Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: The Wicker Tree

The Wicker Tree (2011, Robin Hardy)

Late last year, Between the Seats featured a review for the 1973 cult classic musical-horror film, The Wicker Man. That film proved a worthwhile and provocative exercise not only for its clever combination of two genres that do not frequently mesh (musicals and horrors), but also for bringing several other unorthodox and challenging elements to the table, such as the staunch opposition between two religions, Celtic folklore, and grander themes of acceptance of what one does not comprehend...or utter rejection which borders on hostility. It would not be entirely accurate to say the 1973 is ‘well known’ but it has its faithful supporters and, more than three and a half decades later, has inspired original writer-director Robin Hardy to revisit a similar universe with this remake, or re-imagining if one prefers, titled The Wicker Tree.

While the story, like its 1973 sister project, is set in Scotland, The Wicker Tree surprisingly begins in the United States, Texas to be precise. It is here that the audience meets Christian folk sensation Beth Boothby (newcomer Brittania Nicol) and her hunky cowboy boyfriend Steve (Henry Garret). Together they intend to spend a couple years touring Scotland, spreading some gospel to those who may have lost their faith in God, the Holy Ghost and whatnot in our 21st century cynical age. Why Scotland? The film does not say, although at the announcement of this tour the presenter makes a huge fuss about certain people in Scotland no longer believing in angels, as if director Hardy felt the urge to wink at the audience and say ‘Oh, yeah, you know what this is a remake of!’ Anyways, our cute couple, who, by the way, are sworn to celibacy until marriage, try to engage the people in larger cities but to no avail. It is then that Delia (Jacqueline Leonard) a wealthy women from the countryside, wife to a nuclear plant owner named Sir Lachlan Morrison (Craig McTavish), invites them  to her cozy community where, she promises, the people will hear them out. Once there, they are urged, gently at first, to become the queen and laddie of the May Day festival, part of a religion neither Beth or Steve are very familiar with. Oh, if they only knew how this community celebrates May Day.

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree is a strange beast. That statement might come across as clunky and obvious, seeing as how the first film was itself bizarre to say the least. However, while Man was odd, it managed to attain a certain level of brilliance, maybe even because it was weird. A movie like that does not come around very often, so seeing it play out, especially the final half hour where a true darkness reigns over the picture, made for a very special and memorable viewing. With Tree, the results are more difficult to evaluate. After all, it is, generally speaking, the same story, albeit with a few plot details given a tune up to modernize the experience. But it is a remake from the same director, which certainly makes the audience ask the ultimate question: why? What did writer-director Robin Hardy want to do specifically and what compelled him to update his own movie more than 35 years after the fact? Having seen the film, Between the Seats is still looking for the answer. It is not that Tree is a poor film. On the contrary, there is a level of fun to be had with it. I mean that genuinely, since more than once director Hardy is clearly going for laughs, unlike in Man where everything was layered with a coat of awkwardness and the unorthodox. And the movie is funny, truly funny at times, something that I doubt many will anticipate. A scene which reveals that, prior to becoming a Christian gospel singer, Beth was really a trashy teen pop idol, come across as enjoyable, if a bit too ‘on the nose,’ which is a complaint that can be aimed at a few other scenes which poke fun at religion in general.  
I think two things will hurt the film, the first being whatever people are expecting from it. From a very personal perspective, Man was a dark film even though one could detect a hint of silliness with all the unsubtle sexuality references plastered everywhere. Tree is comparatively very, very light, and not only because of the comedic aspects. There is something disturbing and oppressive about a cult who performs cruel acts and truly believes in them, which was the case with the Christopher Lee character in the original. Here, the Craig McTavish character, Sir Lachlan Morrison, is a business man first and foremost. The side effects resulting from having nuclear energy plants nearby has unfortunately inhibited the region’s female population’s ability to reach pregnancy. The May Day sacrifices are a veiled operation to keep the citizens hopeful that by sacrificing enough good, beautiful people, their re-population issues will be resolved. It is a very different motivation than in the first film. The leader of this sect himself might not entirely believe in everything that he has set up, and while it works on a certain level, it never feels as horrific as it did in Man.

The other aspect that hinders the picture is the cast. Man had a great battle of the wills between Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. That is totally absent in Tree, replaced with the gullibility of youngsters Beth and Steve, who can pull off some of the funnier scenes together, but fall uncomfortably flat when the proverbial shit hits the fan. Of the two, Nicol is definitely the weaker actor, which does not help lend the final scenes, which should be absolutely horrific, with the gravitas they require. McTavish, as the chief villain of sorts, it a good actor, but cannot hold a candle to what Lee did in the original. The malevolent presence just is not there on screen. As mentioned before, he operates like a business man, not a crazed cult leader, and so again the desired effect on the viewer is attenuated.

Continuously comparing a film to its spiritual predecessor as we have done this review is not necessarily the most just way to approach a film. A movie should be evaluated on its own merits, but I feel that in case of Tree, which takes almost the exact same concept as Man and is actually written and directed by the same person, the strategy is apt. To be honest, strictly as a standalone picture, The Wicker Tree is an amusing curiosity, coming across more as a comedy than a horror film. When it goes to genuine horror and genre tropes near the end, it fails. It has some strangeness to it, but feels very much like a self-aware modern horror film. It is fun? Yes, it kind of fun. It is good? Yes, it is kind of good. Does it have some memorable scenes? Yes, it kind of has some memorable scenes. Big question that everybody will ask even though movies should be evaluated on their own terms: Is it better than the 1973 original? No, not even close.

No comments: