When I show The Wicker Man (1973) to a friend who may be interested in such a famous film, their response is usually mixed. I can’t get make much of defense, because the common complaints are pretty accurate. This is a very strange film, not like the strangeness of Blue Velvet or The Cell, but with a particular weirdness that puts it non-sequiturin a sub-genre by itself. Calling it dated is fair, but that’s more a result of the techniques used which were in a fashion at the time. Edits which are more psychedelic than cinematic, non sequitur intrusions of musical elements, and a treatment of sexuality which is erotic as much as it is repellent are all present. One part art film, one part exploitation, and one part infinite loop, The Wicker Man is an enigma. This is made even more perplexing because Robin Hardy clearly knows what he is doing as a filmmaker.
Hardy has made a follow-up to that cult classic though, and the more I read about The Wicker Tree, the more intrigued I became. At first blush I thought it was a cheap straight-to-video job trying to capitalize on The Wicker Man (2006) re-make. Then I discovered it was actually written and directed by Robin Hardy, so I almost watched it then, but something about the box art and lack of credible blurbs made me dismiss it again. Finally, I saw a decent trailer on the front of The Aggression Scale, read a good review of the cinematography, and decided I could do worse things with the 12-2am time slot of my life. You know, besides sleep.
The Wicker Tree is an adaptation of the Hardy novel Cowboys for Christ, which is in turn an adaptation of his earlier try at an unrealized sequel to The Wicker Man titled The Riding of the Laddie. As the book title suggests, the story begins with the doings of a strange cult; the cult being a group of born-again Christians who adopt cowboy imagery to promote their mission.
The bright and virginal star of this group is trashy pop-singer turned country gospel artist Beth Boothby (Britannai Nicol), who is engaged to the slightly dimmer and less committed Steve Thomson (Henry Garret). As it happens, this duo has been chosen by CfC to bring their gospel to exotic and godless Scotland.
Their arrival at Tressock, Scotland, is met more warmly than Sergeant Howie’s (Edward Woodward) investigation, but in some ways their evangelism is a more direct threat to the insular community at Tressock. The happy couple do not know it, but it is clear to everybody but them that they are intruding strangers and not guests to be welcomed, except to fulfill their ceremonial roles. The strength of their faith blinds them to growing threats around them, renders clues to their fate meaningless, and leads them right into the spot the cultists want them.
So, it’s not really a surprise what happens to the happy couple. Hardy calls this film a dark comedy, and the sheer obliviousness of Beth Boothby is a good source of chuckles when her blind parroting of religious cliché fails to get a laugh. Britannia creates Beth closer to a satirical character you might find on The Kids in the Hall than in Dominion. The two of them are such cartoons that it is hard to sympathize with them and actually feel any of the chills the original film invoked. Actually, it’s closer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show than you might expect.
That is the overall problem — the film’s many attempts at humor detract from what could have been an effective build of suspense. I suppose this is like an arty version of an unsuccessful Sam Raimi movie; the director is having so much fun goofing around that the thread of the whole picture is lost in gags. Likewise, the film loses the erotic edge that the raw depiction of pagan sex gave The Wicker Man. The unwed cowboy couple is less threatened by casual sex than the prudish police Sergeant. The Wicker Man had the advantage of arriving at the end of an age of sexual revolution, unfortunately, The Wicker Tree can only look back on that with a sense of nostalgia or mockery. In 2010, Hardy’s script finds nothing liberating about the worship of fertility gods, nor is there anything shocking.
Much like the first film, the missteps are something to wonder about. Robin Hardy has a keen sense of visuals and has crafted a bit of cinema that is worthy of much more than the finished film offers. Some of the cinematography by Jan Pester is inspired and creates a visual conjuring of the pagan spirit, the compositions are deliberate and the palette tightly controlled. For the most part, the editing by Sean Barton is invisible but effective. There are a few cuts which announce themselves, anachronisms from the style of the original film which are more jarring than effective.
What is clear from both of these movies is that Mr. Hardy has a eccentric sense of what a good soundtrack is, because if there is anything that the original could do without it is the overwrought and dated score of hippy-pop and soft orchestration and neo-folk. The folk music in The Wicker Tree feels more authentic, but the non-diegetic music draws me out of the story every time.
I had hoped that The Wicker Tree would be a forgotten gem, another cult film panned for the most part but something that I could enjoy with the pleasure of discovery. Sadly, it does not match the cult power of the original or the potential of a modern re-telling. There are many disappointing films out their in the fringe of filmmaking, but few of those offer the faintest glimmer of promise. Robin Hardy is a better filmmaker than this, and it is clear to me that he has a vision that should crystallize again.
There are a few moments that lead me to this conclusion. Near the end of the film, the cultists turn the missionary song about the blood of the lamb into their own hymn of sacrifice. This is the culmination of one of the better bits of subtext throughout both films. Christianity is an evolved, or mutated, pagan religion; the mass of it is a pastiche of older traditions adjusted to fit the monotheistic narrative.
Near the end of the second act, Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard) asks the cult leader Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) if he actually believes in the rituals they perpetuate as a matter of tradition. He flashes back to a conversation he had as a child (Ben Sullivan) with a man we should recognize as Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The child Lachlan learns the Tressock way is the way of nature; fate is immutable, cruel, and inevitable. The older Lachlan reveals that he believes religion serves a purpose, a much more cynical view of the old beliefs than the cult of Summerisle would express. His religion serves the immediate needs of Nuada, his nuclear power company, too. Yet, the expression on Lachlan’s face implies that what he is not saying is as much as what he is saying, and that Delia should not read only one meaning into his answer.
Robin Hardy has said in interviews that he has plans to make a third film, titled Wrath of the Gods, which will expand the story arc in an epic way. This is intriguing, and I can hope that it will fulfill the potential that the first two films approach with varying success. Given that The Wicker Tree took almost 10 years to realize, I am not sure this epic vision will ever come to be. I am also not sure many new viewers of The Wicker Tree will have the investment in the trilogy that the filmmaker sees. I don’t think he cares all that much, though, Robin Hardy has an idiosyncratic style and vision which obeys its own inscrutable rules and nothing else. Perhaps this brings him closer to the pagans which he depicts, as he too worships a force which he does not understand but desperately hopes to control.