Nearly forty years after the release of the cult classic THE WICKER MAN, director Robin Hardy has returned to the screen with a "spiritual sequel" entitled THE WICKER TREE, as adapted from his own novel Cowboys for Christ.
Betty and Steve embark on a trip to Scotland to perform missionary work in the name of Jesus, where they are invited to preach the gospel in the small and hedonistic town of Tressock by the leading lord and lady. Their good nature quickly betrays them when they are fooled into playing the parts of the Queen of the May and her Laddie in the upcoming May Day celebration, a pagan ritual that will be used to restore feracity to the land.
THE WICKER TREE suffers invariably from its connection to the original film, which forces unfair comparisons between the two. Expectations will be set exceedingly high as a result, which may initially lead to an uncharitable response from the existing fan base. There is much at work in THE WICKER TREE, however, between the cynical humor, religious banter, musical interlacing, slight eroticism, and underlying suspense. Hardy takes a risk in delivering another artful suspense piece in light of the drastic changes the film-going public has undergone over the years, but one that should inevitably pay off.
Having said that, THE WICKER TREE is far from perfect. Betty and Steve never strike a chord with the audience. They are far too gullible, and their characters are portrayed as shallow caricatures of Southern rubes. This was surely intended as part of the film's playful stab at Christianity, but the suspense suffers when the pair are lead like lambs to the slaughter. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sir Lachlan Morrison and the townspeople of Tressock reveal their malintent far too soon, which takes away from the mystery and intrigue inherent in the original. In this way, Hardy may be playing against the viewer's familiarity with THE WICKER MAN, letting them in on the joke from the very beginning.
Graham McTavish steps in for Christopher Lee as Morrison, the charismatic leader of Tressock. He is a worthy successor, and delivers a powerful performance. Likewise, Honeysuckle Weeks places the audience under her spell as the seductive Lolly. Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett are all too convincing as Betty and Steve, with their performances becoming the source of much ridicule. The line between innocence and idiocy has unfortunately been crossed, as there is very little irony to be found in either of their portrayals.
THE WICKER TREE revisits the musical traditions set forth in THE WICKER MAN, but with far less success. The gospel singing of Betty and Steve lacks the emotional discourse and intensity of tracks like "Willow's Song" or "Gently Johnny," which had a tremendous impact in driving the plot and luring a one Sergeant Howie into temptation. The continued use of music does give the film a unique identity in the midst of modern Horror.
What we are left with is a mixed bag overall: too serious to be taken as an outright comedy, and too soft for satire. As a "spiritual sequel," fans will surely revel in the familiar themes that are embedded in the film, but THE WICKER TREE stands in the shadow of Hardy's earlier success.