The Wicker Tree, 2011.
Written and Directed by Robin Hardy.
Starring Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonardas, Brittania Nicol, Honeysuckle Weeks, Henry Garrett and Clive Russell.
Two devout Christians are sent on a mission to spread the word of God to the residents of Tressock in Scotland, where they are invited to take part in a local festival.
Horror is personal. So very, very personal. It’s the best thing and the worst thing about the genre. A horror story that can speak to your darkest fears will bury its images and its message that bit deeper in your memory. By the same token, a horror story full of generic frights and shocks is quickly forgotten, doomed to live out its days in the ‘£3 or Less’ bargain bin. This is why The Wicker Man (1973) is rightly deemed a cult classic, and entirely why I can’t quite remember that one film Eliza Dushku did where rednecks murder her friends with power tools.
The Wicker Tree doesn’t quite sink to Dushku depths, but it’s far from the dizzy heights of its folk horror forebears. It’s confusing and it’s disappointing and full of interesting ideas that never quite get their moment in the sun. Before we come to the how and why of that, we must go over the fact and the fiction of The Wicker Tree. Join me in the accusing parlour, if you will.
Beth and Steve (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) are Cowboys for Christ, born-again evangelists spreading the message of God around Texas through the power of countrified gospel music. They’re engaged to be married, and they’re on a mission. Reverend Moriarty, a glassy-eyed bible thumper of the first order, is sending them to Scotland to spread that message to its “lost people”.
Enter Sir Lachlan and Delia Morrison (Graham McTavish and Jacqueline Leonard). Sir Lachlan is the Laird of Tressock, a tiny wee village near the city where Beth and Steve are trying and failing to save souls from door to door. The Morrisons eye these naïve young things hungrily, taking in their quaint “yes ma’am”s and their silver chastity rings with a wry smile. Sir Lachlan beams to look at them: “They’re perfect” he says, the same way he might describe a couple of ribeye steaks at the butcher’s shop.
Beth and Steve are all too easy to lure into the sleepy little village of Tressock, promised a fair hearing for Jesus’ message. The Morrisons all but parade them through the village, showing their people what they caught floundering about in the big city. Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks) passes them on a fine horse; knowing full well of Steve’s love for horses and his sexual frustration, Sir Lachlan pipes up with a cheeky “How would you like to ride him?”, making it intentionally unclear whether the question is for Steve or for Lolly.
If that scene doesn’t make it clear that Lolly is the village bicycle (“all things to all men” as she puts it), the next few scenes of Kama Sutra experimentation with the Police Sergeant and spirited water sports with Steve all but hammer the point home. For a horror film, the non-verbal foreshadowing is hard to spot, but it is there.
Robin Hardy’s entire approach to this story is baffling. There’s not so much an atmosphere of tension as there is the feel of a Sunday evening ITV drama, smothering us with comforting nostalgia. A false sense of security before they’re led to the slaughter is all well and good, but it doesn’t make that second act any easier to chew through.
Let’s face it. We know these characters are being led to the slaughter. It’s not even just people who’ve seen The Wicker Man that’ll guess what all these hungry looks and groups of whispering villagers really mean. The sudden and horrifying reveal of the giant wicker man, made all the more effective with Edward Woodward’s expression of naked terror – the “Oh God! Oh JESUS CHRIST!” moment – that isn’t here. You see what’s coming to Beth and Steve a mile off.
I hesitate to call these characters ‘heroes’…let’s call them ‘chump’ and ‘chumpette’. Our chump meets his grisly fate at the end of a badly paced ride for his life, but he looks more like somebody spilled a hot beverage on his lap than somebody enduring the worst kind of death imaginable. Chumpette has every chance to escape, but she chooses vengeance over her own safety.
Now, to be fair, the acting standard in general is fairly okay. Jacqueline Leonard makes for an enjoyable exception though. It might not be that she gets the best lines, but Leonard is certainly the only one we want to look at when she’s on screen. She plays the villain of the piece with effortless dry wit and grace, smiling like a wolf through sharpened, shining teeth at Little Red Riding Hood. Even a tired old poisoned-glass-of-milk routine is worth the time it takes to stuff a cat, if only for the simple and strange pleasure of seeing her casually fling the stiff little moggy in a waste basket.
Christopher Lee, billed as a special guest appearance, is sadly wasted here. His character barely even registers as a blip in the storyline. Sir Lachlan has a flashback of painting a bridge; his mentor is there; they have a little expositiony chin-wag about paganism; wibble wobble, we’re back at the breakfast table with Madame Cat Flinger, looking at the Laird like he’s just had a medical episode.
Robin Hardy didn’t need to make this film. He calls The Wicker Tree a ‘spiritual successor’ rather than a sequel, but The Wicker Man explored the same themes of innocence and sacrifice with so much more depth and subtlety, you wonder why he felt it needed succeeding at all. He’d said everything he needed to say in 1973.
There are some interesting ideas and striking rituals put forward here, but ultimately, there’s just not enough original material here. The pacing is awkward, the acting is variable and the storyline is fuzzy to say the least. Not that such criticism will stop Robin Hardy. He already has Wrath of the Gods lined up to follow this next year. He calls it a ‘romantic black comedy’, citing Norse mythology, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Shetland Isles. That actually sounds like fun. Here’s to whatever that turns out to be.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.