JANUARY 27, 2012
Of all the movies to get a surprise theatrical release, The Wicker Tree has to be in the top 5. Maybe in the UK it'd be a draw, but a pseudo-sequel to a nearly 40 year old British cult film that is probably best known here for inspiring a crazy Nic Cage movie is hardly the sort of movie that can be expected to bring in a crowd at a time when even first class, A-grade entertainment like The Grey can't even sell out a prime showing on opening night. Even if the movie was good!
Because, sadly, it's not. It's pretty damn bad, in fact. But really, how can anything related to Wicker Man just be "OK" at this point? The original is a terrific low-key movie, combining an intriguing mystery with a "guy gets caught up in an insane cult" plot, and adding songs and other assorted weirdness. It's not something I pull off the shelf too often, but it's the sort of movie I encourage folks to check out when they seek something a little different. And the remake is infamous; obviously everyone has seen the clips of Nic Cage running around in a bear suit and what not, but it's actually kind of nutty from start to finish, and (IMO) a lot better than anyone gives it credit for.
So when the original film's writer/director Robin Hardy said he was making a spiritual successor to Wicker Man, I got excited. However, a lot of false starts got me worried that maybe this "franchise" should be left alone - and I was right. The elements are there for an intriguing movie - a pair of young lovers, one of whom is a Carrie Underwood-ish country sensation prone to spreading the word of God and promoting chastity with her boyfriend, travel to a strange Scottish countryside town in order to "remind" the citizens about the importance of Jesus and angels and all that. Of course, the town has their own religion and plan to use these two for their own purposes. So it's similar to Man, but different enough to be its own thing and theoretically have some fun with the concept. After all, who's to say that one religion is better than the others? And maybe not now, but certainly many people have been killed in the name of Christianity, so you can't even say the Scots are "wrong" because they're into sacrifice - they just haven't caught up with everyone else.
Unfortunately THAT movie doesn't exist. Instead, we just get an endless series of loosely connected scenes in which our heroes do their thing while the townsfolk either humors them or makes shifty eyes in the background. There's no mystery of any sort, and nothing to even build suspense. Hell, there's no indication that we're even in a genre film until the final reel, so you can't even really call this a slow burn. It's just THERE, and when the cult elements finally kick in they're just as indifferently presented as everything else (and the film's most vicious act occurs off-screen to boot). And if you've seen either version of The Wicker Man you should know that happy endings aren't their style, something Hardy doesn't bother to use to his advantage - a more clever filmmaker would have used our expectations against us and done something different. Instead, he SEEMS to be mixing things up, only to randomly turn it back around and do the exact same thing. Yeah, good one.
It almost seems like Hardy had the wrong idea of what people liked about the original film. If the songs, irreverent humor, and nudity were the only things about the original you enjoyed, then you're the ideal audience for Wicker Tree - the film is overloaded with all. There's a subplot about a woman trying to convince her lover to do it 7 times in one night (one scene even has subtitles for some reason - the movie is in English), which never quite has any real bearing on anything (based on the Wikipedia synopsis I suspect this subplot made more sense in the source novel) but offers plenty of actress Honeysuckle Weeks in the nude. There are at least a dozen songs, often coming right after the other, none memorable in any way. And the film is overloaded with attempts at all types of humor; black (an argument breaks out over a missing bowl of human eyes), absurdist (the aforementioned sex scenes, plus a guy who only speaks in lines from "The Raven"), and even pop culture - head villain Graham McTavish actually makes a Simpsons reference at one point.
Hardy also assumes Christopher Lee is essential to the proceedings. While his name certainly adds some interest, his 30 seconds of screentime in the film may eventually be used in the dictionary to provide an example of "extraneous". Out of nowhere, McTavish has a flashback to when he was a kid and was painting a picture of a bridge, which catches Lee's attention. They have a brief conversation and then it cuts back to present day, without any further insight to the character or plot really gained from the excursion. He has a portrait of Lee on the wall - that should have been the extent of his "cameo", instead of this insultingly pointless bit of fan-wankery.
And again, most troubling - it's simply not interesting. Our heroes are bland, boring people played by not very good actors, and the villains barely try to hide the fact that they plan on doing SOMETHING bad to them, so it's basically just a long wait until the night of their sacrifice so we can see if they'll succeed. Worse, the heroes never seem to suspect anything is amiss, which just makes them look like idiots and also keeps the movie from having anything one could consider suspenseful or interesting. One character randomly seems to be trying to help them near the end, but there's no build up to it nor is there any follow-through on the subplot - she just kind of looks worried in a few shots but doesn't really do anything to help. Riveting!
Oh and the digital photography was a mess at times, but why complain about that anymore? No one's listening. 35mm is on its way out because of laziness, and in 20 years everyone will be wondering why "old" movies look so shitty when stored/projected on technology that didn't exist at the time they were made. Good job, everyone. Ironically though, Anchor Bay (or someone) struck prints of this movie, which is awesome. It's a lousy film and only worthy of theatrical release in the sense that ALL "real" movies deserve the treatment, but I like that the "little guy" is actually trying to keep 35mm alive in its own way. I'd rather the damn thing was SHOT that way in the first place, but I'll take what I can get.
Mr. Hardy once said about the 2006 remake: "It was a complete failure. There was nothing enchanting. No fun. They just didn't get it." Interesting, because I could levy this exact same argument about his own "re-imagining". I wouldn't exactly fight someone who claimed that the Cage movie was terrible, but I'd be very curious to hear how they could possibly say this was any better. The one thing you couldn't say about either version was that it was "boring" - this one can barely be described as anything but.
What say you?