Dir. Robin Hardy
Based on Hardy’s own novel Cowboys For Christ, The Wicker Tree isn’t so much a sequel to The Wicker Man, more a curious companion piece. Incorporating many of the same themes, though in a much more knowing way, it is the tale of two young chaste American missionaries who travel to the wilds of Scotland to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who ‘don’t believe in angels.’ Seemingly embraced by the local community, the pair are invited to participate in the annual May Queen celebrations, with inevitably fatal consequences…
The Wicker Man cast a long shadow over cult horror cinema. While it is none other than Robin Hardy who has returned to plough the furrow of folk horror, religious extremism and earthy sensuality he essentially created with that film, the results this time around are much less fertile. The source material, his novel Cowboys For Christ, unfurled as a slow-burning, evocatively written work that pitched modern evangelical Christianity against paganism and built slowly and surely towards an expected but still quietly powerful denouement. Obviously in adapting material from page to screen, there will be certain elements that get lost in the translation. Whole subplots that enriched characterisation in the book never made it to the screen and the result damages certain characters and stunts the sympathy audiences should have for them.
While there was a night-dark humour that undercut events in The Wicker Man - playful amusement was generated from Sergeant Howie’s devout conservatism and its contrast with the hedonistic islanders - it was always backed by sinister foreshadowing and creeping dread. Humour is much more farcical and knowing here and the result is an uneven tone that lurches from Monty Pythonesque shenanigans involving kilts and ice-cubes, to barbed comments on religion and the Silver Ring virginity pledge popular in American Christian communities. Of course it isn’t really fair to judge this film solely on the expectations its classic predecessor conjures. While the knowingness removes tension (we know from the outset the missionaries are going to become victims of a blood sacrifice), it is well handled and effective in certain instances. Certain exchanges between characters and myriad double-edged comments essentially wink at the audience throughout proceedings. This is rather chillingly realised in the scene where the missionaries are joined in song by the villagers when they sing the hymn Power in The Blood. The cross purposes of both parties as they sing the hymn, with its sacrificial connotations (which are completely lost on the missionaries), are never more sinisterly realised.
The protagonists, cowboy Steve and gospel chanteuse Beth (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) are painted with the broadest of strokes; two-dimensional dumb Americans who naïvely preach redemption without ever really grasping the deeper implications. Some attempts are made to flesh them out, though these remain sadly undeveloped. Hardy seems to imply that they are as lost and desperate as the pagan villagers; both parties leaning on religion as a solution for something they lack or have no control over. A couple of scenes suggest that this pair are somehow on the wrong path, forced to bury and conceal their true selves. A momentary shard of pathos glints in the scene in which Beth listens to one of her old CDs and reminisces on her past ‘pop’ persona - a Britney Spears alike who sings about ‘Trailer Trash Love’ - before forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Likewise, the scene where Steve deftly uses a deck of cards to tell the story of Christ - coupled with the realisation that he only stumbled into Christianity because of his infatuation with Beth - suggest he’d much rather be elsewhere and is ill at ease with the responsibility of being a missionary. This should enhance audience sympathy and heighten suspense, but it’s all too brief and as a result the inevitable fate of the missionaries lacks the powerful impact it should have.
Beautiful cinematography and interesting use of traditional folk songs and hymns provide the film with a lush and evocative atmosphere. Part homage, part pastiche, part satirical send-up, The Wicker Tree emerges as a light/half hearted variation of the irresistible themes of The Wicker Man and while it lacks the power and scope of that film, it’s still an interesting and quirky meditation on the sinister nature of religion.