In 1973 British director Robin Hardy made “The Wicker Man,” a horror film about a devout Christian police officer looking for a missing girl in a small Scottish town populated by pagans. The film is considered a classic with one gut-wrenching ending. In 2011 Hardy made “The Wicker Tree,” a “spiritual” sequel with different characters in another small Scottish town with more or less the same result. If you have seen Hardy’s first, there is no real need to see the second, but by itself “The Wicker Tree” is an interesting look at religious extremism and belief, albeit with yet another dour ending. It is a horror film after all.
The Christians in “The Wicker Tree” are Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett), two gospel singers from Dallas, Texas. Beth, a reformed bad girl, and Steve, a kind of cowboy who sounds a lot like Dennis Quaid, intend to bring the message of god to the lost people of Scotland. Once they have completed their mission from god they will return home and get married. They are so devout they were chastity rings as a symbol of their virginity. The trip will test their fate in god and themselves in more ways than they could have imagined.
After landing in Glasgow they find the people there less receptive to their message than they expected. They go door to door trying to spread their message but end up having doors slammed in their faces. After a musical performance at a church they are approached by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard) the leaders of the small town of Tressock. They invite Beth and Steve to be guests at their town, saying the people in the country would be more receptive. When they are alone, Lachlan and Delia also say Beth and Steve would be perfect for…something.
As Beth and Steve settle in Tressock there are many clues that something very bad is going to happen. For one thing Sir Lachlan is the boss at the local nuclear plant and says he has been compared to Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. That right there should be a huge red flag. Then there are the townspeople who look at the two gospel singers from around street corners as though they are in on some sick joke. One little boy even tells Steve he should have brought his six-shooters with him.
Not picking up on the clues, Beth and Steve agree to participate in the town’s ancient Celtic May Day ceremony. (Spoiler alert) Such a ceremony does exist and is still practiced in Europe and in some parts of North America, however the people of Tressock adhere to the occult version of the celebration that includes human sacrifice.
Tonally the film is very similar to “The Wicker Man” and also to horror movies of that era. Unlike modern horror movies there are no buckets of blood dropped on the victims and the final deaths take place towards the very end. There is a slow build up to the impending doom and even a pause for Sir Lachlan to discuss the religious validity of his actions with his wife. He believes his religion is as good as any other and might even have practiced another one if he had been born elsewhere. That is very open-minded of him, but he forgets most modern day religions tend to frown on murder.
The film’s ending feels a bit rushed, as one character almost escapes only for something horrible to happen in the last four minutes. It is as though Hardy wanted to give the audience a breather and then rip the rug from under their feet. Still, until it gets there “The Wicker Tree” is a well-made horror story about yet another small town where you wouldn’t want to stop for your vacation.
(“The Wicker Tree” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)