergeant Howie in the original Wicker Man was certainly haughty and abrasive, but he was also grounded in such a way that it made that film’s exploration of the insidious nature of fanaticism resonant--there was a severe undercutting of his own blinding dogmatism, which ends up getting thrown back in his face by the end of the film. Here, though, these two are just easy marks who are too stupid to get it, and Hardy surrounds them with a similarly absurd tapestry of yokels--there’s the town’s ominous soothsayer (with talking raven in tow), and Honeysuckle Weeks slides into the Britt Ekland role of the town siren. When she’s not busy trying to seduce Garret’s character, she’s screwing her Italian detective boy toy who has been sent there to investigate a “strange cult” (that this guy never really has much bearing on the narrative seems to be Hardy thumbing our nose with how far removed this is from The Wicker Man). Other weirdos haphazardly careen in and out of the film, which is mostly composed of repetitive scenes that play up the leads’ ignorance of their own fate. They attempt to invoke Jesus and sing hymns before getting caught up in the May Day celebrations that appeal to their own egos (which is certainly not very Christ-like), and the send-up of American religious fervor is hammered into oblivion.
There are some deeper themes at work here that cut to the real heart and point of The Wicker Tree, as there’s a sense that both sides here are bullshit dilutions of the faiths they represent. Nicol’s character was formerly a pop-country singer tart who paraded around in skimpy clothing in a music video for her hit, “Trailer Trash Love.” That she’s essentially repackaged into tweedy-gospel star is funny; likewise, Sir Morrison--a man who is driven by a pagan faith that rests on a communion with nature--is also a land baron who owns a nuclear power plant. These sparse hints of subtly are frustrating indicators that Hardy really has a lot on his mind here--it’s just too bad that he opts for the easy way out by turning The Wicker Tree into a tedious and largely unfunny piss take. Whereas the original film aimed to show how cruel and dangerous fanaticism could be, this follow-up mostly intends to reveal how stupid they are, so Hardy made a stupid film to follow suit. What’s most disappointing is how he’s essentially playing with fire with this concept but ends up handling it with kid’s gloves--it’s one thing to insist that religion can be evil, but it’s perhaps ballsier to insist that its followers can be dumb.
The Wicker Tree is similarly unimpressive when it finally contorts into a horror film; honestly, you wouldn’t know it was one if you weren’t aware of the central concept, and the film trades in the original’s rural-goth enclave for modern normalcy. Save for a few ghastly images (including the titular wicker tree itself), Hardy rarely displays much visual imagination, and The Wicker Tree looks to be delivered from a guy who hasn’t stepped behind a camera in two decades, much less a digital one, so the film often looks flat and poorly lit like a mediocre TV movie. I’m not so sure I can consider this film a massive disappointment; after all, it’s taken a long time to find distribution, and that generally signals trouble, but this still has to be one of the most bizarre, cornball follow-ups to a legitimate classic. I’d say I’m glad Christopher Lee wasn’t around for this, but they’ve also managed to gratuitously wedge him here in exactly one scene to explicitly connect this to the original. Anchor Bay has finally brought it to DVD, where their package is good--the transfer is crisp and paired with a robust 5.1 surround track, with some deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and a trailer serving as extras. Make no mistake: I very much get what Hardy was going for here by twisting this concept into a satire--the only problem is that it’s not sharp or funny enough to sustain interest, and I only found myself laughing for the same unintentional reasons the Wicker Man remake made me laugh. The difference is that this doesn’t even have the courtesy to feature Nic Cage kicking Leelee Sobieski in the gut. Trash it!
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