In 1973, director Robin Hardy, with minimal support from studio or distributor, created a film that would become a cult classic of British horror cinema, The Wicker Man. Not only an influence on many other films, that work has been endlessly referenced and analysed in books and documentaries on horror and British cinema, inspired the stage show An Appointment with The Wicker Man, a music festival, and even a song by Iron Maiden. Hardy himself created a thematic sequel in his 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, and now he has brought that story to the screen, more commercially renamed The Wicker Tree.
Hoping to leave her previous career as a trailer trash entertainer far behind, born again Evangelical Christian singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her fiancé Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett) have left their Texan church on a missionary tour to spread the word “to the lost people of Scotland.” Meeting Beth at a church concert, Lord Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), Laird of Tressock, and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonardas) invite the couple to their mansion with the intention of asking them to play the Queen of the May and the Laddie in the imminent May Day celebrations, though their interpretation of the roles is more sinister than their guests realise.
Sometimes meandering and in places too reminiscent of the well known original, that familiarity is at times an advantage when those expectations are subverted. While variable, the performances are generally good, with Garrett‘s honest performance as a well intentioned cowboy stumbling out of his league particularly strong against Nicol’s occasionally grating naivety. Leonardas’ soapy recital is at least defensible as she is encumbered with scheming dialogue which deploys her villainy prematurely; at least her domestic staff enjoy the satisfaction of chewing the scenery.
Adapted and directed from his own novel, Hardy should know the narrative well, yet threads come adrift; an accident ten years previously at the local nuclear reactor is a heavy handed way to achieve a required plot point, local policeman Orlando is prominently introduced to play an apparently significant role then vanishes from proceedings, and stablewoman Lolly’s loyalties and motivations are unclear.
More damaging is that there is no sense of isolation; within the last year both Unhappy Birthday and The Woman in Black have used tides to ensure that escape was not an option for their protagonists, but the leafy countryside around Tressock offers both concealment and access to the world beyond.
Made for a modest budget and largely filmed in the vicinity of Haddington, near Edinburgh, of the many production problems the film faced, hostile weather was not one of them; not only is this film more technically proficient than its predecessor, it is saturated in glorious sunshine that befits the pagan cult of Tressock as demonstrated in a scene where Steve dips into an illuminated river with Lolly, the camera lovingly capturing the reflections that ripple across their skin. As disillusionment and apprehension take over, the warm colours leach out to twilight and shadows until the fires of the titular sculpture are lit.
As would be expected, music features prominently, and fortunately the commercial country of Beth’s church soon gives way to less overproduced fare supported by veteran composer John Scott’s incidental score which conveys the menace concealed beneath the country manners. Though the film never approaches the levels of dread or outright horror achieved by last year’s Kill List, a British gangster thriller clearly inspired by The Wicker Man, that may have been intentional; instead, unexpected humour accompanies events as the Morrison’s plans go astray.
Unfairly saddled with a burden it cannot live up to, The Wicker Tree would in many ways benefit from having been made and released under the title Cowboys for Christ where it could be taken on its own merits rather than its inheritance, for while derivative, it is certainly a more accomplished, engaging and entertaining film than the grotesquerie of sequels and remakes that gather far more attention and widespread distribution.
The Wicker Tree is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray
Follow the link for our interview with Robin Hardy discussing The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree and his hopes to unleash The Wrath of the Gods