Wicker's (New) World
'How many people here have seen the original Wicker Man?' Robin Hardy, dapper in black blazer, shirt, and trousers, peers around the dimness of the Oxford Phoenix's smaller theatre. Eight or nine hands go up. Given that he is here to show The Wicker Tree, the veteran writer and director's follow-up to the 1973 masterpiece, probably the biggest cult movie ever made in Britain, this would be somewhat surprising were it not for the fact that only eight or nine people have actually turned up - possibly a consequence of this event being organised at very short notice and, as a result, not being well-publicised. However, if Hardy is disappointed by the poor turnout he does not show it: from the outset it is clear that he is a gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Introducing the new film, Hardy announces that it is a piece in 'the same genre' as The Wicker Man – which as far as he's concerned means it's a black comedy with musical interludes. He admits to the problems he and his production partners are having actually getting the film into theatres, and ascribes this to the decision not to include any big-name actors in the film (if he feels there are parallels with the tortuous release endured by the original film, he doesn't mention it). Quite sensibly he opts to postpone the full Q&A session until after we've watched the new film, but before it gets underway Hardy clearly feels the need to reassure us on a few points. 'This is a film with its tongue in its cheek. It's made to be laughed with and laughed at, particularly in the first half hour. But things still get pretty…pretty black by the end.'
The Wicker Tree is one of those films which isn't a sequel, isn't a prequel, isn't honestly what you could call a remake, but is nevertheless so totally in thrall to a predecessor that it has very little genuine identity of its own. As it opens we meet Britney-esque popstrel turned born-again evangelist Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicoll) and her devoted if slightly less dedicated fiance Steve (Henry Garrett), who are both residents of the great state of Texas. Intent upon carrying out the will of God, Beth and Steve are flying off to do important missionary work in Scotland. This is at the invitation and with the assistance of wealthy community leader Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife (Jacqueline Leonard). When their initial efforts in Edinburgh fall on stony ground, Beth and Steve accept the Morrisons' offer that they try their luck in the countryside. But saving souls is hard work, especially when Steve - who is finding total abstinence to chafe somewhat - is distracted by energetic local groom Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks). Things get even worse when it starts to appear that the locals may have had an ulterior motive in inviting the couple to visit, and especially take part in their traditional May Day celebrations. Needless to say the missionaries soon find themselves in a very uncomfortable position indeed...
Well, there has been talk for years and years and absolutely years of something new and Wicker-related making an appearance – firstly, there was Anthony Schaffer's mooted Wicker Man 2 (also apparently known as The Loathsome Lambton Worm, though Hardy refers to it as The Loathly Worm), ultimately abandoned due to the deaths of so many key participants, and then the American remake by Neil LaBute with Nicolas Cage, which turned out to be an utter stinker (read on to learn Hardy's thoughts on it). And now, finally, a film which by any standard is a close relation, made with the involvement of two of the surviving principals from the 1973 production. For those, like me, for whom The Wicker Man is one of those extraordinary, nigh-on perfect films, expectations can't help but be impossibly, unmeetably high.
Even so, it was a heavy blow for The Wicker Tree to be quite as thoroughly disappointing as it actually turned out to be. That in itself is slightly surprising, given how closely it cleaves to its inspiration – the two films have, fundamentally, exactly the same plot, very similar settings, and identical themes. How can two such superficially similar movies be so wildly different in terms of quality? My opinion of the original film has been aired quite often enough – suffice to say it's one of my absolute favourites. The Wicker Tree is an exasperating, strangely-pitched, un-evocative and borderline silly micro-budget comedy horror film.
If nothing else the follow-up throws into sharp relief just how brilliantly constructed the 1973 film is – every single difference from The Wicker Man serves only to make The Wicker Tree less credible, less involving, less thoughtful, less atmospheric, and less memorable. The most noticeable thing is the overall tone – which is, very much as Robin Hardy promised, one of camp excess with more than a hint of broad comedy. At one point an ominous pagan heavy gets stabbed up the kilt, to the consternation of the colleague tasked with giving first aid: ‘Och! They've well-nigh severed one of your googlies!' she trills.
On top of this we get drawling cowboys, creepy villagers, and perky young maidens, all out of Central Casting, all issued with a script fatally short on any kind of subtlety and with precious few ideas. The performances themselves are not that bad – and one senses the actors are delivering only what's been requested of them – and the two leads are reasonably good. That said, Robin Hardy assured me both of them were actually British doing American accents, which Brittania Nicoll's own website flatly contradicts – if they are using their own voices it's a little less impressive. Needless to say, the standout moment is a brief cameo from Sir Christopher Lee as Morrison's enigmatic mentor. Briefly, Lee manages to give the film a real intelligence and sense of gravitas which its sorely lacking the rest of the time. Hardy leaves it open as to whether Lee is reprising his role as Summerisle; Lee assures us he is not, and I tend to agree simply due to the chronological issues involved.
Lee's appearance is sadly curtailed, but perhaps that's for the best: I think the film would have dragged Lee down rather than him raising it up. As it is, the resonances with the 1973 film are more often than not unfortunate as you are simply reminded how much better this material was handled then. Where the original film walked a razor's edge in making the Edward Woodward character sympathetic while credibly naive, here, the two Christians just come across as stupid. The strange and oppressive atmosphere first time around is completely absent, replaced by a crashingly unsubtle tipping-off of what's really afoot very early on. The songs are not as good either. When the film does shade over into explicit horror, there are a couple of mildly effective moments – but the film is edited so as to cut away from two crucial, climactic scenes much too soon. Overall it has none of the weird and ghastly power of The Wicker Man and very little to commend it beyond the basest curiosity value.
And so, following the film, it is with a slightly odd atmosphere prevailing that we loyal few assemble in the bar, gathering around Robin Hardy for the promised talk with the director. Hardy beams at us cheerfully. ‘So, what did you think of it?'
This is an awkward question in the circumstances. The most anyone says is that the new songs aren't as good. Luckily, Wicker Man fans being as they are, the conversation almost at once goes off on a weird tangent or two. Someone quizzes Hardy in somewhat surprising depth on his work with veteran character actor Aubrey Morris (the Golgafrinchan Captain in the TV version of the Guide, folks), while someone else, having treated Hardy to a drink, also treats him to a long and rambling anecdote concerning real-world pagans and the Rollright Stones. On his part, Hardy seems utterly nonplussed by his adoption as some kind of figurehead by pagans, and also by the wealth of academic material The Wicker Man has spawned.
Eventually I spin the question back at Hardy: though I'm aware he can hardly be objective, how does he think the new film stands up in comparison to the original? Hardy bats it away and doesn't even look at me. ‘It's doing terribly well. The DVDs are selling like hot cakes.'
Oh well. I make the point that the lead characters of The Wicker Tree just come across as sort of stupid. He blinks at me. ‘Well, they are American.'
This, and a discussion on the gender politics of the films too murky to recount here, at least leads us onto the topic of Neil LaBute's version of The Wicker Man. What does Hardy think of it? He shifts in his seat and doesn't quite snort. ‘Well, it has nothing to do with my film... I was rather startled that a film made by so many talented people turned out to be such a ****-up.'
Well, we agree on that at least. The conversation moves on, concentrating mostly (of course) on the arcana surrounding the original: the fate of the original Wicker Man negative (apparently it's almost certainly not under the M3), the issues Hardy is having with the digital restoration of it – apparently the restored bits of the extended cut are so grainy that the technicians don't want to put them out on Blu-Ray – the plans for The Loathly Worm. According to Hardy, and contradicting what I've heard elsewhere, Peter Cushing was never in the frame to play Howie – this of course leads us on to discuss where The Wicker Man stands in relation to the Hammer tradition. Personally, I think it's well apart; but others disagree.
Soon enough Robin Hardy is looking at his train ticket home with mild consternation, and a few books get signed. I shake his hand and make my excuses, still pondering one of the announcements he made – work on his latest project is well underway, and he's optimistic about it going in front of the camera quite soon (he touches wood). The name of the new film? The Wrath of the Gods, the final part in what Hardy's calling The Wicker Trilogy.
I wish I could be as positive as Robin Hardy about yet another attempt to nail another appendage onto the Wicker Man edifice, but in the light of The Wicker Tree I really honestly can't. Having met him, my respect and appreciation for Hardy as a gentleman and artist are undiminished, but I can't really summon up any enthusiasm for his recent work. A very nice man, but a deeply flawed movie.