When it was first announced that Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 classic The Wicker Tree, would be writing and directing a sequel based on his novel Cowboys for Christ, I was interested, but gradual reveals of the plot had me worried that the film would be a rehash of the original with two lead characters instead of one. I shouldn't have worried: The Wicker Tree definitely doesn't feel like a retread of the first movie. It's also a cheap-looking, poorly written, flatly performed mess that can't even muster up the energy to be infuriating as much as it is irritatingly boring. In retrospect, maybe a blatant rip-off would've been the best-case scenario.
Instead of the rigid Sergeant Howie and his ideological opposition to the lifestyle of those on Summerisle, The Wicker Tree gives us born-again Christian pop singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her dumb cowboy boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett), embarking on a tour of Scotland with the goal of recruiting some new churchgoers. When the citizens of the big city slam their doors in the pair's faces, they head out into the countryside, where Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard) are sure they'll have better luck getting through to less jaded folks.
The brilliance of the original Wicker Man lies in the strength of the debate between Howie (Edward Woodward) and Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), and the pitch-perfect gnawing anxiety that builds up as Howie digs deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the island. The Wicker Tree offers no such back-and-forth, and a complete lack of creepiness. Beth and Steve are completely clueless, pleased by everything and everyone they come in contact with, driven by idiotic motivation to accept that everything is as it seems, and generally uninterested or unaware of anything unusual about their new surroundings. It's weird, too, because some of the more prominent characters are pretty ridiculous, from the stuttering man who speaks only in rhymes and carries a raven (David Plimmer) to the beautiful horse trainer (Honeysuckle Weeks) with an insatiable sexual appetite. McTavish's Morrison is meant to be a surrogate for Lee's Summerisle, but he and Beth hardly interact after the first half-hour, and McTavish's motivation is far less compelling than that of Summerisle.
Hardy's focus, behind the camera and as a screenwriter, is deeply lacking. Much of the movie is inexplicably taken up by Lolly, the horse trainer, who desires a baby and eventually seduces Steve in the hope of getting pregnant. Hardy plays her attraction to Steve as authentic, and she tries to help him as the movie goes on, but Lolly is also seen at random times having wild sex with a local cop named Orlando (Alessandro Conetta), without appearing to have any feelings for Steve. Later, Hardy gives Orlando an awkward exit that fails to define Lolly's motivation and nearly fails to simply convey the event to the audience (a sequence of shots is shown without much emphasis on what they mean). Hardy also gets hung up on several terrible sequences of awkward comedy, both intentional (crotch-hit humor, really) and unintentional (a ridiculously fake dead cat prop, the worst music video of all time).
Much of The Wicker Man's effectiveness can also be attributed to the casting: Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee were equally matched, and delivered powerful performances. Nicol, comparatively, isn't within a hundred miles of Woodward, giving a flat performance with wooden line readings and little more than a "bad smell" sourface when given terrifying news. McTavish is better but fails to really make an impression. Again, the roles are inherently lacking, McTavish with weaker drive and the simple, boring arc of Boothby as a reformed sinner, but neither actor comes close to bringing out anything in the writing. Weeks probably fares the best, exuding a little sexiness through copious nudity and an upbeat attitude, but the film counters that with a truly embarrassing cameo appearance by Lee himself, who appears to be falling asleep, reciting the simplest, flattest dialogue in front of the world's worst greenscreen effect.
Where The Wicker Man placed two men with specific ideals against one another and watched the sparks fly, The Wicker Tree offers a blank canvas. There's no conflict here, no friction, no hook. There is no reason Beth Boothby couldn't have been subbed out for a hundred other random characters with any number of dreams and goals, and the result is a film so lacking in dramatic tension it nearly fails to be a story. Most sequels are a mess, particularly those with long gaps between entries, but this is truly an embarrassment, and a total waste of time.
The Wicker Tree has nicely-designed artwork that evokes one of the original Wicker Man posters from back in the day, without appearing to modern or cluttered, and with a pleasing absence of goofy Photoshop (like throwing the lead actors' faces into the image). I do question one of the pull quotes on the back, though: "You'll see faces, performances, and scenes you'll never see in any other movie."
The Video and Audio
The Wicker Tree's AVC-encoded 2.35:1 1080p presentation starts promising but quickly goes downhill. Although the film was shot on the RED One, daytime exterior sequences are a tiny bit soft and grainy, which actually creates a nice filmic look. When the film goes indoors, however, the grain turns into garish digital noise, and colors really take a turn for the worse, almost always appearing washed out, and at other times, digitally tweaked or over-saturated. Blacks are frequently an ugly green color, and in one early hotel room scene, the purple on a dress even bleeds, with some weird yellows flaring out around it. Some posterization is also visible during the title sequence, and at at least one point I spotted some faint artifacting.
A Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 track is strong. Modern small films tend to have too little going on in terms of sound design, but The Wicker Tree is a well-mixed movie. Filled churches, people singing songs in pubs, horses in fields, even the inside of a crow's mind are packed with nice little surround touches. Top it off with a decent score -- a rarity in low-budget movies -- and you have a nice, well-rounded aural presentation.
Two basic extras are included. "The Making of The Wicker Tree" (12:15), and a reel of deleted scenes (11:41). One can tell they're in trouble from the beginning of the featurette when Robin Hardy's first comments are about "the genre we invented with The Wicker Man" and how "nobody else has ever really tried it." Deleted scenes primarily consist of more dancing and singing, but there is an alternate ending-ish thing in there.
Trailers for Battle Royale and The Divide play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Wicker Tree is also included.
Yes, it's true: even the Nicolas Cage remake was better than this. At least you could laugh at the absurdity of it and some of the themes from the original film were visible underneath Cage's acting. Skip it.
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