Tuesday, January 24, 2012
THE WICKER TREE (2011) reviewed by Eric Cohen
S'been awhile since I've posted a review to the blog and thought I'd try to add my two cents more than I have recently. Jeff's been doing a bang up job keeping the blog alive and I think the rest of us could do the same. It's a new year, the Oscar noms have been announced. Everyone's already posted their "Ten Best Of" lists. And so it goes.
But now I'm gonna' go back to a film that has consistently remained on my "Best Ever" lists since I saw the flick on the UK's Channel Four back when I was a wee lad in the 1980s. It's called THE WICKER MAN. Directed by Robin Hardy. Written by playwright Anthony Shaffer (FRENZY, SLEUTH and the brother of AMADEUS playwright Peter Shaffer). Starring Christopher Lee. On the surface, THE WICKER MAN looked to be a modern take on the kind of gothic horror being produced by Hammer Films and Amicus Productions at the time. And as it was produced in 1973, there would be the expected dose of contemporary sex and violence.
As it turned out, there was so much more to THE WICKER MAN than that.
Anthony Shaffer was already fairly well regarded as the man who wrote SLEUTH. It was both a well received film and play that, while subverting the tropes associated with the mystery thriller, was in itself an ingenious mystery thriller. The piece was written as if by a master game player. The meta jabs at the cliches associated with the genre combined with intricate plotting (and some truly effective surprises) would create an expectation that WICKER MAN may contain some surprises as well while exploring some thought provoking themes that may be uncommon to genre film. In the WICKER MAN, that theme would involve religion and the necessity of belief. While on the surface it was structured as a mystery not unlike SO LONG AT THE FAIR or BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING: a police officer is investigating the disappearance of a little girl whose existence is denied by an island community living off the coast of England. If that were the sole gist of the film, it would be interesting enough. However in the Police Man, Shaffer has in his character a devout Christian (a virginal one at that) and the island natives followers of a pagan religion. So on one level you have this mystery. On the other you have this fish out of water story (almost literally... you can only get to the island by plane or by boat) where a philosophical clash comes about regarding differences in belief.
That's not all.
If you haven't seen the film, you would probably think: these pagan villagers must be presented as sinister, dark, malevolent forces with the Police Man taking on the role of our hero. And since Christopher Lee is in this, he must play the sinister leader of this community and, hence, the movie's main villain. I mean, we've seen this one before. And, ironically, what we've seen before actually harkens back to this particular film. What's even more ironic? THE original take on this (intrepid hero investigates shady going ons within mysterious community that could be a bunch of Satan worshippers or worse) is actually NOT anything like the films potentially descended from it. Because THE WICKER MAN is a bright, sunny movie. It is the antithesis to dark, conspiratorial horror in presentation. The "villains" are nice people, may even go as far as to say they are good, CARING folk towards their own community. And their responses to The Police Man's shock and dismissals of their traditions are rebutted with smart, reasonable, philosophically debatable comments on the merits of a belief system and why one tradition should be considered superior to the other. It also helps to no end that the film is filled with wonderful performances not the least of all by Edward Woodward as the Police Man and Christopher Lee as the smiling Lord Summerisle, the leader of the community. A welcoming, warm-hearted "villain." Added to all of this is a blatant acceptance of open sexuality.
Oh... and that's not all.
Possibly the most unusual aspect of THE WICKER MAN rests not just in it's subversion of horror movie and mystery tropes (instead of darkness we have sun, instead of ominous we have warm-hearted friendliness) but the fact that this movie is, basically, a folk MUSICAL. Religious beliefs are not just debated verbally but communicated through song. And as a result, you have not only a beautiful movie in concept, but after pulling together all of these seemingly contradictory approaches that are not associated with the horror genre, you have, on the whole, a film that becomes effectively ominous and disturbing because of it.
The film has become a legendary cult movie with good reason. Not to mention it is a damn good flick.
Rumors had abound that THE WICKER MAN would have it's own sequel for awhile now. Unfortunately we got Neil LaBute's terrible remake instead. A remake that missed why the original was so effective in the first place. Edward Woodward's belief system and his status as a virgin served more than being an integral piece to the mystery of the original. It also represented the ignorance that results from being a "firm believer." His Christian fundamentalism vs the fundamentalism of the pagan villagers. How religion for some is supposed to enforce the rules of society while religion for others may justify the breaking of those rules. The remake had nothing of this. Nick Cage's protagonist became just another investigator stuck within a conspiratorial situation. It had no bite, no interesting, philosophical theme to chew on (although there was a weak attempt to display some sort of comment on the woman's role in society and the need to take "control" so to speak). And that's why the ending - yes, faithful to the original on the surface - had no "bang." In Hardy's THE WICKER MAN, the ending wasn't just a shock (i.e. the great denouement as to who the real victim is within the mystery) but the implications of what that would mean. That the followers of one religion is sacrificing the true believer of another to their God. And whether there actually is a god for them to sacrifice to is left intentionally ambiguous. We never know who is "right." All we got in LaBute's version is the bad guys won. And they will continue to do so.
Shortly after the release of the remake, the production of a sequel to the original was finally, officially announced. It would use as it's basis an original novel written by Robin Hardy called COWBOYS FOR CHRIST which, quite frankly, would have served as a better title for what would eventually become THE WICKER TREE.
To be fair, THE WICKER TREE is more of a pseudo sequel than the real deal. And Robin Hardy, who has returned to the director's chair after having directed the original almost thirty years ago, has pretty much admitted that it is neither a sequel nor a remake of the first. So I guess it's his update on the theme with just a latent connection to the original. For example none of the characters from the original exist in this film with the exception of Christopher Lee who, within his five second appearance, may or may not be the original Lord Summerisle. The setting has changed as well from an isolated island community to a mainland Scottish village. In the original, the community seemed to subsist off of their own cultural tropes and education. Whereas the new community seem to embrace the tropes of modern society. For example, the Lord Summerisle of this film - the affluent Sir Lachlan Morrison - is not only the religious leader of the group but also the community's breadwinner. It is his nuclear power plant that keeps the natives employed. And if you're familiar with the original, the "missing" girl of that plot was named Rowan Morrison so it could be that he's a relative to that character of some sort. But apparently this was the role that was intended for Christopher Lee. For whatever reason he could not commit and plays a cameo role instead. The basic need for sacrifice in the original - to please the sun god so that the local crops can grow in abundance again - is changed. This time the villagers are infertile. And this may be due to the radiation leaking into the community's water supply from the nearby plant.
Now this brings up an intriguing idea that goes beyond the original's. That Sir Lachlan may be using the pagan religion to keep the villagers happy and distract them from the non mystical science that may be the cause of their infertility. That the leader of this religious sect may be as cynical towards this belief as any outside observer. That even the so called believer of this particular religion MAY NOT ACTUALLY BELIEVE IN THIS RELIGION. That it is there as a tool.
(this is summed up after a flash back consisting of a discussion between the young Lachlan and the man who COULD be Lord Summerisle. Hence the Chris Lee cameo. But it's a confusing moment. The present day Sir Lachlan is clearly in his late forties which means the period of the flashback must be close to the time frame of the original WICKER MAN. However, no attempt is made to make Chris Lee look younger or "of the time" or even remotely close to how he looked in the original film. In any case, that flashback serves to remind Lachlan that religion exists if man needs it. If he needed to be Muslim he'd believe in Muhammed. If Jewish then Jehovah. Right now he believes in the sun because that is what is needed now. This is after another character asks him "do you really believe in this?")
The problem with the film, however, is that it tries to touch upon too many things at once and without Anthony Shaffer's talent to tie all sorts of complicated themes into one, coherent and ultimately ingenious story (Shaffer died in 2001), THE WICKER TREE becomes a muddled mess. This is not helped by the addition of two characters - the targeted sacrificial lambs of this movie - who are presented as naive, Christian fundamentalists from America. First of all, their motive for being in this particular place makes no sense. One of the characters is a successful, christian country pop star. The other is her just-as-evangelical fiancee. The script wants you to believe that they are in Scotland to proselytize and convert those who do not believe. But why Scotland? Why not Africa or The Middle East for that matter? And why would a SUCCESSFUL pop star want to go door to door handing out religious pamphlets when she has the money to use the power of media instead?
Interesting ideas are brought up then dropped. One of which involves how this outwardly chaste, virginal pop star had a past as "slutty" Britney Spears type. Which implies she was not chaste at one time ergo she's not the virgin everyone thinks she is. But that's completely forgotten. There's no irony introduced in the fact that so much effort is being made to sacrifice this particular person BECAUSE she's a virgin when, in reality, she's actually not. Although there is some back and forth on the importance of one's religious beliefs over the other, they ring hallow. And awfully didactic. As if it was necessary to shoe horn these discussions in because they were so integral to the original film. And the script contradicts itself. At one point characters describe how the intended sacrifice will NOT be burned (it will be flayed) but later on clearly the plan is to have that sacrifice burned. But just prior to that we see the well preserved, NON BURNED corpses of past sacrificial lambs. Sexuality is also approached in uninspired ways. In the original it felt organic to the needs and beliefs of those characters whereas in WICKER TREE, sex makes an appearance because, well, it was prevalent in the original ergo we got to have some of that in this film too.
And while the original has some creepy, genuinely disturbing elements, THE WICKER TREE has (barely) none of that. Instead, it comes across as almost a parody of the original (kind of like EVIL DEAD 2 is more of a comedic variation of the original rather than a direct sequel). Yes, the original film had plenty of humor. But THE WICKER TREE really pushes the satire envelope going for really easy targets (evangelical Christians are stupid. And hypocritical. Commerce and politics will trump good intentions that come with religious belief. Etcetera) but even the "comedy" doesn't hit right. EVIL DEAD 2 was not just a comedic variation of it's original but it was also a great comedy AND a great horror movie. WICKER TREE feels unformed and half assed.
There are some positives. THE WICKER TREE is, for the most part, well filmed (although lapses into a made for tv quality now and then). Graham McTavish is a solid Sir Lachlan Morrison (who gets some of the best lines. When the protagonists ask him how the villagers see him being the owner of the local plant and, ergo, their chief employer he responds "they probably view me as both the good guy and the bad guy. I see myself as the Montgomery Burns of this town."). And there is an effective moment when the evangelical fiancee (after having believed he had succeeded in winning a game) finds out too late he was victim to a ruse to achieve his own sacrifice. And I admire how it attempts to retain the folk musical aspect of the original. But even the music aspect of the film doesn't resonate as well as THE WICKER MAN. The songs are simply not as well written as Paul Giovanni's work for the original. Nor are they as well showcased.
The most unfortunate aspect of the film is it's ending. THE WICKER MAN'S was so well thought out and memorable that it lingers. Probably one of the best endings to a film ever made. Whereas THE WICKER TREE runs out of steam fast and concludes on a very lazy note. And I mean lazily conceived. Seriously. It's rushed and it sucks. Let's just say one character gets revenge for the death of another and everything seems fine and then IT'S NOT!!! And then we have a coda that is not in the spirit of the original WICKER MAN, but more or less copies the ending of it's TERRIBLE REMAKE. Which makes me very sad.
If I can recommend this film, it's solely by the merit that it is an official connector to the original WICKER MAN. And that may be enough to satiate the curiosity of any fan of the first film. But it's a frustrating movie. Disappointing in that it is nowhere good as the original nor as genre busting as that original film was. In fact, it's not even as good as some of the more middling horror thrillers of the past decade or more. And not just because it's a sequel directed by the same director exploring similar themes. It's because within this whole mess, there were some really smart, intriguing ideas that if properly fleshed out, could have made THE WICKER TREE a worthy successor to THE WICKER MAN.