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The Wicker Tree

April 30, 2012

Like many people, I guess I came to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man during a late night TV session when I was a kid. At the time I may have been hoping for – and got – the much-paused-and-rewound Britt Ekland nude song scene. Yeah, I’m sure that was it. It remains an important cornerstone in my cultural (and, I’ll be candid, sexual) awareness to this day. It’s not just about the sauce, of course. The Wicker Man is a wrong-footing masterpiece that shows you can entertain whilst still being brave, you can be visionary without crazy effects, you can be peculiar and off-kilter and succeed, you can paint a landscape with ancient song just as well as with colour. And while it is all of those things it is also a vanguard movie, setting standards for many subsequent thrillers, with its ability to set traps for its protagonist, and for the audience, until a devastating ending – still, even now, almost 40 years later – a final few minutes that rocks you back into your seat with its power and audacity.

Famously, it was dubbed “the Citizen Kane of Horror” by Cinefantastique, and has lived up to that title across the years; a lesser movie would have crumbled under the weight of such a soubriquet. Troubled in production and post-production, as almost always seems to be the case with films that make a mark, it was dismissed on release, it’s distributors demanded cuts and it was either never shown or censored or left to rot in TV graveyard slots. It is only relatively recently that a restored version was released on DVD.

Now, it has something else to contend with; not the absurd Neil LaBute remake from a few years ago, which the world seems to have quite rightly consigned to the trash, but a proper, authoritative, official almost-follow-up to the original. The Wicker Tree isn’t exactly a sequel, but it shares many of that movie’s key elements: it is directed by Hardy; it has a cameo by Christopher Lee (not as Lord Summerisle, but “old man”); it covers all of the same ground of ‘modern’ organised religion bumping up against pagan rites; and, of course, it features a wicker vessel, ostensibly for sacrificing the silly Christians who stumble into a Scottish community whose recent sacraments are beginning to falter.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In the original, of course, it was the late great Edward Woodward who unwittingly became the perfect offering for Lee’s band of hedonists as they tried, for another year, to entice the forces of nature to bless them with abundant crops. Lee’s Lord Summerisle and his ancestors had cobbled together a view, a Victorian rather than authentic view as it turns out, of a sort of pantheistic belief, where pretty much all and every part of nature is revered and requires sacrifice. Here, we do not have a Calvinist policeman to leap upon and offer up, but two earnest Born Agains, Texans Beth and Steve who come across to the Borders to re-introduce the locals to God and instead find a community in thrall to water spirits and sexual energy, who have become sterile.

Unfortunately, it is only in the framework that the two movies compare. There are funny and darkly humourous moments in The Wicker Man, sure, the first half in particular, with many grotesques causing the naive and virginal Sergeant Howie much distress to a chorus of snickering from the players and audience (the joke is on us, in the final event). With Tree, that comic touch is revisited but more consistently and with less of the gloomy tone. Much of it is very much played for laughs, some rather broad, and some rather silly. It is a path the film never manages to divert from. Whereas Howie’s destiny is always the subject of discomfort (even during the giggles) and ultimately turns into one of the most horrific moments in all of cinema, here the lack of guile just creates two brain dead cliched puppets to laugh at and an ending that fizzles out to nothing. To nothing.

If there is another film to be made using the structure that Hardy set up in 1973, then it would be surely a full-blown satire. The Wicker Tree, with it’s bright-eyed toothy evangelists could have been just that, but it backs away from that option almost immediately and is a hopeless mess instead. That first film had silliness and much to laugh at, as I’ve said, but the laughs died in your throat because of the smart moves it takes to misdirect you and the awful fate of Howie. With this, all it is is laughs and silliness. There is nothing to see here.

A little while ago, I heard that the original wicker man, the statue that is, made for the film, still existed on that cliff top in the form of the two giant legs and feet. Despite the elements they were still there and you could walk right up to them. Now, I’m told that since that snippet of information came out, they have been completely destroyed. I don’t have a source for that, but if so, I’m not at all surprised.

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