Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the start of this review: The Wicker Man is a classic British horror film, one which gradually acquired its reputation after initially going out on the lower half of a double bill at UK cinemas in 1973 (with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now) and then being relegated to late night television screenings at a time when a cult following could be achieved by that method. A special issue of Cinefantastique did a lot to add to The Wicker Man’s reputation in the US, where the film wasn’t released at all until some years after its UK debut. The magazine also added to the legend surrounding the film by disclosing that a considerable amount of footage had been lost and used in the foundations of a nearby motorway. Nowadays one can treasure one’s uncut box set of Robin Hardy’s low budget masterpiece and forget just how long it took for the film to achieve the status it now enjoys.
Which brings us to The Wicker Tree, a movie whose title suggests its producers are hoping for another cult success, but without all the fuss and bother that was part of the reason its predecessor achieved notoriety in the first place.
The first thing to say about Hardy’s follow up picture is that it’s not terrible – in fact it’s not bad at all. If one wishes to see terrible in relation to a Wicker Man sequel one need only look as far as Neil LaBute’s shameful 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage. No, the biggest problem The Wicker Tree has is being saddled with the idea that it is a sequel or continuation of The Wicker Man. Good old exploitation is still alive and well, despite the disappearance of grindhouses and fleapit cinemas, and so there was little chance of Hardy’s film going out under its source novel’s title of Cowboys for Christ, not when there was a far more exploitable title to be had. Unfortunately, that title is likely to be what will sink this film more than anything else once word of mouth gets around that it’s neither a rerun nor a continuation of the original.
Trailer park trash turned born-again Christian singing sensation Beth Boothby (Britannia Nicol) journeys from Texas to the UK to ‘save the lost people of Scotland’ (a line which got a huge laugh at the film’s FrightFest premiere last August). With her is fiancé, hunky cowboy and fellow evangelist Steve (Henry Garrett), who might as well have ‘victim’ written in large letters on the cowboy hat that rarely leaves his head for the duration of the movie’s running time. Beth is on a mission to bring Christ to the heathens, something she hopes to achieve by singing songs and handing out leaflets, while her audience is busy getting her to try on the May Queen dress ‘just in case’ and giving Steve who, after being seduced by Honeysuckle Weeks becomes even more grinningly oblivious to what’s actually happening, the honour of being this year’s ‘Laddie’. Before anyone can say ‘I bet that involves something really horrible’ we’ve scarcely had time for an awkwardly rammed in cameo from Christopher Lee so his name can go on the poster before we’re at the climax, which does indeed involve a wicker tree, as well as a bit of nudie pagan dancing and a fire.
While The Wicker Tree plays on the original’s themes of pagan religion versus Christian intrusion into an isolated community north of the border, the film itself is rather different, being a slightly unsatisfactory mix of soap opera-sexy-style rural melodrama, Italian gothic horror (the final shot looks as if it belongs in a completely different film, ideally directed by Mario Bava) and a climax that tries to ape the original, albeit half-heartedly. Its good points are some lovely cinematography, a music score that has everything from clever and funny songs to some sweeping John Scott orchestral work, and a couple of good performances, notably from Graham McTavish as the evil Sir Lachlan Morrison and Jacqueline Leonard as his wife. Where it falls down is in a rather overlong first half that could have done with tightening up, and some awkward Scottish comedy moments during the climax that will make some viewers wonder if they’re suddenly watching an old episode of the BBC series Naked Video. But apart from that The Wicker Tree really isn’t that bad, and is best viewed as a film totally separate from that whose reputation it has been forced to play on.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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