Horror movies – God bless ’em for their ability to have audiences shaking their heads in frustration as yet another group of teens head off to the haunted woods/abandoned building/kill zone of their choice, only to have their now ritualised behaviours interrupted and curtailed by whichever masked serial killer/escaped demon/demented whackjob happens to be lurking nearby. (And before anyone complains, yes, that description doesn’t cover every horror movie, but it is indicative of a great deal of modern “horror”; the true horror is that these tired, hoary old storylines are trotted out time and again.)
With horror movies becoming increasingly derivative and lacking in originality, the idea of watching one of them with a number at the end of the title isn’t exactly thrilling. Horror sequels rarely ever live up to the promise that may have been delivered by their predecessor, and it’s a very rare horror sequel indeed that expands effectively on, or outstrips, its parent. Not even the prospect of the same writer/director at the helm is a guarantee of quality. Here’s one example of a horror sequel that was much anticipated, but which didn’t live up to everyone’s expectations.
The Wicker Tree (2011) / D: Robin Hardy / 96m
Cast: Britannia Nicol, Henry Garrett, James Mapes, Lesley Mackie, Clive Russell, Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Honeysuckle Weeks, Christopher Lee
The Wicker Man (1973) is an acknowledged horror classic, a brooding, unsettling movie that lingers in the memory, and features one of Christopher Lee’s finest performances. The news that the movie’s writer/director Robin Hardy was working on a sequel first surfaced in 2002, and Lee was set to return as Lord Summerisle. But problems with financing kept the movie from being made, and Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel (unfortunately titled Cowboys for Christ). Hardy next adapted his novel into the screenplay that was used for The Wicker Tree, and it’s this process that perhaps gives the best clue as to why the movie doesn’t work as successfully as it should.
Returning to themes set around the belief in paganism in the modern world, The Wicker Tree could, and perhaps should, have been a worthy follow-up to Hardy’s classic original. But the flaws are there from the beginning, and it’s not long before the viewer has no option but to realise that this sequel isn’t going to live up to expectations. Hardy’s story is as basically simple as in The Wicker Man: a religious individual finds themselves caught up in a pagan community, and learns that they are being used as part of a fertility rite that will ensure the community’s survival. But where The Wicker Man had subtlety and a well-judged sense of impending doom for its central character, The Wicker Tree lacks both these elements, and struggles to establish itself as a worthy successor. Part of the problem is the central character of Beth (Nicol), an evangelical Christian from Texas. Thanks to Hardy’s script, and Nicol’s performance, Beth is a character we never get to really know or sympathise with. With no one to root for, or get anxious about, the movie lacks tension as a result.
There’s also a problem with another character, Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish). Originally meant to be played by Christopher Lee, the role is this movie’s equivalent of The Wicker Man‘s Lord Summerisle. But Hardy doesn’t do enough with the role to give McTavish a chance of making him as mesmeric as Lee, or as quietly chilling. McTavish was originally meant to play the role of Morrison’s butler, Beame (Russell), but when Lee was unable to fill the part, McTavish was “promoted”. In doing so, Hardy appears to have recast the part without rewriting the character to match the actor’s skill and ability (McTavish isn’t a patch on Lee). This leads to scenes where McTavish looks uncomfortable, and where his credibility is often in question.
The actions of the community lend themselves to some unfortunate moments of unintended levity, and the May Day celebrations that will culminate in another sacrifice. There are too many of these moments for comfort, and Hardy seems unable to recognise that these are hurting the movie rather than supporting it. Echoes of the first movie abound, but lack a similar effect: where Britt Ekland’s naked dance is rightly remembered for its eerie, yet uncompromising sexuality, here we have Honeysuckle Weeks topless in a river; with apologies to Ms Weeks, it doesn’t evoke the same response.
Tonally the movie is all over the place, with scenes not having even the barest impact and the plot being propelled forward without any sense that there’s a real through line. As it moves forward, the movie struggles to maintain a sense of the impending horror that awaits Beth come May Day, and although knowledge of the first movie isn’t necessary, the fact that it does exist, and that it is so good, makes Hardy’s mistreatment of his own material so hard to understand. He’s like a man adrift, failing to connect with a story that he’s spent so much time developing, and that translates to the screen. In taking so long to get his movie to the screen it appears that he’s lost sight of almost everything that made The Wicker Man so compelling.
Rating: 3/10 – a movie that makes you wonder just how its creator could have got it so badly wrong, The Wicker Tree is a lumpen, dreadful mess full of equally dreadful performances, and a storyline that defies logical appreciation; that it tarnishes the memory of The Wicker Man is bad enough, but being a bad movie through and through is worse still.