Film Review: The Wicker Tree
The Wicker Tree is an adaptation of the 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, a spiritual successor/companion piece/re-imagining of the iconic 1973 British thriller The Wicker Man. This film has everything going for it: the original director of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy, not only wrote Cowboys for Christ but also came back to write and direct The Wicker Tree. The Wicker Man is my favourite British film, and as a neopagan myself it remains very dear to me. With The Wicker Tree finally making its public release via DVD right on time for Beltane (the Celtic fertility festival in which the original film was set, also known as May Day), I eagerly grabbed a copy having anticipated this film for over two years. Quite honestly, it completely breaks my heart to say how bitterly disappointing this film is. So much so it is even possible to consider that this is not much better than the infamous 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man starring Nicolas Cage.
The film follows two American evangelical Christians, Beth (a pop-star) and Steve, who are both engaged and wear purity rings. They decide to devote time to spreading the word of God, and so go to Tressock, Scotland to preach Christianity. However it emerges that the inhabitants of Tressock are engaged in pagan practices and intend Beth and Steve for their May Day rites.
The absence of the original film’s writer, the late Anthony Shaffer, was perhaps the demise of this project as Hardy’s screenplay lacking any finesse. The screenplay feels like a poor copy of the original’s, but as if Hardy has tried to adapt this around a clichéd modern day horror film – for example, making the 2006 remake’s mistake of adding in strange people just for the sake of it (such as the elderly strange twin sisters in the remake), to poorly attempt to creep out the audience without any discretion. In The Wicker Tree’s case, this character would be Jack, a strange man who seems to twitch madly and only speak in rhyme, keeping a raven who cries “NEVERMORE!” with terrible dubbing effects. It’s not creepy, it’s clichéd.
Whilst violence and sexuality is high in Tressock (the Scottish village setting), it seems surprising that paganism doesn’t seem to be valued as much in the film’s writing. Occasional references to Sulis (Celtic life-giving mother goddess) and the Queen of the May are about as in depth as the film cares to delve. What was so impressive about the original was how deep it was with its topic: multiple gods were referenced (Nuada and Avellenau), traditions and myths explored (The Salmon of Knowledge, the Hand of Glory, John Barleycorn, the May Pole, the traditional May Day characters and of course the Wicker Man), symbolism abundant (hares, blossom, skulls, various animals) and multiple rites seen (the fire fertility ritual with the schoolgirls, the ending May Day rites). The inclusion of all of these completely alienated Sgt. Howie (played by the late Edward Woodward), and made his quest all the more terrifying as he realised he understood less and less of what he was getting into. With The Wicker Tree, there is very little to make this connection so we do not get a sense of the Christian protagonists’ horror, nor do we get a sense of the passionate belief of the villagers who end up seeming like simply mad people following these vague beliefs for no real reason.
Gone also is Paul Giovanni and MAGNET’s fantastic score and soundtrack, which incorporated many old folk songs which added to the wealth of pagan mythology surrounding Summerisle of the original film. This is replaced with an interesting juxtaposition of mostly Christian pop songs, but also is accompanied by a generic horror film score which completely spoils the scenes, for ambiguity and uncertainty throughout the original film – for Sgt. Howie and the viewer – was what made The Wicker Man so memorable.
There is no build-up, no tension or suspense, which made the original so brilliant. Sgt. Howie felt isolated and terrified with the villagers of Summerisle controlling his every move in The Wicker Man, discovering more and more of their strange ways (from mild obsessions with hares to eerie objects in jars in at the chemist’s). In The Wicker Tree, due to the lack of subtlety (in the writing, acting and trying-too-hard score) there is no build-up: just an hour or so of some American pop-diva’s wanderings in Scotland, and then a half-hour sub-standard horror.
Most of the performances, as well as the characters, are downright awful. Beth (portrayed by Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett) were the most unconvincing characters of the lot, acting as born-again Christians one minute and revelling in sin the next (Steve gives in to temptation rather easily, and Beth embraces her older trailer-trash self by – for some bizarre reason – bringing and listening to an old CD of hers that she hated with her to Scotland, and happily declares to Steve that once they’re married she will be like “Jezebel”). Beth in particular does not come across as the type with a sordid past in a terribly shot pop video, and so she is unbelievable, as this haunting past of hers feels absolutely ridiculous. Nicol’s performance is weak, as is Garrett’s, and it is difficult for one to feel anything for their boring characters.
The idea to modernize the original’s idea with the rise of the evangelical Christian movement in America was a clever one, but poorly executed as the teenagers seem too easily swayed by sin and so remain unbelievable when preaching the Bible. In The Wicker Man, the late Edward Woodward portrayed his dedicated Christian copper beautifully, authoritative as a man of the law and as a man of God but tortured when tempted by the landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland). The teenagers’ emotional journey seems tedious and short, not even in the same league as the brilliant performance of the original’s Woodward.
Although Christopher Lee was set to relive his days as Lord Summerisle in the guise of The Wicker Tree’s Sir Morrison, he unfortunately became injured and could only appear in a small cameo. So Graham McTavish, originally to be the butler, became the laird of Tressock. Gone is the delicious charm, cunning and wit of Lee’s Lord Summerisle (a character who turned from polite to terrifying in a nanosecond), as Sir Morrison provides a clichéd performance acting obviously as the villain from the very beginning. His wife Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonardas) is just as unsubtle and uninteresting.
The detective/police officer character Orlando seemed pointless, having very little bearing on the plot. He is secretly investigating reports of a pagan cult in the area. Being a pagan is not a crime in the modern day UK, so why – without any attachment to a real crime – is he actually investigating these reports?
There are various little irritating problems with the film that break the flow – clichéd shots such as a large silhouette of a man behind a door ready to attack, bad effects (especially inserted images of Beth in trailer-trash guise and as an Eve-like character in Steve’s imagination), some lip-syncing problems that seem to appear in the beginning of the film and some sudden subtitles during a sex scene. It also seemed a strange choice to give Sir Morrison a Ferrari when compared to Lord Summerisle’s horse and carriage – much more fitting with the natural way of life of a pagan community.
There are many nice nods to the original film – naming the laird ‘Morrison’ after Rowan and May Morrison of the original, naming the power company ‘Nuada’ after the Celtic Sun god which the villagers worship in The Wicker Man and including a cameo for Christopher Lee – who played the original’s Lord Summerisle, counterpart to The Wicker Tree’s Sir Morrison. The cinematography was also very well orchestrated, providing many beautiful shots. However this will never compare to the calibre of the original: it is predictable, clichéd, offers no satisfying twist ending as the original did and is poorly executed. I have little hopes for the next sequel, The Wrath of the Gods.