Wednesday, 7 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #21: The Wicker Tree (2011)

So I was pretty proud of my previous We Don't Go Back post, about The Wicker Man, but even I wasn't prepared for the degree to which it hit a nerve, and with a bunch of shares it netted over 1000 hits in its first 24 hours, which isn't bad at all. If you came for that post and stuck around, hi. Nice to meet you.

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.
The Wicker Tree's main selling point is that it was directed and this time written by the director of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy. It's a deliberate retread, a sort of non-sequel; it invites deliberate comparison with The Wicker Man, both in the ways it is like its precessor of nearly forty years, and in the ways it departs. Look at the title card for the film. That alone is a deliberate call back. It is identifying visually with its predecessor.

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.
None of these things make the film sound bad, and there's a lot of potential for a decent Wicker Man sequel here, a lot of places where you can make worthwhile departures and explore the themes of that first movie more. However, while The Wicker Man is a film that shouldn't work and does, The Wicker Tree is a film that should work, and doesn't.

Really.

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. 
Note place-caption.
Subplots are thrown in and never explored: Lolly seduces a local policeman, also an outsider, who is interested in the pagan cult; a stammering local prophet, Jack (David Plimmer), who speaks only in snatches of poetry and who owns a raven seems to be significant to the plot but isn't;1 a thread concerning Lachlan's management of a local nuclear power station is only there to give an explanation for the villagers' infertility. None of these things go anywhere, and, worse, take up space that could be used to flesh out the main characters and their experience.

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?
Beth: Yeah.
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.
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.
The raven actually quoth "Nevermore" and everything. Genuine.
Beth and Steve are not really given space to breathe as characters, at least not in the ways they really should. While in The Wicker Man, poor Sergeant Howie is the viewpoint through which we meet the people of Summerisle, and we experience the unfolding of the plot with him. He is in every scene.

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.
OK, look. Once I was in a meeting of the Swansea University Christian Union, and there was a guy stood up at the front to give a talk and he said, "Imagine you're standing at the top of a cliff and it's shrouded in mist, and everyone you know is running towards the cliff edge, and none of them can see the danger, and only you can catch them. That's what being a Christian is like! Because all of your loved ones are rushing for Hell, and it's up to you to catch them."

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.
But Beth and Steve don't suspect anything until the moment when the thing starts to happen. And even when it's happening, they're incredulous (Lolly tells Steve directly in fact, and he doesn't believe her and rides to his doom). We know what's going to happen because Lachlan and Delia are doing everything short of rubbing their hands and cackling maniacally when Beth and Steve are out of shot. Beth and Steve suspect nothing, and even refuse to believe foul play when they are told directly (and when Beth has even seen what happened to previous May Queens).
Clive Russell as Beame: one of the best things in the film.
Lachlan's obvious villainy – it's basically his fault there was a nuclear accident and nearly everyone in Tressock is sterile, so the human sacrifices for the sake of fertility are his idea – makes it hard to see any good in his officiation of the rites, and it makes the scene where he comes over all serious and sincere for a moment and we flash back to exactly 58 seconds of Christopher Lee as a grandad talking to Lachlan as a boy incongruous and wrong. And not in the good way. Not that Grandad (who is not Lord Summerisle, because he went up in flames in the Wicker Man on Wednesday 1st May 1974 at about 4pm) doesn't say good helpful pagan stuff. He does! He has to! Because you don't waste Christopher Lee on nonsense, oh my no. 
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?
And that's a great line. It's just that while Christopher Lee's 58 seconds are supposed to be pivotal to the  movie, they're really not because the movie doesn't ask the question of fate itself, let alone try to answer it. 

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.
When the butler Beame (Clive Russell, the other great performance, and the exact man you want to play a funny/terrifying Scot) gets nearly crippled by being (and this is the technical term) glassed in his knackers, the scene where he's being tended to by the cook is pure farce. Steve and Beth teach the islanders the hymn "There is Power in the Blood" (familiar to me: "There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r/ In the blood of the Lamb") and Mary the housekeeper makes a point of calling the evangelists "my lambs", and that's grotesqueely funny. Later, the comedy kitchen crew, having caught and sedated Beth, are there brushing oil on her naked butt to ease her being skinned alive for the purposes of live taxidermy, and it's played for laughs. When Delia flips the dead cat into the logbasket by the fire, it's deliberately daft.
Apparently it's for ease of skinning.
In The Wicker Man, because we're not only seeing things as Sergeant Howie sees them, we're walking into a musical comedy too, and as I observed last time, the music and the comedy is diegetic; it's like they're ready to put on a show for him. Someone has a fiddle, someone's got a guitar, there's a kid with a Jew's harp, and here's the policeman... and... go. This is my costume: the Salmon of Knowledge. And when the film turns and becomes a horror, it's because the islanders aren't playing anymore. 
Beth. And that's a Wicker Tree over there. She's not the one goes up in it though.
In The Wicker Tree, the comic characters are comic when no one is watching (apart from us on the other side of the screen). They're not putting on a comic face, they're just in (extradiegetic) comedy and then, when the masks (literally) come off in the climax, they're not in a comedy anymore. It flips tone, without a diegetic reason to do so. The scene where the villagers start singing "There is Power in the Blood" at a doomed Steve should by all rights be the payoff to something, but it isn't earned.
Pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r.
And Beth's behaviour flips too. Beth moves from literally suspecting nothing, to coming to and glassing a man she thought right up until last night was a friend with a broken glass she didn't know was there and then running like someone who knew all along was someone to be scared of. And glassing him – and did I mention this? – right in the knackers, no less. Beth walks pretty calmly right into the middle of a crazy pagan celebration, kills one of the baddies on the spot and then makes the pagans sing and go home like someone with some authority (spoiler: they change their minds and come back right at the end, and she gets stuffed anyway). Where did she get the authority from? It came out of nowhere.

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.

Notes
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)

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