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Tuesday, 13 December 2011



There may be spoilers ahead, made of corn ~ watch before reading!


The ending of The Wicker Tree, a film that explores similar themes to the original classic The Wicker Man from 1973, is what you might well expect it to be; there's a wicker effigy and a burning. In the original it was Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie getting hot under the collar, but here there's a twist and the person who goes up in smoke, wasn't really meant to. There are plenty of neat twists at the end of The Wicker Tree, and throughout this random, often very funny, sinister treat - and sequel of sorts. However, it you are expecting the original, you will be sorely disappointed and even a bit flabbergasted. 

The Wicker Tree explores extremes: ancient and modern. Two Dallas-based born again Christians from the 'Cowboys for Christ' movement - boyfriend and girlfriend wearing chastity rings, which it seems they may have forgotten about on occasion - come to the small, Scottish border village of Tressock. Like in the original Wicker Man, the villagers aren't happy. They are all infertile for a start, but it's not through lack of trying. In fact, one local village gal - Lolly - has her heart set on getting pregnant with the local police force; all one of him (actually an undercover investigator of a local pagan cult in disguise). She persuades him to try doing it seven times a night, in lots of different ways - including one time wearing a donkey's head (looking like a leftover prop from the original movie no less - sacrilege!). It can only all end in tears - or at the very least, in the late night A&E.

Brand spanking new actress Brittania Nicol as the young American gospel singer Beth Boothby (former Miley Cyrus-like pop star and singer of the rather naughty 'Trailer Trash Love') shines with a portrayal of tainted innocence and is fall-in-love-captivating as the possibly doomed future May Queen of Tressock.

The sinister Sir Lachlan Morrison (who lords it over the locals in the same way Christopher Lee did in the original) believes that by sacrificing this innocent young virgin, the rest of the village will suddenly become very fertile indeed. Sir Lachlan is played by Graham McTavish, and a very fruity-voiced, understated performance it is too. It’s boo/ hiss time as Sir Lachlan targets this fated Ken and Barbie couple of the born again American Christian world, and his remedy for lack of fertility is cheaper and more hands-on than a packet of Viagra. And less likely to appear in your inbox.

Bizarrely, the fertility problem (that seems to affect the male population mainly, as a baby is born to a local, sired by an outsider, before the end credits flow) and which the village has kept quiet - we later find out - has something to do with a nearby nuclear plant's leakage of something nasty into the river. Steve the Celibate (played by Henry Garrett, wonderfully flawed and awed-out by the weird community he's found himself in)  is soon skinny-dipping in the toxic river with randy local lass Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks, here channelling the sexed-up spirit of Britt Ekland from the original movie with renewed pouting and wantonness) in-between her visits to the police station and chopping the heads off local donkeys.

Most of the women in the village are feeling broody due to all the local men firing blanks - and not through the fault of too much imported Buckfast wine but that pesky radiation leak (and thereby putting all condom suppliers in the local area, I reckon, out of business). It's all getting increasingly like a random Simpsons episode where Homer presses the wrong button at the nuclear plant and allows the fish population to grow two heads - but here it's the male sperm that get zapped. 

Steve, mid-'dip' with Lolly, loses his chastity ring somewhere at the bottom. Of the river. Or in Lolly's corn dolly. If these two have a baby you can safely expect it to look like the thing seen at the end of Rosemary's Baby or at the very least the baby alien with a Devil's tongue born green in the sci-fi series 'V'. 


Christopher Lee was too ill to appear in this movie as anything other than a quick flashback so appears briefly as a frail old man talking to the young Lachlan - about how all religions think they can change fate in some way, although "none really can, but still, we keep trying". The cameo is a nice respectful nod to the original that maybe seems slightly out of place but still brought a big spontaneous cheer from the audience. That, to my mind, means something was worth doing. Lee's cameo, despite some criticism of this token nod prior to the film's release, is worth having, if only because, without Lee - a Wicker movie of however loose a kind, is like the mow without the barley.

The cast of The Wicker Tree sing many traditional folk songs throughout: in pubs, at home, in front of a burning victim - you name it. You get it. The music - a particular love of director of both Wicker films, the quite legendary Robin Hardy - really elevates the film to a creepier kind of level. And then there's the rather startlingly brilliant 'Trailer Trash Love'.. You know, I hope that Brittania Nicol who plays the dizzy and determined Beth Boothby gets picked up for more film roles soon. She brings a freshness to familiar territory here - a 'startled little girl lostness'; fighting back against the obvious shame of her previous life as a grungy teen pop idol before she was 'born again'.

There's a flashback to a long lost video, played as Beth watches in horror from her hotel bed, of the raunchily-dressed star performing her most infamous hit single: 'Trailer Trash Love' - somehow it has been discovered by the local hacks. The video is actually pretty hilarious, but could easily have driven the film into self-stabbing parody as Beth gets to tempt and tease two scary looking bikers in a bar whilst waving her denim hotpants in their faces only for it to all end in a synchronised dance routine - two bikers and one 'hot rock chick' in a slightly camp line-dance. Oh yeah!

If you've ever seen 70's sitcom Man About The House, you'll know that Brittania Nicol has a look of Sally Thomsett about her; a look perfect for both horror and comedy (although Thomsett rarely did real scares, she did appear in sinister cult cinema and TV from Straw Dogs to Doomwatch) with that classic look of slightly satanic innocence blueprinted best by Nastassja Kinski in To The Devil a Daughter (1976).

*** Severer spoilers follow for the rest of this review ***

In fact, in director and writer Robin Hardy's on-stage introduction to the movie, where we also get introduced to the mostly young cast he's assembled for this latest project, we are warned that there is a lot of humour, as well as horror, in the film. Hardy wasn't kidding. The Wicker Tree is often played for laughs, albeit it's laughs direct from the darkest corners of the mind - the ‘side splitting and bleeding profusely’-side of funny. The Wicker Man had a script from Anthony Schaffer but The Wicker Tree is written by Hardy, based upon his novel 'Cowboys For Christ'.

The humour reaches a certain pitch in the aforementioned 'donkey head' sex scene. After five orgasms in one night with that donkey's head on, the local copper gets to try it on for a sixth time (on the way, perhaps, to seven) with a scarf tied to a place 'he won't ever have tried it tied to before'. Tiny-printed subtitles are used to translate all the grunting and groaning. Shortly after this scene, an ambulance speeds down a local road, near the station we don't know for sure that the local copper/ undercover agent is in the back, but . . This Carry On-like scene ends hinting that funny in this neck of the woods usually ends in death or injury of some kind - and that's exactly what we have to look forward to as the film builds to a downbeat climax.

I also enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the moment when the creepy butler Beame (Clive Russell adding grotesque humour) almost has his left testicle taken off by Beth, as a nasty implement shoots up the poor man’s kilt. Mind you, he was trying to inject the girl with a poison of some kind as she slept; ready to embalm her. This scene earned itself a big cheer from the audience. I now know never to wear a kilt in a village imagined by Robin Hardy.

There's also a very slapstick moment with a dead cat. No really - you had to be there! The cat licks the poisoned milk intended for Beth and gets taken down to breakfast the next morning by the lady of the manor - still being stroked, despite being as rigid as one of the stuffed animals on the wall, and dumped in a nearby bin. "We're going to miss him" - says Sir Lachlan, deadpan, before biting on his toast. Crunch! But don’t take the humour too seriously – there’s plenty of nasty stuff going on here as well, worthy of any horror fan’s cup of drool.

Director Hardy recounts the moment where Christopher Lee told him quite directly - in that famously black treacly-embalmed voice of his - that there was "enough horror in this movie to melt the bowels of a brass statue". Now there’s a thought to dwell on. What a tagline that is! And there is a lot of horror. There's a shocking climatic scene of cannibalism and, yes, actual embalming - as well as random outbreaks of violence, made all the more shocking by the calm of the gorgeous lilting folk songs and speckles of warm, earthy humour.


Enough humour here then to make us drift into occasional farce but also enough disturbing horror moments to remind us that this man - Robin Hardy - directed one of the all-time greatest, most unnatural of horror movies ever and for many, including myself, 1973's The Wicker Man will never be bettered.

There was a remake of The Wicker Man too, in 2006, starring Nicolas Cage that was as surely-to-god cursed as it was terrible. The Wicker Tree is far more official a kind of sequel featuring script and direction by the director of the original - but it's not a better movie, or a worse one, it's just a very different one.

A few stand-out moments drive the film into the same classic horror-seeded barley meadows and fields of corn-ripeness as its predecessor. Especially effective is the set piece at the end of the film where the born again Christians really come up against the villagers. The biggest monster in this movie is always in a group of people acting together against you on your own; that’s real terror. Separately, they are all less scary. Silly even. But together, they are truly terrifying; like a wild pack of wolves, devouring their prey.

Steve finds himself trapped in an ancient ruin. Beth finds herself trapped in a village where nobody wants to help her. There's something horrid and cruel hanging in the air and it's about to be made real, and it's no longer something of legend and story. I felt very uncomfortable in some of these final scenes - I felt trapped. 

For me, the film succeeded as a work of horror as a result of the effect it had on me at times. Not all the way through. I think, because the scares don't come all the way through. The Wicker Man didn't really need traditional scares but The Wicker Tree maybe embraces the terror a little more literally than its predecessor. But it's no bad thing. As Robin Hardy states: it's not a remake or sequel; it's a film that "shares similarities with the original".

And he’s right. This – I think – in a time where the remake or rehash remains box office bait, is a move both refreshing and bold. I didn’t spend the running time of The Wicker Tree thinking about the original. But I did feel we were in the same place as before. It felt as dangerous a place to be. But it was a brave step in a new direction; less precisely heady and even more satirical of wider customs and cultures. Time to welcome in the new crop, as it were - and dance a little jig around it.

For such a respected director, Robin Hardy makes far too few movies; when asked why he has only directed a handful (actually less than a handful, just three in fact, and that's including The Wicker Tree!) by a member of the audience at this screening, he tells us that it's because he: likes "doing other things too" - like writing, or concentrating on his love of music. And really, both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree are horror musicals at heart.

At the opening of the new film, there's a fabulous flight of direction; a single-take shot with the camera entering the manor house, and winding its way downstairs - all the way down to the deep cavernous kitchen where that creepy butler is splashing blood against the kitchen door that we expect is from a human sacrifice but actually find out is blood from a hunting kill he is carving up for lunch.

It's a brilliant opening and a perfect battering of the senses; a brutal kick to convention as you'd expect. I felt like cheering. Robin Hardy - welcome back my boy! And if you don't like it - you better watch out, because apparently there will be a new 'Wicker' movie coming soon. Hardy tells us this after the end credits to the latest movie have rolled; welcoming to the stage his next, not unexpectedly pretty, young actress to star (or feel the next sting of the wicker branch).

There's a slight hint of old school nudge, nudge about Hardy at times and his emphasis over the attractiveness of his assembled cast; like a randy country Lord of the Manor - but it's quite endearing. Hardy is, in effect, on stage - not that far removed from Lord Summerisle himself. It may just have been, on the night, the mood I was in. All the cast clearly have great affection for Hardy who commands attention and respect; speaks eloquently about his love of music and writing - of life. 

The next movie, Hardy says (although the gaps between the man's movies don't really hold out the promise of a quick turnaround in this franchise, if that's what he plans) will be called The Wrath of the Gods (but not, hopefully - of the critics, who have been mostly lukewarm towards this latest crop in the Wicker saga). Unfairly lukewarm I feel, as The Wicker Tree is one big corn dolly of surreal, sinister, sap-dripping fun and I can’t wait to carry on this bittersweet, song-filled journey with Robin Hardy and his eager young cast to cornfields new.

words: mark gordon palmer

Note: This review of The Wicker Tree was written in late 2011. It's now summer 2014. The promised follow-up - The Wrath of the Gods, is still in pre-production and Brittania Nicol, the star of The Wicker Tree, hasn't even made another movie. It's a disappearance that remains as much a mystery today as the whereabouts of Sergeant Howie.

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