Out On a Limb

by Arthur B

The Wicker Tree in no respect meets the standard set by its illustrious predecessor.
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It took Robin Hardy until 2011 until he could turn out a sequel to folk horror classic The Wicker Man in the form of The Wicker Tree. To be frank, it’s not great. Supposedly it had a budget of over seven million dollars, though if this is so then for most of its running time that money simply isn’t evident onscreen, with the production values seeming more in keeping with a simple TV movie than anything fancier and a cast of comparative unknowns and reasonably skilled but not especially exciting character actors. (There’s a cameo from Christopher Lee, mind, but he was unable to undertake a more extensive role due to an injury.)

As far as the plot goes, it’s the exact same thing as The Wicker Man without the kidnapping angle to tie everything together. Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) used to be a wild and extremely sexualised pop-country star in the US of A, but she’s flinched back from that past, adopted a new gospel-country style, and got back together with her childhood sweetheart Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). Their backwater Texas church sends them on an evangelical mission to Scotland, they fall in with pagan masterminds Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard), who convince them that preaching door-to-door in the towns won’t do any good and they’ll have better luck coming out to the countryside village the Morrisons preside over, particularly since it will be a nice opportunity for them to partake in the May Day festivities. By this point you should have guessed where this is going.

It’s very obvious that Texas accents don’t come naturally to Henry Garrett and Brittania Nicol, and it’s equally obvious that horror doesn’t come naturally to this cast as a whole - nor does Hardy really seem to be trying to build any air of dread, or indeed any atmosphere at all, whether horrific or mystical or anything else; he just shoots a series of things that happen in order and presents them to us, and mostly relies on the viewer’s vague recollections of The Wicker Man to fill in the gaps. Even the best parts work less because of their own merits and more because they remind us of more exciting things from The Wicker Man. (For instance, there’s a biit where Beth is singing to the locals about Jesus and they’re really not sure about it until they realise she’s singing about blood sacrifice, at which point they get into it, but it’s only apparent that this is the case because we know from The Wicker Man to read between the lines there.)

On the other hand, if this was supposed to be a companion piece to The Wicker Man, you’d expect that it would do something appreciably different. Oh, you’ve got the whole Yankerdoodleland connection, but the movie barely touches on American church matters, an oversight which is greatly to its detriment - there’s masses of stuff you can do with an overlap between the weirder, wilder, snake-handling variants of American Christianity and old-time paganism. There’s also a quasi-Edge of Darkness angle - right down to a union rep being hand in glove with the conspiracy - in which Sir Morrison operates the local nuclear plant which, having poisoned the water table, has rendered the locals infertile (prompting their sacrifice to regain their fertility), but this fertility crisis merely plays the exact same role as the apple harvest failure in the original movie or the bee die-off in the Nic Cage version.

Beyond these small differences, and the fact that the movie makes no pretence of being coy about what’s going on or who’s behind it - presumably because some four decades after The Wicker Man we all know goddamn well where things are going - you can pretty much map each plot development and feature to some feature in the original movie it’s filling in for. Honeysuckle Weeks is delegated to get her tits out a lot as the Britt Ekland equivalent; there’s occasional scenes where Orlando (Alessandro Conetta), a police officer, is banging Lolly in order to investigate the cult, but she ends up putting him in hospital with her insatiable demands; I think this outcome and the scenes leading up to it are meant to be the comic relief equivalent, but they are so leaden (and so tonally similar to so much of the rest of the movie, which only really shows any sign of perking up about 20 minutes or so before the end) that the scenes in question qualify as nothing beyond mere time-filler.

Christopher Lee’s cameo as Lord Summerisle (or a character so similar as to be basically equivalent) lends more gravitas to proceedings than the entire rest of the cast is able to collectively muster - particularly when they’re wasting their time on risible comedy rather than actually building some tension. In particular, Henry Garrett’s performance as Steve is just awful, veering between an aw-shucks goofy parody of a Texas cowboy to just plain failing to emote at all. His succumbing to Lolly’s charms seems absurdly matter-of-fact and passionless. Whereas the original movie had Edward Woodward howling an anguished “Oh God!” when confronted with the sacrificial ritual, Steve just sort of stares impassively at it until he’s torn to bits and eaten. (In the aftermath of this scene there’s a very evocative shot which implies that the celebrants maybe, just maybe, have all transformed into ravens; in fact, it’s such a delicious implication that really they should have scrapped all the rest and started over from that central image.)

Just as with the original movie, it’s kind of a disguised musical, though this time around Hardy doesn’t have the weird folk stylings of Paul Giovanni or Magnet to fall back on. The idea seems to have been in part to rely on Brittania Nicol’s vocal talents to carry it, but whilst her voice is powerful on a purely technical level, neither she nor any of the other musicians are given anything interesting to apply their talents to - just a melange of bad country, bad pop, and extremely generic gospel and devotional songs.

One can raise criticisms of other decisions concerning the proceedings - like the bizarre decision to subtitle some genuinely clear and audible speech occurring during a sex scene - but it’s pointless at this stage; the major failures of the production are substantial enough that the minor failures amount to little.
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at 01:47 on 2018-11-19
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