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Frightfest Film Review: The Wicker Tree

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People Against Good And Normalcy

(The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy, UK, 2011, 90 mins)

Robin Hardy, no fool, has been quick to label this adaptation of his own novel, Cowboys for Christ, as a “genre successor” to the 1973 cult curio that the rebrand invokes. The now wizened director, who’s lost none of his lust for young blondes and bare breasts, knows that the eccentric sensibility presented here, together with plenty of breezy humour, is likely to undermine any claim that this is a horror film. Hardy, unlike Wicker Man screenwriter Anthony Schaffer, is no dramatist.

The defence of the picture begins and ends with the idea that The Wicker Tree, a companion piece rather than sequel to the 1973 film, belongs to its own sub-genre; a fusion of horror, comedy and soft porn (though that sounds a lot like most horror to me). This, Hardy says, is a canon of two films. One’s tempted to agree, but he’s forgotten that his original offering had a sense of mystery as well as that infamous, shocking denouement. The Wicker Tree by contrast, is burdened by foreknowledge of the Pagan’s intentions, and not only that, but they’ve been infected by a strain of theatrical silliness. Much of it is so camp that your ears long for Eric Rogers’ musical cues.

If tension and suspense have taken a holiday, what’s left? Enough to engage the head even if the heart isn’t required to work any harder. There’s a wry agnosticism throughout; a gentle but perceptive critique of organised religion of whatever denomination, informed by the suspicion that both evangelical Christianity and Paganism serve less than divine interests. “It serves a need at this time, isn’t that all you can ask of a religion?” asks Graham McTavish’s Lord of the Manor, conscious that the local belief in human sacrifice aiding fertility neatly deflects attention from the nuclear accident that’s irradiated the wombs of Tressock’s women. McTavish could tell them the truth but he’s on the board of the company that owns the reactor and besides, why compromise your hold on the villagers?

The victims, a Texan country singer and her boyfriend, are naïve, but not innocent. Beth, played sweetly by Brittania Nicol, is a born again Christian who secretly yearns for the sex that accompanied her abandoned pop career, whereas Steve, a former gambler, worships Beth, rather than the almighty. Hardy suggests that their hypocrisy makes them ripe for victimhood but the truth is that they’re proxies for the audience’s moral superiority. When the happy couple discover their fate, we’re supposed to share their horror at the impending savagery, lambs to the Pagan slaughter, but amusement is closer to the mark; the characters are so lacking in common sense that murder may be the kindest thing.

It’s the aforementioned humour that makes The Wicker Tree watchable, if slight. Jacqueline Leonard’s waspish turn, making the most of her feline features, provides much pleasure, Honeysuckle Weeks has an enjoyable subtitled sex scene and Nicol’s sub-Brittany Spears pop video provides light relief, or at least it would if the entire film wasn’t so playful and good natured. Consequently, the shift to cannibalism and human taxidermy can either be seen as a lunge toward hitherto uncharted horror territory or a punchline. I’ll take the latter as it wouldn’t do to be accused of not being able to take a joke.

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