It was supposed to be the grand finalé of the project, but I keep finding stuff to add to it (tomorrow I'll put up a roundup and talk a little about what I've found so far in this folk horror project thing).
Still. How do you follow a discussion of the Citizen Kane of horror movies?
You follow it the way Robin Hardy did, I suppose, and do The Wicker Tree.
(By the way, many of the thoughts here germinated in discussions in the Folk Horror Revival Facebook group about my post on The Wicker Man. So if you've come from there, thank you.)
|Villains, from the very start.|
So. If it seems unfair to keep comparing The Wicker Tree to The Wicker Man, we need to remember that The Wicker Tree really wants you to do just that. And I would hazard that the people who have seen The Wicker Tree and not The Wicker Man constitute an infinitesimally small proportion of its audience, so comparison must happen.
But comparison does The Wicker Tree no favours. Unlike The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree is not very good. Let's just get that out there. It is not very good at all.
I had fun live-tweeting watching it yesterday. And it was a real temptation to do that again, to just go through the film scene by scene, ripping it to shreds, much as I did with The Blood on Satan's Claw a few weeks ago. But that means I've already done that (and I quite like The Blood on Satan's Claw anyway) and I don't think that would be fair. What I want to do is try to tackle why I think The Wicker Tree fell flat on its face.
A summary of the plot first. Two Texan evangelicals, Beth, a pop-country singer turned Christian (Britannia Nicol, in literally her only film role) and her fiancé Steve (Henry Garrett, Captain McNeil off Poldark), come to Scotland as missionaries. Facing little success going door to door, they're invited to the village of Tressock by the Laird and Lady of the manor, Lachlan and Delia Morrison (Graham McTavish and Jacqueline Leonard, both prolific British TV actors). Although the villagers have quaint pagan beliefs, Steve and Beth seem to have a little success with revival meetings, and grateful, they agree to be the May Queen and Laddie of the Tressock May Day celebrations. Steve abandons his commitment to chastity at the very first chance with Lolly, Chief Groom of the Tressock Estate (legitimate national treasure Honeysuckle Weeks, one of the two best performances of the film) but neither of them suspect anything until it's far too late, and although each is given an opportunity to escape thanks to Lolly, who it turns out would rather be a goodie, neither takes that way out and it ends more or less exactly how you'd expect.
|Steve's second meeting with Lolly.|
There are a lot of things to pick at in the film. Some things are just ham fisted, like the caption that reads SCOTLAND: THE BORDERS WITH ENGLAND (rather than THE SCOTTISH BORDERS, which is at least an actual place) literally a second before cutting to a shot of a Scottish flag and right after a scene where the Texans stand in front of a church for a blessing with a minister who says they're going to Scotland.
Because in the end, the main problem with the film lies with the relationship of the protagonists with the community that will destroy them.
|I take it that both of you are what you call... Born Again?|
Lady Delia: I take it that both of you are what you call... Born Again?This exchange, pretty early in the film, sums up one of the big problems with the two young evangelists. They come from the US, they're fundamentalists, and they wear silver chastity rings, which is a common, well known thing among American evangelicals. They've come to be missionaries to the UK, and every year the USA (as well as other countries, particularly South Korea) sends Christian missionaries to a country that they know is pretty much secular now and perceive to have lost its way. But these things are not presented as if they are believable. Case in point: while American evangelicals believe some pretty nutty things about the End of Days, that thing about the bleeding is not one of them. It's completely made up, and it is most definitely not in the Bible.
Delia: Do intelligent people believe, as fourteen million American born again apparently do, that the day Jesus returns, everyone who is not Born Again will bleed to death? Even innocent children in Borneo who have never even heard of Jesus? Do you believe that?
Beth: Aw heck. I don't know, But if it says so in the Bible, yes Ma'am.
|The raven actually quoth "Nevermore" and everything. Genuine.|
But while you get things like an excruciating, interminable scene where Steve essentially recites the whole of the pious country hit "Deck of Cards" (it was a big favourite of my Dad's, so I recognised it instantly) without any irony, and you think something's going to subvert it, but nothing does, you don't get to see any kind of awakening to the fact that something's going on. Nor is there really all that much at stake.
|And friends, the story is true. I know... I was that soldier.|
That's some abusive guilt-laying right there. And that guilt trip creates a sense of urgency, of desperation, of despair, even. Young people in evangelical movements across the world get pushed into missionary work because of sentiments like this.
What I'm saying is that with just a tiny bit more thought, a bit more space, and a tiny bit more rigour, Beth and Steve could have been exquisitely messed up in the way that Sergeant Howie once was. They could have seen themselves, as real evangelical missionaries so often do, as warriors against the darkness. Instead, they fumble Bible stuff that could have been wonderful horror fare.
Delia could have asked about the Rapture and the Tribulation, and added any of the out-of-context Bible verses that usually get wheeled out to support that particularly American heresy. But she doesn't. Instead Delia wheels out something completely made up rather than anything from the embarrassment of heretical riches that American evangelicalism has, and Beth goes, "sure, if it's in the Bible."
They're not bad people, Beth and Steve, but they're not as principled as they might be, which is best demonstrated by Steve going skinnydipping with Lolly and having sex in the water on their second meeting. And while this would be life-shattering for a boy from Steve's background, there's one scene where he's a tiny bit guilty about, you know, cheating on both a sacred vow and someone you're supposed to love and says he's going home after all this is done.
Robin Hardy's biggest problem of course was that obviously one of the many pleasures of The Wicker Man lies in us working out alongside Sergeant Howie that something is very wrong, and then us realising only just slightly ahead of him that something is indeed very wrong, only it's not what we thought it was. You can't do a switch like that twice (unless you're making a film that's its own thing, like Kill List which gives you no reason to suspect you're going to have a bait-and-switch plot, which is the point).
|The thing before the thing.|
|Clive Russell as Beame: one of the best things in the film.|
Not Lord Summerisle: Can fate be altered? This is a question every religion has tried to answer, and the answer is almost certainly "no". But... We keep trying.
|Can fate be altered?|
While The Wicker Man has the protagonist stumble into a musical, The Wicker Tree has the protagonists enter the realms of a (black) comedy. Just like in The Wicker Man, there are scenes which only make sense if you see the film as a musical, The Wicker Tree has scenes which only make sense if you see it as a comedy. And that's OK, but only to a point.
|Alum. To stop the bleeding.|
|Apparently it's for ease of skinning.|
|Beth. And that's a Wicker Tree over there. She's not the one goes up in it though.|
|Pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r.|
The Wicker Tree has a hard job to do. It has to take up the themes of the original film it calls back to and do something with them. Many of the delights of The Wicker Man are impossible to replicate (the main one being the bait-and-switch plot) but rather than find new things to do, the retread leaves out all the parts that make the original film so compelling.
Verdict: not so much a case of We Don't Go Back as a case of We Really Shouldn't Have.
1The sense that Jack's prophecies matter more is emphasised by the slightly odd device of giving the raven's own viewpoint, through a fish-eye lens effect. But the raven, like Jack, could be removed from the film without any real change being made to the film. (back)