As the lights went down on The Wicker Tree I wondered how many people in the room had ever had the luxury of seeing its precursor without knowing what The Wicker Man actually was. I must have seen the film's first TV screening in the late 70s, and it blew my mind. I can't say I was ever scared by Robin Hardy's 1973 original but I responded very much to its eerieness in a way that I hadn't ever before with a genre film. To be honest, I never took to Edward Woodward's uptight cop and even thought Summerisle might be a great place to visit. My favourite scene remains Sergeant Howie's visit to the lord of the manor, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), on a day when naked teenage girls are performing a fertility ritual in the grounds outside. “Good afternoon, Sergeant Howie,” Summerisle beams. “I trust the sight of the young people refreshes you.” Sgt Howie cannot contain his rage. “No, sir,” he foams, “it does NOT refresh me.” I've always loved that scene because it is the heart of the movie; the more Howie rages against the pagan habits of the place, the more delighted Summerisle becomes: Sgt Howie is almost literally digging his own grave.
To me, The Wicker Man has always been a brilliant black comedy – brilliant because, like Psycho, it plays so beautifully with audience sympathies. Sgt Howie is a force for goodness and justice – but he's also a self-righteous cock. And, going in to The Wicker Tree, I had a horrible feeling that Hardy, returning to his own material after nearly 40 years, might have been blinkered by the film's transformation from an intelligent B-movie shocker into a highbrow, culturally accepted classic. I'm going out on a limb here (no pun intended) but I think The Wicker Tree is a decent, if far from perfect, sequel of sorts to the original. Some of the jokes aren't too funny, some of the scares aren't too scary, but I do think Hardy has some beautifully mischievous points to make about religion, even if he doesn't make them quite so eloquently without the help of the late Anthony Shaffer.
It starts in the present day (I think), with country star Beth Boothby (Britannia Nicol) taking a break from her Miley Cyrus-style stardom to drag her cowboy boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett) on a Bible-bashing tour of God-forsaken Scotland. Edinburgh literally slams its doors in their faces, so the two, at the invitation of the suave, Lord Summerisle-esque Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), decamp to the village of Tressock, where Beth is to be made May Queen and Steve, nice but dim, is to join her as “the Laddie”, a symbol of masculinity and virility. But while in Tressock the two face up to their disreputable pasts: both are reborn Christians and both are close to lapsing.
Just as you don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind's blowing, you don't really need to be told what kind of thing happens next (yet another creaky pagan trap springs). But what I liked about the movie is that Hardy embraces the obvious: it's a film with a very good sense of humour about itself. There are budgetary issues for sure – a pop video for Beth's pre-religion hit Trailer Trash Love (I think) looks like anything but – and the attempts to create the atmosphere of a fully inhabited town never hit the same heights as The Wicker Man. But the comedy is knowing, the cast is game, and my neighbour in the cinema made the same observation that I did, which is that would have it played rather well as part of the very cinematic 1980s Hammer House Of Horror TV series.
The music could have been a lot better integrated, especially in a party scene that comes with a very MOR soft-muzak score (from the director that hated having to have an electric guitar riff in the original!). But this was to be – for me – very much a not-so-guilty pleasure. Like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, it could never hope to match the ending of the original, but there's something off-the-wall and bespoke about all three of Hardy's films that really appeals to me. You'll see faces, performances and scenes that you'll never see in any other movie (usually for good reason). But perhaps it's a good thing that he's never made more than those three. Like The Wicker Man and the little-seen follow-up The Fantasist (1989), this is another uneven renegade production that throws up images, moods, lines, ideas and jokes that are sure to stay longer in the mind than many more professional, refined and meticulous productions have faded into the movie mist.