Most horror fans have had their ears eagerly pricked since rumors of Robin Hardy’s follow-up to his 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man became a sure thing. Now, as The Wicker Tree moves from a limited release to mass availability on DVD and Blu-Ray, the overriding critical reaction has been to cram it back into the womb whence it came.
Perhaps The Wicker Tree‘s toughest critics were never Wicker Man fans to begin with. It may lack the sharpness and subtlety of its predecessor, but as a continuation of the legacy this new film is quite satisfactory. At any rate it is worlds better than the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage abomination daring to call itself a remake.
Not necessarily a sequel, but certainly a chapter set in the same universe, The Wicker Tree weaves yet another tale of “innocents” lured into the worship of a power they’d sooner not, along with disquieting lessons in the influence of ancient Celtic religion on the modern western Church.
Beth Boothby is a gospel singer from Texas with the fire of revival in her heart. The latest leg of her mission has brought her to Tressock, in the southern borderlands of Scotland, where by an arrangement whose nature we never fully learn, she is to share the Word with the local yokels. Accompanying her is her cowboy swain, Steve, who serves as a one man entourage. Inevitably, we learn that the two “innocents,” whose evangelism is part of an attempt to banish a worldly past before their planned marriage, have been lured by a local cult to serve in mysterious rites at the hands of local pillar Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish). The family Morrison, around which the original “Wicker Man” is based, seems to have thrived in high circles.
Unlike most Christian evangelists depicted in film, Beth and Steve strive to be as tolerant as possible of the ancient religious beliefs they find still prevalent in Tressock. This contrasts sharply with Sergeant Howie’s (Edward Woodward) strident condemnation of the Summerisle community in The Wicker Man. Beth happily volunteers to serve as Queen of the May Day festivities, scarcely realizing the import of her decision. It helps the credibility of her character that she is struggling to banish a worldly past that does not fit with her newly embraced faith. In the exuberant pagan sensuality of their new surroundings, they find themselves drawn back to the lifestyle they desire, diverting from the path they have vowed to follow. Steve jumps in more eagerly and consciously than Beth, but both have been lured past the point of no return before either realizes it.
To put it a little differently, this movie has a good plot and lots of neat ideas, but a pervasive sense of dread is notably absent. Rather than save all its massive revelations for the last five minutes, as in the original film The Wicker Tree tips its hand by degrees until the priority changes from “What’s everyone hiding?” to “How can we escape?” It is less like The Wicker Man than one of Roger Corman’s many vehicles for Vincent Price. Will Jane Asher get the hot wax, or be buried alive, or is there a chance the castle might burn down around them all first?
Christopher Lee, the main draw of the film, had to have his part severely reduced owing to injury and age, but his brief appearance here is a nice link to the charismatic Lord Summerisle of the prior film. He maintains, and passes on, his eeerily logical outlook on matters supernatural and occult.
The creepy parts are reminiscent, but cleverly different, from those of The Wicker Man. The idea of sacrifice as atonement and restoration of the natural balance gets a distinctly modern spin, as we find out the contemporary function of Tressock’s May festival. These people have good reasons for what they do, creepy and misguided though it may seem. The rites themselves have changed in practice if not in spirit, and as Beth and Steve draw closer to a grim, disturbing finale, the movie rekindles enough of its ancestor’s spirit that it’s hard to imagine a better result. What more were all the naysayers expecting? I’m not about to say it is great, but it is more than suitable as fan fodder and a night’s entertainment.
Collectors, go ahead and pick up a copy. It’s moody, spooky, sexy, weird and occasionally funny. It looks really good, and high production values have got to count for something. For that matter, the music is excellent. The worst thing about the acting is that Texan does not appear to be a first language for the two leads. But we forgave Anna Paquin and Ryan Kwanten and we love True Blood anyway, right? This is a film to enjoy if you don’t ask too much of it. The makers have not gone overboard with behind-the-scenes insight about the making of the film, but there is plenty of interest to somebody on board with The Wicker Tree in the first place.
The Wicker Man will always stand as a unique piece of work, just as there could never truly be more than one Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps it would have been better to let the legend lie unmolested, but as this kind of thing goes, The Wicker Tree is far from inept. At worst it is a harmless appendix, and a diversion worthy of a couple of hours.
The Wicker Tree is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay.