The Wicker Tree: Robin Hardy’s Underrated Sequel

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The Wicker Tree 2001, Robin Hardy’s sequel to The Wicker Man, is a film of unrealised potential but deserves more respect, writes BARRY McCANN

The Wicker Tree 2011
The Wicker Tree 2011

In 1998, Hardy announced The Riding of the Laddie, a thematic reimagining of The Wicker Man with an entirely new plot to star Christopher Lee and Vanessa Redgrave. 

However, with the industry’s attention focused more on an official remake, funding for was not forthcoming and Hardy revised his script a number of times while novelising it in 2006 as Cowboys for Christ to drum up interest.

It finally arrived in 2011, now under the title of The Wicker Tree and not quite as originally envisaged.

New Story for The Wicker Tree

The new story concerns American gospel singer and evangelist Beth Boothby and her fiancé, Steve who travel to Scotland to perform missionary work and are invited to Tressock by Lady Morrison, wife of Sir Lachlan Morrison who owns the nearby Nuada nuclear power station.

He also acts as community spiritual leader, their religion honouring the sun goddess, Sulis, and Beth and Steve are ideal for their May Day traditions.

Beth accepts the honour of May Queen while Steve is challenged to the “Riding of the Laddie” where he is hunted on horseback while making for the appointed place. Unbeknown to them, visiting couples who fulfilled these roles on years past have met with grisly fates. 

This scenario blatantly shares the 1973 film’s DNA of Christian evangelist lured into a mysterious Scottish pagan world for May Day sacrifice, and with a narrative that also interweaves song to foreground the unfolding drama. But that is where the similarities end, The Wicker Tree being a darkly satirical beast which mocks the blindness of religious zealotism. 

Lachlan does not believe in the reintroduced religion himself and simply goes through its motions as a means of keeping order. Unlike Lord Summerisle, who enriches his island with orchards, Lachlan has poisoned his landscape with nuclear waste and uses ancient sun worship to convince his people it will cure their infertility, even though he produced the pollution that rendered them barren. 

Role meant for Christopher Lee

The role of Lachlan was intended for Christopher Lee, but a back injury meant he was unable in to take the part in the end due to its physical demands, so Graham McTavish was engaged with Jacqueline Leonard as his consort. Determined he should have some sort of presence, Hardy added a flashback sequence with Lee as an elderly spiritual mentor to the young Lachlan and dressed in similar style to Lord Summerisle, but not stated as him as Hardy did not have the rights to use the character. 

Hardy did borrow from other film texts to supplement his story, the closing scene where the character of Lolly gives birth to Tressock’s first child for years reciprocally borrowing back from the closure of the 1998 Wicker Man derivative, Dark Lands, itself an ending inspired by Rosemary’s Baby 1968

The ritual scenes are more visceral and savage than in The Wicker Man, and reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (published 1954), culminating in Steve being slaughtered in an orgy of cannibalisation. Not a method of sacrifice usually associated with ancient pagan practices, but one of two conceits originated in Hardy’s intertextuality.  

The other is the fate of the May Queens who are embalmed and added to a waxwork like display in the cellars of Lachlan Hall. Again there is no ritualistic precedent or logic to this practice, Hardy seemingly inspired by the classic Vincent Price thriller House of Wax 1953. It makes for striking imagery and a dark note to close the film, but it begs the awkward question of the Morrisons leaving themselves wide open should the police come searching.

So while The Wicker Tree manages to hold onto some degree of self-consistency in its initial stages of plot development, the narrative logic of its latter sections unravel as the film seeks to wind itself up with dramatically shocking effect. It also suffers from details being missed out in the shooting script which are present in the Cowboys for Christ novel and make more sense.  

The Wicker Tree: Robin Hardy's Underrated Sequel 1
A scene from The Wicker Tree 2011

Firstly, why have the police not already come searching given the number of couples that have come to Tressock never to be seen again? The novel reveals that all the victims reportedly vanished weeks after leaving Tressock and from other remote locations. How this is arranged is one of the main twists and its exclusion from the film leaves a glaring hole. 

The novel also reveals that the local police officer, Orlando, is an undercover detective secretly investigating the disappearances and slowly uncovering its conspiratorial underbelly, something not made that explicit in the film. Unlike Sergeant Howie who resists temptation offered by Willow McGregor, Orlando enjoys sexual games with local nymph Lolly, unaware she is keeping him under surveillance. And while Howie is lured into attending the May Day ritual, Lolly ensures Orlando is kept out of theirs by hospitalising him in an act of erotic asphyxiation.

Released straight onto DVD

Released straight onto DVD, The Wicker Tree was not greatly received in comparatives with its foster movie, while for others its sole redeeming feature was not being quite as terrible as the 2006 remake, directed by Neil LaBute. But even on its own terms, The Wicker Tree misses as much as it scores because, as with Neil LaBute, Hardy needed an experienced screenwriter to work over his script and eliminate its weaknesses while amplifying the strengths. Both their films are undermined by fragile structuring and ideas thrown in for impact at the cost of coherent narrative development.   

In short, The Wicker Tree is a film of unfulfilled potential, one that could have been so much better if Hardy had swallowed his pride and placed his proposal in the hands of an accomplished writer. So it could be worth remaking, just so long as Neil LaBute stays well clear.

Tell us your view of The Wicker Tree 2001 in the comments section below!

You can read Andrew Garvey’s review of The Wicker Tree 2011 on Spooky Isles.

Watch The Wicker Tree 2001 Trailer

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Barry McCann
BARRY McCANN is a writer, speaker, performer and broadcaster. He regularly writes short stories for the Lancashire Evening Post and was recently included in the anthology His Red Eyes Again, published by The Dracula Society (and available on Amazon.) He regularly appears on BBC Radio Lancashire and is the Folklore Correspondent on BBC Radio Cumbria. He has also hosted two Ingrid Pitt - Queen of Horror Festivals in Hastings, having previously worked for the legendary actress as her researcher.

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