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The Wicker Tree (2010)
Director: Robin Hardy

review by Paul Higson

Robin Hardy is a very nice man. But nice men don't necessarily make the best filmmakers. Some of the most pleasant film directors I have met have turned out some of the poorest movies. Robin Hardy, however, directed The Wicker Man (1973), an undisputed horror classic that initially premiered on a double bill with Don't Look Now (1972), from EMI who had bought out British Lion (who already had releasing troubles with another fiery human sacrifice in Ken Russell's film The Devils, 1971). The Wicker Man obtained a cult following and the director a reputation alongside it, but for Hardy that reverence perhaps has more to do with a subsequent paucity of output.

It would be 1986 before he would complete his next feature, the notoriously embarrassing psychosexual thriller The Fantasist. It was puzzlingly bad, after all, it too had the sex and the horror, but when comparing it to his cult hit it was easy to draw the conclusion that the important absent hand here was that of the scriptwriter. Penning the script himself, Hardy was no Anthony Shaffer - who had scripted The Wicker Man. The Hardy script had characters behave irrationally and their utterances were often bizarre and unlikely. Hardy also insisted on writing The Wicker Tree, a re-imagining of his debut feature, and it carries many of the terrible traits of The Fantasist; affectedness, absurdity and, oddly enough, a sexual naivety.

Characters react unnaturally in a Robin Hardy script. In The Wicker Tree, Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard) notes that the American couple are sporting rings on their fingers prompting her to remark "to show that you are engaged." The born again Christian American visitors respond that they are actually the symbols of their chastity. What would commonly have been expressed as an ordinary assumption instead becomes a cloddish question because the chastity bands need to be mentioned. Shortly after, the Lady Delia will marvel again enough to mention that someone is "fixing up a mike for her" which again serves as a bumbling precursor to another lame statement (this time about the ability of any pop singer to really sing).

Prior to this the film already had a few inadvertent belly-laughs as a preacher sends this evangelist double act to rescue the lost people of Scotland, where there are, shockingly, men and women who do not believe in angels. A screen title informs us that Scotland is on the borders with England. They arrive in a Scottish city which looks more like the outskirts of a village before relocating to the even more remote town. The sequence where people shut the door in their face as they bring the gospel to the porch seems to be inspired by the audition process montage of The Commitments (1991), and flatmate interviews of Trainspotting (1996), though with far less success. Their hosts are Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and Lady Delia, a picture of propriety on reception but out of earshot expressing lewd abandon. Lady Delia, for example, speculates on the visiting pop starlet's rural upbringing: "I bet she smells of the dairy; a musky bush, milky tits and just a hint of warm cow-shit behind the ears." Lines like this make for rude entertainment in an otherwise shabby film.

Dull Christian Revivalist singer, Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol), and her dumb cowboy beau Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett) are the expected fertility ritual sacrifice this time out. Beth had earlier pop success in the Brittany Spears model, a schoolgirl hussy with sexually suggestive lyrics and provocative dance routines yet she is still a virgin. She continues to fend off the horny Steve's advances. In the hotel room they have to sit and watch her old promo video which seems to be comprised of a single unedited shot of her singing and dancing with two out-of-condition truckers. When she tries to turn it off, her image, like a hologram, replaces it, strutting in the middle of the room.

The community is driven by its own lore but welcomes the challenge from the visiting Christian simpletons, little taking them seriously, humouring them until the day of sacrifice. The viewer recognises the story template, and rightly suspects a sacrifice is in the offing. But in The Wicker Man, Edward Woodward's policeman was not only the ideal candidate but a man on a mission, with an entire island against him. There was conflict and a strict line of division augmented by the hope that if, or when, found the missing girl at least would become his ally. In The Wicker Tree, Hardy weakens the threat by doubling the potential victim number and including characters that either have no part in the conspiracy to kill or develop doubts as they fall for one of the victims.

Honeysuckle Weeks plays Lolly, the posh temptress who will bafflingly fall for the boring lummox Stephen and try to sabotage the 'riding of the laddie' ceremony which will lead Stephen into a deadly trap. There is also a policeman stationed there who seems not to be either local or a participant in the murderous rituals. He is never under threat except to exhaustion from regular trysts with the nymphomaniac Lolly. Portrayed by Weeks, better known as the polite and pretty chauffeur in Foyle's War, the actress is the sexpot of the film and when it comes to the raunch factor successfully replaces the combined efforts of Ingrid Pitt, Britt Eklund, and Britt's stunt bum of the original.

Hardy appears to have forgotten that in the earlier foray, Woodward's policeman is our companion for the entire film and we are welded to him and become him for the journey, virgin or not. In the sequel our attentions are split not only between the two visitors who separate for some of the screen time but the film will also move to private conversations that do not include the victims. Towards the end of the film when it should be building to a climax the director will cut away from them protagonists to catch up on the comical antics of the staff as Daisy (Lesley Mackie) attends the injured penis of Beame (Clive Russell). Anthony Schaffer gave the first film a direction, endpoint and balance. Hardy's approach appears to be to dabble with tale, introducing new elements while not considering the effect that this might have on the resulting story.

It is impossible to care one jot about the fate of the protagonists and the daft villagers can do whatever they want with them for all I care. But films this bad will always possess those adverse rewards. The Wicker Tree is so monumentally terrible that it cannot help but be amusing and whenever Honeysuckle Weeks is on-screen either naked or spouting innuendo, she proves to be the riveting bad girl next door of our dreams. The film incorporates new folk numbers speaking of the fertility rituals but if they are traditional then they are weak and the lyrics terrible.

The Wicker Tree



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