Barking up the wrong tree

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

I’m a big fan of 1973’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, and about paganism on a remote (and fictional) Scottish island called Summerisle.  Indeed, I’ve posted about it several times.  For the sake of completeness, I feel I should write something too about its semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, which was also directed by Hardy and appeared two years ago.

 

I don’t particularly want to, but I feel I should.

 

For a decade The Wicker Tree was a movie that you occasionally heard rumours about but you wondered if you’d ever actually see.  The film was originally mooted in 2002, with the curious title of The Riding of the Laddie and with Hardy doing both directing and writing duties.  Acting names linked with the project then included Sean Astin, Ewan McGregor, LeAnne Rimes, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee – Lee, of course, had appeared in The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, the charismatic, crafty and decadent aristocrat who orchestrated all those pagan practices on Summerisle, and he’d more recently appeared with Astin and McGregor in the Lord of the Rings and second-cycle Star Wars movies.  No film appeared, but Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel with a different but equally curious title, Cowboys for Christ.

 

(c) Luath Press

 

A fresh attempt to get The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ before the cameras took place in 2007, but before this, in 2006, there appeared an American remake of the original Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn.  Set not on a Scottish island but on an American one, where a matriarchal neo-pagan community keeps its menfolk in shuffling subservience, tends to a giant complex of beehives and will do anything, however horrid, to ensure that its honey-harvest remains healthy, the remake received rotten reviews.  Indeed, it received five nominations at that Oscars-for-terrible-films, the Razzies Awards.

 

I avoided the thing out of principle, until one day I found myself on a long intercontinental flight and noticed it was offered as an inflight movie.  So I decided to give it a try.  Afterwards, I felt like chucking myself out of the nearest emergency hatch.

 

There’s many things to hate about The Wicker Man remake, including its lack of humour and its lack of music – the original was very amusing and had a lovely soundtrack of folk songs, compiled, sung and played by the late Paul Giovanni.  But what I found worst about it was the craven way it ducked the Christian-pagan conflict that was central to Anthony Shaffer’s script in 1973.  The original has an uptight Free Presbyterian police sergeant, played by Edward Woodward, searching for a missing girl on Summerisle and seeing the beliefs he’s held unquestioningly for so long treated by the pagan islanders with a mixture of incomprehension, ignorance and ridicule.  The exchanges between Lee and the increasingly-blustering Woodward mock Christian assumptions in a way that you rarely see in a horror movie.  For example: “We’re a deeply religious people.”  “Religious?  With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests?  And children dancing naked!”  “They do love their divinity lessons.”  “But they are… naked!”  “Naturally!  It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”

 

The 2006 remake avoids all this and blandly keeps shtum about the religious beliefs, if any, of the investigating police officer.  I presume this was to avoid offending cinema audiences in church-going Middle America.

 

Meanwhile The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ was scheduled to start shooting in 2007, but didn’t, and then again in 2008, but didn’t again.  It was meant to be shot in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, which had provided the original Wicker Man with locations such as Creetown, Anwoth, Port Logan, Castle Kennedy and (scene of the unforgettable climax) Burrow Head.  However, the Dumfries and Galloway plans fell through too.

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that filming actually commenced, close to Edinburgh in the towns of Haddington and Gorebridge and the district of Midlothian.  By this time, the stars originally connected with the film had disappeared, except for Lee, and Lee’s participation in the project was severely curtailed after he hurt himself in a set-accident whilst shooting another film.  For a time, Joan Collins was said to be appearing in the film too, but she didn’t make it into the final cast.

 

Completed at last, the film – now called The Wicker Tree – was unveiled at a movie festival in 2011, got a very limited release in the USA in 2012 and later that year crept out with barely a whisper on DVD in the UK.  What reviews it received were unenthusiastic and I didn’t feel any urge to spend money on it until a month ago, when I saw a copy of the DVD selling at a discount in HMV.  So now that I’ve watched it, what can I say about The Wicker Tree?

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Well, kudos first of all to Hardy for restoring the Christian-pagan conflict that the re-makers of The Wicker Man brushed under the carpet.  His main characters are a young Texan couple, Beth (Brittania Nichol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), who are serious evangelical Christians.  Not yet married, they wear purity rings, and they perform a gospel / county-and-western singing act.  Hardy tries to make them interesting by giving them backstories – before seeing the light, Beth was a dodgy Lolita-like pop starlet and Steve had a gambling addiction – but both Nichol and Garrett are deficient in acting ability, which creates a vacuum at the film’s core.  (Their inadequacy underlines how great Edward Woodward was when he played the equivalent role in The Wicker Man.)

 

Beth and Steve’s church in Dallas sends them to Scotland on a mission to convert the ‘heathens’ there.  Presumably by ‘heathens’, they mean ‘atheists’ or ‘members of misguided Christian denominations who’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘pagans’.  In Scotland, the young twosome get invited to the village of Tressock in the Scottish Borders by the local Laird, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The Morrisons are keen that the duo should participate in Tressock’s May Day celebrations, and…  Well, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you’ll know where this is heading.  What bothered me was how upfront the Morrisons are about being pagans – proper pagans, not just atheists or whatever.  I’d have thought their openness about worshipping ancient gods would warn Beth and Steve that this is all very fishy and they should be running 500 miles in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t.  The pair of them, one can only conclude, are really stupid.

 

Also, as Tressock isn’t a distant island like Summerisle, but a village on the Scottish mainland, I’d have expected people in the surrounding, normal villages to start making a connection between Tressock’s odd customs and the way that people are vanishing there every May Day.  Logic, however, is not The Wicker Tree’s strongpoint.

 

Unfortunately, quite a few things are not the film’s strongpoint.  Whereas the humour in the original film was admirably balanced between wit and bawdiness, here the humour is all over the place.  Some of it fails to be funny at all and there’s at least one scene, involving Jacqueline Leonard, her butler (played by Clive Russell) and a dead pet, which feels like it belongs in another pagan-themed British movie, the 1988 meisterwerk that is Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.  Now when I’m in the right mood – i.e. after consuming about ten pints of beer – Lair… seems so deliriously bonkers and camp that it’s rather enjoyable.  But I’d have liked a new instalment in The Wicker Man series to be a bit more… you know, dignified.

 

Elsewhere, things are dropped into the film almost randomly, never developed or never explained.  There’s a nice idea involving a local nuclear power station, run by Morrison, where an accident in the past caused the area to be contaminated and the men to become sterile – hence the community’s interest in those fertility rituals that are part-and-parcel of paganism.  In the original movie, Edward Woodward gradually learns about the parlous state of Summerisle’s agriculture, which explains why the islanders have turned to human sacrifice – desperate situations require desperate remedies.  Indeed, he confronts Christopher Lee with this fact at the film’s climax.  Here though, the nuclear-power-station storyline simply disappears halfway through the film.

 

On the other hand, the wicker tree of the title turns up near the end without any explanation.  The object looks admirably sinister on the movie poster, but what is it actually for?  What does it symbolise?  Why does it have to be a wicker tree?  One gets the impression that Hardy and his producers decided at the last moment that, in order to attract fans of the original movie, they needed a wicker something.  And a tree it was.  But they didn’t have any time to integrate the thing into the script.

 

There’s a final disappointment with The Wicker Tree.  Its predecessor took a real delight in exploring paganism and showing how the belief-system had, subtly, permeated every nook and cranny of the outwardly normal-seeming community on Summerisle – down to the sinister human-shaped and animal-shaped confectionary on sale in the local sweetshop.  (Check out this youtube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZKd9UbdoJY.)  But The Wicker Tree has no such interest in detail.  Tressock is full of pagans, there’s going to be a sacrifice on May Day, and that’s mostly it.

 

Actually, because Tressock is supposed to be in the Scottish Borders (where I’m based), I assume Hardy drew some inspiration from the ‘common ridings’ festivals held by the Borders towns during the summer.  As well as commemorating historical events like 1513’s Battle of Flodden, they celebrate an old practice whereby townspeople would ride along the boundaries of the local common lands and guard against encroachment, raids and plunder by lawless brigands.  Hence at the festivals you get masses of people on horseback, in riding gear, trotting through the countryside and splashing through the rivers.  Also, in one festival, the Kelso Civic Week, the principal man is known as the ‘Laddie’.  So I’m guessing this is how Hardy got his original title, The Riding of the Laddie.

 

And there’s a sequence near the end of the film where Steve – persuaded to become the principal in the Tressock festival – takes part in a traditional event that sees the Laddie pursued by the villagers, on horseback.  This slightly resembles a scene from a proper Borders riding, but in the real thing, although they may look like they’re on a hunt, the riders aren’t chasing anything.

 

For the record, there’s little, if anything, in the Borders common ridings that can be traced back to paganism.  The equestrian events I’ve just described celebrate a practice that started in the 13th and 14th centuries, long after the worship of Celtic deities had died out.  None of the ridings take place as early as May Day — they only really get going in June.  The Peebles festival, the one I have most experience of, is called the Beltane, which obviously sounds pagan and Celtic, but it was actually inaugurated in 1897 as a way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  You’ll see a fair number of men dressed up as women — at the Beltane, for example, in the fancy-dress parade and during the Rugby Club show that’s traditionally performed outside Peebles’ Tontine Hotel — which is certainly something of a pagan trope.  But I very much doubt if any of the participants believe they’re acting in imitation of old pagan fertility rituals.  More likely, they’re just having fun with fishnet stockings, mini-skirts and lots of chest and bum-padding.

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

But anyway, back to The Wicker Tree.  For all my criticisms, I did enjoy it considerably more than The Wicker Man remake.  As I said, like the original film, it pitches Christianity against paganism and it attempts to be humorous, though sometimes not successfully.  And like its distinguished predecessor, it draws on folk songs for its musical soundtrack, though inevitably, without Paul Giovanni, the music isn’t quite as good this time around.  And if you can see beyond Nichol and Garrett’s non-acting, the supporting cast is fine.  Graham McTavish is solid as the villainous Lachlan Morrison – McTavish, incidentally, is best known for playing Dwalin, the fearsome Mohican-headed, Glaswegian-accented dwarf in The Hobbit movies – and Clive Russell gives a performance of enjoyable, pantomime-style villainy as Beame, his lumbering manservant.  The injured Christopher Lee, alas, is reduced to a cameo performance.  We catch a glimpse of him in a flashback, appearing to a young Lachlan Morrison and encouraging him to go to the pagan side.  He might be Lord Summerisle but this is never made clear.

 

The best performance, though, comes from the strikingly-named actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays the village’s resident nymphomaniac / temptress.  Her role corresponds to that of Britt Ekland in the original Wicker Man, but Hardy’s script makes her a more nuanced and sympathetic character and Weeks tackles the role so whole-heartedly that she totally eclipses the vapid Nichol.  Particularly good is a dreamy scene where Garrett happens across Weeks while she bathes naked in a country stream, hoping that the river deity will impregnate her.  One only wishes that the film had contained more moments like this.

 

Also good – in a chilling way – is a scene near the end where Tressock’s population turns on the Christians, chanting a pagan song with the same lyrics that were in a gospel song that the duo, earlier, had sung to those villagers.  As well as being disturbing, this acts as a subtle reminder of Christianity’s predilection for borrowing things from older religions, to make itself more palatable for converts.  Just as you’ll find in old churches carvings and sculptures of things that are recognisably pagan, so Beth and Steve’s Christian song turns out to have a pagan antecedent.  Actually, this scene should have served as the film’s climax, but Hardy insists on following it with further stuff – and the further stuff isn’t as good.

 

To sum up, then, The Wicker Tree isn’t as bad as The Wicker Man’s American remake, but it’s disappointing nonetheless and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants their fond memories of the 1973 classic to stay unsullied.

 

The irony is that the original Wicker Man is now seen as a milestone in a British movie sub-genre that’s been dubbed ‘folk-horror’.  In British folk-horror films, the threat is something that comes from Britain’s own historical or folkloric past – such films don’t rely on monsters imported from continental Europe or from Hollywood, such as vampires, werewolves or zombies.  And just as The Wicker Tree limped out on DVD in 2012, a slew of new British folk-horror movies, made by younger filmmakers and of a higher quality, were also appearing.  I’ll be writing about those films in another post, very soon.

 

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