One of the big disappointments of this year’s FrightFest was the not-very-long-awaited-at-all-actually sequel/companion piece to Robin Hardy’s 1973 pagan shocker The Wicker Man. Hardy had warned the audience not to expect a typical horror film. This is a risky strategy in front of a FrightFest crowd, and when they were confronted with a broadly satirical take on the subject of religion, sacrifice and pagan belief, they reacted as you might expect. Too broad to be either funny or scary, the best you could say about it was at least Nicolas Cage or bees didn’t make an appearance.
The Wicker Tree is based on Hardy’s 2006 novel Cowboys For Christ, which has been reprinted under the new title as a tie-in. In this version of the tale, two Texan evangelicals visit a remote Scottish community in an attempt to spread the word. Beth Boothby is a Leeann Rimes-style singer with a magical voice, her boyfriend Steve a lunk-headed cowboy. They have both signed an abstinence pledge, and are teeth-looseningly sweet and innocent in the face of the plot hatched by evil laird Lachlann Morrison, a pretty obvious Summerisle analogue. Beth and Steve might not be virgins, but they’re certainly virginal. Laird Lachlann is so moustache-twirlingly evil that at one point he even compares himself to Montgomery Burns. From the first page, you know what’s going to happen.
Hardy has said from the beginning that Cowboys For Christ was supposed to be a companion piece to The Wicker Man, and commentators have pointed out that the story shouldn’t be judged with reference to the earlier film, simply under it’s own merits. I’d question whether retitling the story would help the casual reader to grasp that, especially as the tree of the title is just a tree. However, I’m happy to view the story as a stand-alone piece.
The Wicker Tree is terrible. It shamelessly follows the template of The Wicker Man with a plodding inevitability. It takes easy satirical targets and paints them with such a broad brush that any hope of subtlety is lost. It’s simply not funny, and it’s exploration of the lives of the sun-worshipping villagers is two-thirds Aga Saga to a quarter Dennis Wheatley. The fraction that’s left is Confessions of a Pagan. You could see Sid James in a supporting role. There are no real characters in the book, just caricatures. The pacing is all over the place, painfully slow at the start before passing over important plot points so quickly that I ended up having to check that I hadn’t skipped a page.
Worse, the horror elements are badly, inexcusably fumbled. There are some interesting ideas in Hardy’s interpretations of the ritual of The Riding Of The Laddie and the Crowning Of The May Queen. But they’re so badly handled that they are simply thrown away. The Sacrifice of The Laddie is over in a sentence and a half. The climax of the story is a haphazard mess, and the book grinds to a halt rather than finishing. There are of course no happy endings – apart from on my part when I finally got to shut the book with a sense of profound relief.
The Wicker Tree is a ham-fisted attempt to cash in on past glories, taking a poor relation and dressing it up in new robes. Sadly, if Robin Hardy was hoping that this sacrifice would lead to a renewal in his career, he’s mistaken.