Honestly, friends, sometimes a person just doesn’t even know where to begin. I suppose I could individually list the catalogue of atrocities that make up writer-director Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree, but frankly that would mean spending more time talking about this film than I really have the energy to, and besides, our nearest thing to a “star” critic here at Through The Shattered Lens, Lisa Marie Bowman, has already done a pretty damn fine job of performing a blow-by-blow dissection of this thing’s rotted corpse in her capacity as occasional scribe over at HorrorCritic.com, so there’s no real need to duplicate what’s been done before. Allow and/or indulge me, then, as I take a slightly different tack and document my personal journey of despair with Hardy’s exercise in highly confused pointlessness.
To begin with, I should point out that the original Wicker Man is quite likely one of my ten-or-so all-time favorite films. Critics who say it’s “not actually a horror movie” are quite right, of course — it’s a unique — hell, frankly singular — amalgamation of so many different styles that the end product is well and truly unclassifiable. Part horror flick, sure, but also part musical, part (very) black comedy, part clash-of-cultures melodrama, part satire on Christian piousness, and part period-piece-albeit-in-a-then-contemporary-setting, it stands on its own as the only thing quite like it ever made. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer perhaps put it best when he stated that his main goal was to pen a meditation on the nature of sacrifice, and everything else just sort of took off from there.
Obviously, there are so many elements about the first film that the 2011 “thematic sequel” could never hope to duplicate — songwriter Paul Giovanni is no longer with us, so right off the bat we know the music’s not going to be nearly as good because, quite frankly, it can’t be. Anthony Shaffer has passed away and therefore whatever follow-up material comes about wouldn’t in any way be his vision for how the story could or should continue. Edward Woodward has likewise left behind this mortal coil, and his character died at the end anyway, so replicating his magnificently anally-retentive performance is probably going to prove to be out of the question, as well. Christopher Lee is, while still awesome as hell, also extremely frail and old at this point. And anyway — The Wicker Man still retains all its poignancy and power to this day and has only gained luster over the past 40 years. The abominable Nicolas Cage/Neil LaBute remake proved that revisiting the material was a lost cause, so why bother, five years on from that failed experiment, with any sort of a sequel, “thematic” or otherwise?
Unfortunately, Robin Hardy wrote a book some years back called Cowboys For Christ that updated some of the concepts from his earlier film and he got the notion that it would make a decent-enough little flick. He was able to scour up $7 million-plus worth of financing, and got the folks at Anchor Bay so interested they promised not only a widespread “home viewing platform” release (and I caught this on a free screener copy that was sent my way so therefore can’t fairly comment on any extras the DVD and Blu-Ray might contain), but a even a little theatrical run, as well. It never made it to my area, and disappeared after a week from the markets it did make it into, but still —the fact that they chose to give this thing some theatrical burn when it seemingly had DTV written all over it was enough for me to, foolishly, get my hopes up.
I guess we believe what we want to believe (which is rather one of the points of the first film, after all), and a steady stream of reviews for this one that placed it at the “embarrassingly bad” end of the spectrum at worst to “maybe not quite as horrible as I’d been fearing but still pretty goddamn awful” at best weren’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm at this point. I figured it just had to be better than most folks were giving it credit for, because there’s just no conceivable way it couldn’t retain, say, at least 1/100th of the darkly charismatic charm of the first film, even if entirely by accident, right? After all, the original director was on board, and Anchor Bay wasn’t so ashamed of his finished product that they tried to hide the thing away at the bottom of some film vault (although given that it’s shot on HD, perhaps a “film” vault wouldn’t be the right place to stick it in, anyway).
It’s certainly fair to say that I wasn’t expecting greatness, or even anything of the sort, but something that still somehow cleaved to even a miniscule fraction of the spirit of the original would have been good enough for me. Unfortunately, what I got was a story about two painfully stereotypical Jesus-lovin’ Texas yokels who have gone on a mission (more typical of Mormons than of born-againers, it must be said) to evangelize in some small Scottish town that apparently has never heard the “good news.” One of our less-than-convincingly-portrayed country bumpkins, Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol), was apparently a famous country singer with something of a “reputation” before turning her life over to Christ, while the other, her fiancee Steve Thomson (Henry Garrett), is little more just a walking, talking cowboy hat. Once in the “heathen land” of Scotland, they enjoy the decidedly non-Southern hospitality of local nuke plant owner Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish, in something more akin to a respectable performance than his colleagues seem capable of) and his OTT-in-the-deception-deaprtment wife, Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), but of course the dastardly couple, whose power plant has through some unexplained (and probably inexplicable, so it’s just as well Hardy doesn’t even try) means left the entire town sterile, have other plans for their simple-minded God-fearin’ visitors, plans that the Texas two-steppers are apparently too stupid to suss out even as they’re practically being openly prepared for the burning stake and, get this, the dinner table!
Yes, evidently the heathen folk of the United Kingdom’s northern reaches have taken to cannibalism in the four decades or so since our last visit, and while Hardy seems to think this somehow ups the “black comedy” factor of the proceedings, really it just serves as a cop-out by more clearly delineating who are the “good guys” here and who are the “bad guys,” a simple-minded, black-and-white approach that the first Wicker Man never resorted to even when Sgt. Howie was being burned alive (in, it must be said, one of the most visually dramatic sequences ever committed to celluloid).
And that’s a pretty much the problem at the crux of The Wicker Tree in a nutshell — sure, there are numerous and obvious others, ranging from wretched acting to dully-executed visuals to poor pacing to obvious run-time padding to inarticulate (at best) dialogue to recycled-into-a-less-involving-context story ideas to laughably one-dimensional caricatures standing in place of real, actual characters — but at the end of the day, it’s Hardy’s mistrust of his audience’s ability to make up our own collective mind, and the blatantly heavy-handed approach he takes in explaining everything for us that stems from that mistrust, that makes this such a condescending failure. I could live with the far-less-subtle approach to the “clash of cultures” theme that he takes here in comparison with the first film. I could live with the nowhere-near-as-compelling music. I could live with the rather — uhmmm — “broad strokes” with which he paints each and every character . I could live with the pointless and frankly even a bit insulting to the guy Christopher Lee cameo. Hell, I could even live with the Christian turning the tables on her pagan pursuers and winning in the end. But what I absolutely can’t abide is that Hardy thinks we’re all so unsophisticated and beneath the task of understanding his apparently-in-his-mind-quite-complex-and-challenging-themes that we need for him to hammer them home with a with a burning wicker stake through our heads. He’s had 40 years to think about how he wants to follow up a genuine, justly-lauded classic and this is what he comes up with? Set fire to me now, please, before the third installment, which he’s already working on, ever sees the light of day.