Ask any half-sentient horror aficionado to name a bunch of true-blue bona-fide "CULT CLASSICS" from our beloved genre, and you wouldn't have to wait very long to hear them mention Robin Hardy's 1973 feature The Wicker Man. Notable, admired, and highly-respected among film geniuses for a variety of reasons, I think a large part of the film's lasting appeal is its wonderful weirdness. The Wicker Man is not about monsters or the occult or maniacs with knives, but man, it's still unsettling for a variety of icky, primal reasons. It begins as a chilly mystery in an isolated location, and slowly (ever so slowly) tightens the strings on a seriously scary movie. Hell, the film was well-regarded enough to warrant a Hollywood remake in 2006, and while Neil LaBute's rendition certainly does have its problems, I still think it's a passably entertaining experiment.
And in comparison to Mr. Hardy's late-arriving semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, Neil LaBute's version starts to look like an absolute classic.
One hates to be so negative towards a project from the man who, yes, long ago, delivered one hell of a great horror film, but as Robin Hardy's endlessly pointless The Wicker Tree starts to unspool, a horror fan's attitude will promptly drop from hopeful to frustrated to downright angry. By the time The Wicker Tree limps to a close with a few stray dashes of actual horror, the viewer may be convinced that Robin Hardy needed a fresh paycheck, so he slapped something together and made sure to include "wicker" in the title somewhere. (At one point the project was known as "Cowboys for Christ," truth be told.)
The premise, and that's me being kind, is this: a powerfully devout young Christian couple (she a country singer, he a dork with a cowboy hat) are beginning a two-year mission. They aim to bring the power of Christ's love to all sorts of unenlightened people, and their first stop on the tour is a Scottish village full of obvious villains, kooky weirdos, and more estrogen-laden pagan weirdness than you'll know what to do with. The screenplay is a leaden mish-mash of soap opera blather, lunkheaded character development, and alleged "reveals" that hit the screen with a complete lack of energy. Certainly no sequel to The Wicker Man (even if Sir Christoper Lee is wedged into the film by way of some very poor digital matte work), The Wicker Tree is more of a listless and vague re-telling of the old tale, only instead of a police inspector digging into an isolated island, we have a pair of perpetually whining "Texans" bouncing around a third-rate Lifetime Channel movie that throws in a couple of scenes of predictable carnage at the very last moment.
Gone is the subtle air of "wrongness" that met the police inspector as he nosed about "Summerisle." Absent are the sly and provocative and sexy moments that suggest any number of dark, primal sins. Completely missing are the suspense, mystery, and menace. In their place are themes, people, and ideas that Mr. Hardy covered exceedingly well in 1973, and is now rehashing for, I hate to say it, a quick buck. Regardless of whether what's on the screen is construed as devious melodrama or ostensibly sly satire, there's no getting around the film's plodding musical score, eye-punishing cinematography, consistently vacant acting performances, and merciless editorial style, which is to say the movie feels like a television with three boring channels and Robin Hardy is the one flipping through them randomly.
Once we limp our way to the second half of Act III, some horrific stuff that we completely saw coming (even if the victims did not) hits the screen, and the viewer is happy because (let's be honest) a horror movie is what we asked for in the first place. And while I certainly didn't expect a semi-sequel / sorta-remake inspired by The Wicker Man to be wall-to-wall mayhem, I was expecting some mood, doom, gloom, and darkness. Nothing here works. It's kids in a backyard stuff, truth be told.
So clearly I do not recommend you bother with The Wicker Tree, unless of course you're like me, a lifelong genre freak who simply has to see for themselves, and then I'd forgive you. But considerably more important than my argument against The Wicker Tree is a reminder that, trust me, you really need to check out the original Wicker Man. Don't even read anything about it. You'll dig it. And then try to forget what movie brought you together.