Whether you consider it ‘The Citizen Kane of Horror Films’ or something that is a genre unto itself, The Wicker Man is an undeniably unique folk tale with dark humor, songs, sex, and an ending that completely bypassed being just “great” and dives headfirst into legendary status. Kickstarting a renewed fascination with pagan festivals – Burning Man and Beltane, among others – and old world charms, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s occult mystery is more about the power of religion as a means for brainwashing and manipulation rather than its cinematic portrayal of beliefs, rituals and sacrifices. Plagued with distribution, editing, and production problems, the film persevered and gathered acclaim thanks to career-defining performances by Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, and an incredible amount of support from the Hammer actor.
In 2006, an unintentionally hilarious American remake came and went, along with a companion novel to the original film written by Hardy, entitled Cowboys for Christ. The book’s name is more suited for the adaptation, now named The Wicker Tree, because it hints at the playful and often ridiculous nature of the cult classic’s spiritual successor.
Taking place more than twenty years after the original, the film follows a secular-turned-Christian pop-star named Beth (Brittania Nicol) and her cowboy fiance Steve (Henry Garrett), two Texans sent on an evangelical crusade to the hedonistic, heathen-inhabited areas of Scotland. While initially put off by their reception, the two are approached by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife to perform for and witness to their small, humble town, Tressock. The completely aloof and religiously optimistic couple hit wall after wall with the citizens, who welcome Beth’s musical talents and Steve’s decidedly American charms but are completely turned off by Christ’s presence in their town. The mustached, cartoonish villain has other plans for them though, and invites them to take part in their May Day celebration, thus beginning the odd musical numbers and strange customs.
The Wicker Tree takes everything from The Wicker Man, and exaggerates it to the point of parody. The protagonists, as steadfast in their beliefs as Sgt. Howie, are about as over-the-top with their Goody Two-Shoes nature and purity showboating as Sir Morrison is with his Snidley Whiplash impersonation. The dark humor of the original is still present, but the subtleness is gone; The Wicker Tree is about as in your face as it can possibly be with its satirization of religion, the power of myth, and its predecessor. Hardy smartly plays a majority of the film for laughs, considering the characters’ fates are a foregone conclusion and the original is so distinct in its presentation and tone, and successfully makes jokes at everyone’s expense, Christian and pagan.
It’s a brave, bold move to lampoon such a notable film, and it works nicely more often than not, but The Wicker Tree just can’t match the majesty of the original. It addresses the notion that people disappear year after year in the town thanks to an undercover cop, but doesn’t give you the satisfaction and clarity you really want; it has the weird musical scenes that made The Wicker Man a blast, but they aren’t as fun (and definitely not as sexy without a naked Britt Ekland dancing around); and it wusses out at the climax by overstaying its welcome by just one scene. None of that stops The Wicker Tree from being fun, smart at times, and a good conversation starter. It just doesn’t have the power, suspense, and presence it should.
The Wicker Tree is now on DVD and Blu-ray everywhere.