The Wicker Tree (2010,UK)
Director: Robin Hardy Starring: Graham McTavish, Brittania Nicol, Henry Garrett, Clive Russell, Honeysuckle Weeks
It’s always a dangerous game comparing your film to another for promotional purposes and in the case of this contemporary attempt at folk horror it proves to be extremely dangerous, even if the film in question is director Robin Hardy’s own 1973 masterpiece The Wicker Man and it clearly attempts to deal with the same themes of paganism and rural tradition versus modernity and of course Christianity. Neither a sequel or a remake/reboot but rather more of a companion piece of sorts, The Wicker Tree sets out with a millstone of comparison weighing heavily around its neck, a burden it never manages to shed. Please note the rest of this review will contain some pretty heavy spoilers.
When two young born again Christians from Texas, former pop star turned evangelist Beth Boothby (Nicol) and her abstaining, promise ring wearing boyfriend Steve (Garrett) set out for Scotland it’s not for a holiday, oh no, but instead they are on a mission to convert the heathen peoples of Scotland to Christianity. They find themselves in the fictional village of Tressock, in the Scottish borders, under the care of local laird Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish) where they naively believe the villagers are eager to hear them out on the subject of religious conversion when really their purpose is far more sinister.
The Wicker Man is one of my favourite films of all time. Its a complex piece with themes spanning religion, nature, social class and community, a great mystery story at its heart and fantastic performances from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. An atmospheric, creepy and somewhat chilling experience, it’s a film that has gone down in history for what at the time was a rather controversial approach and for it’s macabre ending. In short, it’s a work of genius. The prospect then of its director reprising some of the concepts he tackled forty years ago should be an appealing one. Shouldn’t it?
In the event nothing could be further from the truth. Alarm bells begin to ring from the off when we are introduced to Beth and Steve as part of the most stereotypical group of Texans I’ve seen in a long time. A bunch of people in what appears to be a village hall in the Scottish countryside are clearly identifiable as Texans because, yes, you guessed it, they are all wearing cowboy hats. All of them. Beth Boothby is established as a star by having irritating people ask her for her autograph whenever she arrives anywhere, this opening sequence being no different. And it’s during this scene that we learn the people of Scotland (what, all of them?) have lost their way, turned from the Lord (they don’t even believe in Angels!) and need saving by these two young missionaries. From this point on, it’s downhill all the way.
The characterisation of the Scots is no better, all weird comedy accents and innapropriate bawdiness only in this day and age, in the cold hard light of the twenty first century, it doesn’t really seem all that innapropriate any more. In 1973, when Sergeant Howie pitched up on Summer Isle, all Presbyterian propriety and officious, the heathen bawdiness of the islanders would have seemed shocking. Now the idea of being shocked by it is the thing that is more surprising, a fact that undermines all the tension Hardy tries to build over the course of the film.
Tonally, the film is a complete shambles, never really building to a suitable atmosphere. This is largely due to weird, misplaced attempts at black comedy that come over more like farce and negate any sense of horror that you get the impression should be arising. Take Sir Lachlan’s manservant Beame(Russell) for instance, a figure who would seem more at home in an episode of Still Game than in this film. It’s not Russell’s performance per se that is the problem, but just that in the context of what I think (it’s impossible to be a hundred percent certain) of what the film is attempting to achieve it is completely the wrong approach to the character. One shot sees Beame in silhouette through a frosted glass door, hypodermic raised aloft as he comes to drug young Beth in an image straight out of a Loony Tunes cartoon and that is hardly even remotely sinister.
This level of farcical execution is rife throughout the film. I actually started to think that it was intended as some kind of parody of The Wicker Man, perhaps a Meet The Spartans style lampoon of the folk horror genre in general and to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure that it wasn’t. I suspect that this is my brain’s way of trying to protect me from the memory of the experience. A huge chunk of responsibility has to lie with the writers. Risible dialogue, awful exposition, dismal characterisation and an idiotic plot combine to make for a dreadful story. One particular highlight is when Lachlan, faced with press scandal due to a problem with his Nuclear power plant (really) spends the car journey home explaining to his partner (who knows exactly what’s going on) why the press are stupid for not noticing the real issue before going on to explain it all to a man who already knows all of this information. Obviously it’s for the audience’s benefit but it is clumsy and illogical and every moment like this in the film does more and more damage to an already unstable framework.
Performance wise, it’s amateur night and the entire cast (with the exception of Russell who is pretty good but just seems to be acting in a different film to everyone else) are dismal, saddled with silly accents and stupid scenes. Gasp in horror at Beth Boothby’s seedy pop tart past coming back to haunt her (completely pointlessly) in turgid mock pop video form, laugh inappropriately at the supposed horror of the villagers ripping Steve apart and eating his still warm organs and look on bewildered at a ridiculous scene where Lachlan’s head groom Lolly (the ludicrously named Honeysuckle Weeks) hospitalises the local constable by having too much sex with him before he is sped off by an ambulance to the hospital. In what appears to be a segment of stock footage. They even find the time to fit in a respect crushing cameo from Christopher Lee who talks nonsense to a young Sir Lachlan in a flashback sequence for all of thirty seconds which is enough to get his name on the poster apparently.
Just what went through Hardy’s mind when he decided to have a bash at this is beyond me, but his attempts to recreate the things that made The Wicker Man so good (the Paganism, eroticism, mystery and sinister, creeping dread, not to mention the brilliant folk inspired soundtrack) have fallen flat on their collective faces, achieving none of those objectives and instead coming across like a horrendous self parody that has more in common with Bloodbath At The House Of Death than that 1973, genre defining classic. You have been warned.