Religion can quickly become a gruesome business.
Forget whatever you think The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree are about. They are not “Pagan films” or even proper horror films. They, with tongue grimly planted in cheek, remind us where our theologies can lead us unchecked and unfettered. They are not pro-Pagan, pro-Christian, pro-religion or pro-secularism. They are not meant to make you feel better about your faith. They are cautionary tales that say: There but for the grace of critical thought and compassion goest thou.
I liked The Wicker Tree. I think I’m in the minority camp when it comes to the Pagan community regarding this film, and that’s ok. I think a lot of Pagans expected the representation of of Paganism in The Wicker Tree to be similar to that of The Wicker Man. I think they expected it to be “it’s all jolly until the nasty man gets what he deserves.” But Robin Hardy played a brilliantly cruel joke on us by giving us more sympathetic victims and utterly vicious Pagans. If there was any doubt that Hardy is aware of the cult status of The Wicker Man in modern Paganism, The Wicker Tree removed it.
I thought the movie was delightful and intricate and subtle. Hardy mocks the cult of The Wicker Man at every step while weaving new strands of subtle morality into the saga.Without a doubt, the most significant and fascinating new addition to the saga is Sir Lachlan Morrison. It’s never revealed if he is related to Rowan and May Morrison of The Wicker Man but surely the name is no coincidence.
Lachlan is a very different leader from Lord Summerisle, and has more in common with Lord Summerisle’s grandfather who ushered in a return to Paganism out of expediency. Unlike Lord Summerisle, Lachlan is no true believer. His wife asks him point-blank if he truly believes the religion he has taught, and he gives her an answer that skirts the issue, suggesting it’s merely an effective tool for him to use to control the village. While Lord Summerisle rhapsodizes about his orchards, Lachlan is poisoning the environment via his nuclear plant. He uses ancient sun worship to rationalize his work, just as he uses Paganism to control a people damaged by radiation. He’s pulling the ultimate bait ‘n’ switch by convincing the village that religion can solve their fertility problems, when in fact it’s pollution from his own plant leaving them barren.
Lachlan is viewed in a different light by his congregation than Lord Summerisle was viewed by his. He admits he’s often looked to when things go wrong, and self-deprecatingly compares himself to Monty Burns from The Simpsons. While the residents of Summerisle affectionately defend their Lord, even Lachlan’s wife questions his sincerity. And in a pivotal moment that is tellingly anti-climactic, the villagers are unmoved and unconcerned when Lachlan perishes in the flames of the wicker tree. No move is made to protect him or rescue him. Not a moment in the film is taken to mourn him. On his death the villagers simply abandon the wicker tree, it’s purpose served. Lachlan will not be remembered with the love that honors the memory of Lord Summerisle. The lack of love and trust in him renders him ultimately irrelevant, and a victim to his own theological machinations. His life is as empty as his death. He has deprived himself of faith, love and heirs to his name, and what was dangerous under his careful control now continues unchecked with true believer leaders.
The villagers are different in this film as well. They were kind and patient, if not forthcoming, with Sgt. Howie. Despite the fact that they found him amusing, they simply let him choose his own path, and honored him for it in their own way. They recognized him as human, and one who had freely chosen this path when he had so many opportunities to deviate from it. Even Willow and her father attempt to make him sleep safe in his bed through the May revelry to protect him. Sgt. Howie was viewed by the villagers as fully human, and important for that fact.
In The Wicker Tree the villagers, with the exception of Lolly, never treat Steve and Beth as real people. At times they almost seem to act as if they are clever pets to be admired for for being able to string a sentence together. Rather than being treated like honored guests, you get the feeling that they are being fattened up and indulged before the slaughter. When Angus is shouted at for speaking to Steve, you get the distinct feeling he’s being told not to name the cow because it’s not a pet. Steve and Beth are not considered human by the villagers. They are the Other. From the moment they set foot in the village they are sacrifices. Sgt. Howie wasn’t a sacrifice until he had arrived with Rowan on the other side of the cave, birthed from the earth as it were.
No, Steve and Beth were never given the chance to be human, and I think the fact that their performances are somewhat wooden (Henry Garrett, who played Steve, has a few shining moments where you can see his prestigious acting training at work) because Hardy is manipulating the audience as much as the villagers manipulate Angus into not seeing Steve and Beth are human. One of the best instances of this manipulation is the scene where Beth is alone and begins to play her old music and she allows herself for a moment to revel in the woman she once was. Then, just as you begin to feel sympathy for her, she shuts off the music. This happens with Steve as well, who barely has the opportunity to relax into a sensual humanity before Hardy jerks the strings on this puppet. Hardy doesn’t want us to turn his sacrifices for the slaughter into pets.
In The Wicker Man the only person being manipulated is Sgt. Howie, and it is doubly delicious to watch the second time around when you are in on the “joke.” In The Wicker Tree, Lachlan is manipulating the villagers who are manipulating Steve and Beth, and all the while Hardy is manipulating the audience. He knows what we expect and what we want, so he teases us and then crushes our expectations with wicked glee. When Hardy warned viewers that The Wicker Tree is a black comedy and parody, he meant that ultimately the joke is on us.
In the end, Beth walks away from the wicker tree and you think she will escape when she meets Angus. Once again Hardy has beguiled us with the innocence of a child. Yet for whatever reason they walked away from her at the tree, the villagers decide they want their May Queen after all, and a little child shall lead her to her doom. The last we see of Beth is in a scene worthy of the original The Stepford Wives, and in her doe-eyed splendor she surely carries much more potent magic than a photograph in a pub. What began as a way to honor young village girls has turned to horror, as somewhere along the years Sgt. Howie’s suspicions have come to fruition.
The Wicker Tree is a different animal from The Wicker Man. While the first film carried you comfortably along the storyline in a place of safety where you could watch the action unfold, the second lures you along in darkness as if you were the victim, and perhaps you are. It was only on the second viewing that I caught much of the subtlety woven just beneath the surface of the camp. This is The Wicker Man as directed by John Waters and David Lynch. This is where faith becomes so dangerously warped that it not only doesn’t see people outside of the cult as human beings, it’s brazen enough to sacrifice even the famous without a care.
Another difference between the films is that Sgt. Howie is not merely staunch in his faith, he is not ignorant of it and firmly stands his ground to defend it. Steve and Beth are poor lost souls who don’t know much more beyond saccharine platitudes and gospel standards. In both films Paganism has the opportunity to make these victims more human. Sgt. Howie is offered his humanity on a plate and fearfully refuses. Steve is offered his humanity, accepts it greedily at first, but then repents doubting the teachings of his faith. Except for Lolly’s affection for Steve, neither Steve and Beth are considered human by the villagers, and their sexual purity is as irrelevant as the sexual purity of a calf headed for slaughter. While Paganism as we know it could aid Steve and Beth through their moral conflicts, the Paganism of The Wicker Tree considers them to be as dumb as a cow in a field, and their problems to be as precious and immaterial as a puppy with a lost bone.
So Sgt. Howie is an admirable ass whose death we cheer. Steve and Beth leave us as cold as animals sent to slaughter, and that says more about us than the film. This film is about the dehumanization of people who think differently from us. It’s about religion’s horrible tendency to turn gruesome. There are native tribes whose term for themselves translates roughly into “human beings,” because they believe others aren’t human. There is the evil of the Inquisition, where instead of human beings the “minions of the devil” were subject to horrific torture. There is the nasty truth of slavery, where we viewed the people of Africa as less than human and justified it with religion. Today we have the spectre of religious people bullying people of other faiths and sexual orientations, and they justify it by seeing them as an unholy other.
Sure, we can watch The Wicker Tree and say that’s not us (modern Pagans), but we can’t say that it isn’t our society. Just look at your social media feeds and see how those who are politically liberal and politically conservative demonize each other as inhuman brutes. How far is it from word to action? This film, like The Hunger Games, Untraceable, and to some extent A.I., reveal our own passive viciousness when a victim is Othered and unreal to us. What makes this film fascinating is Hardy purposely created sympathetic characters we don’t actually care about once they refuse to fill the mold we expect, just to illustrate our own innate cold-hearted and jaded nature. It’s this level of Deus ex Machina that I find delicious, especially on the second viewing.
Also I find that is has a strange similarity to the horrible remake of The Wicker Man in that some of it’s elements also seem very familiar to those who’ve read Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home. Particularly the ending, and the sacrifice of the father. Did anyone else pick up that vibe? And why hasn’t proper movie been made of Harvest Home yet?
My critiques are that Hardy created a film that confuses more than it excites on the first viewing. It took a second viewing for me to “get” the film. Of course, I had the same issue with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only understanding the film on the second viewing. Yet I found that second viewing very satisfying.
There is music, and I am impatiently awaiting the soundtrack to be released, but it’s not nearly as endearing as the music from the first film. All the songs in The Wicker Tree are disturbing, and I have no desire to sing any of them in ritual. And the old time gospel hymn of my youth, There’s Power In The Blood, is forever ruined for me.
I know there was a lot of criticism regarding the style of the film, but I felt it was a very 70’s take on horror. The lighting and cinematography of this film nicely bridged modern film making with the style of horror films from the 70’s. If it felt hokey or prudish at times, I think that’s because it was meant to feel that way, and I thought it was a nice touch. But this might be a turn off for those used to Wes Craven or the Saw films. Not being a fan of “torture porn” and a sucker for suspense, I was very happy with the amount of gore and the subtlety of the death scenes.
While I realize that Hardy is using Paganism as his obscure vehicle to explore the horrors religion can sink to, I rather wish he’d pick on someone else for once. Can’t a nice Baha’i cult sacrifice someone once?
And yeah, the camp is overdone in spots. Almost to the point that when a character shows real emotion you get annoyed at them for breaking the wooden facade. Even though I know part of it is parodying the extreme stupidity of most horror film victims (don’t open the door, don’t leave your friends, don’t try to save the day yourself) the complete lack of wariness on the part of Steve and Beth wears on you. When Beth finally realizes she’s in deep trouble and Steve is dead, she seems more petulant and spoiled than a woman full of righteous wrath. Even her killing Lachlan resembles nothing more than one kid pushing another on the playground for not sharing a toy.
Overall, I think it’s as worthy a sequel to The Wicker Man as could be expected. So much was stacked against it, particularly because we all had high expectations, and because after The Wicker Man it’s difficult to follow in that vein while still surprising the audience. I was genuinely surprised and bewildered at times during the first viewing, and after Lachlan’s death I honestly believed Beth would survive. Hardy suckered me in, and for that I’m grateful. I didn’t expect that. It’s a better film than the remake, it expands the saga in surprising ways, and it’s still a cautionary tale of what happens when religion goes wrong. When you call yourself a Redeemer, you may just find the world is willing to make that your ultimate fate.
Peg Aloi is writing a review of The Wicker Tree as well, so watch her blog to read her very different take on the film. And check out the live discussion featuring Peg Aloi, The Wicker Tree executive producer Alastair Gourlay and myself!