Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE WICKER TREE (2012)

(UK - 2012)

Written and directed by Robin Hardy.  Cast: Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Brittania Nicol, Henry Garrett, Christopher Lee, Honeysuckle Weeks, Clive Russell, Keira McMillan, Lesley Mackie.  (R, 96 mins)

Robin Hardy's "re-imagining" of his 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN is a lot like one of those "latest & greatest" albums of re-recorded versions of past hits that aging hair metal bands crank out cheaply and quickly with one, maybe two original members when they're completely lacking any worthwhile new material. It looks and sounds a lot like the original, only without the thrill of seeing or hearing it for the first time, but there's a palpable sense of desperation disguised as relevancy permeating the whole phoned-in endeavor.  THE WICKER TREE, based on Hardy's 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ, is a truly depressing affair and a pale, uninspired, pointless retread of a revered film whose name has already been sullied by one bad remake in 2006.  But at least that Nicolas Cage train wreck was entertaining for all the wrong reasons ("The beeeeeees!").  THE WICKER TREE is just plain bad, and makes THE WICKER MAN (2006) look like THE WICKER MAN (1973).

Brittania Nicol as born-again Beth Boothby
Evangelical Christian music star Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her fiance Steve (Henry Garrett) are leaving Dallas to spend two years spreading God's word through Scotland (would it take that long?).  They're met in the small village of Tressock by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The residents of Tressock are planning their annual May Day celebration, and elect Beth to be the May Queen, and Steve the "laddie" in their elaborate ritual, performed to bring the gift of young life to an area strangely devoid of new births.  Is it a curse on Tressock, or could it possibly be contamination from Sir Lachlan's nuclear power plant on the edge of town causing mass sterility?  Anyone who's seen either version of THE WICKER MAN knows that the two born-again innocents (well, almost...Beth used to be a trashy country-pop star before converting) are obviously being led to a sacrifice.

Graham McTavish as the evil Sir Lachlan Morrison
Where Edward Woodward's Sgt. Howie was appalled by the pagan goings-on around him in the 1973 version, Beth is strangely oblivious to it.  The townspeople sing the same kind of bawdy songs and everyone--including Steve--seems to have a go with Tressock's main seductress Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), but Beth just seems to exist in her own bubble.  This could be intentional on Hardy's part as a criticism of America's religious right, and that would've made an interesting story if he had anything to say about it.  But instead, he just puts his characters through the motions, slowly (very slowly) killing time until we get to the inevitable climax.  Hardy does change things up a bit when it comes to who burns in the Wicker Tree, but it's handled so ineptly that it comes off as more humorous than anything, leading to a conclusion that rings completely false and makes no logical sense.  Without spoiling too much, wouldn't someone--anyone--come looking for a famous American singer who went to Scotland and never returned?  Or am I putting more thought into this than the filmmakers did?

Sir Christopher Lee in front of
the world's crappiest greenscreen
Hardy, directing his first film since 1986 and only his third since 1973, tries to modernize the incidental elements of the story--red-state America, a nuclear power plant, a considerable amount of gore in the climax, a mandatory stupid twist ending--but it's just perfunctory window dressing that really brings nothing new to the story.  He can use the term "re-imagining" or "companion piece" all he wants, but let's just call it what it is:  a lame, tired remake.  It's even sadder to see the legendary Christopher Lee trotted out to lend some semblance of credibility for maybe one minute (seriously, like 64 seconds) of screen time in a flashback as an elderly relative of a young Sir Lachlan.  Lee famously played the villain Lord Summerisle in the 1973 film, and he's always cited it as his personal favorite of the countless films he's made.  He was originally cast as Sir Lachlan when the film was announced in 2007 (and both Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway were, at various times, set to play Delia before Joan Collins ended up being cast), but by the time the cameras started rolling in 2009, Lee suffered a serious back injury during the filming of THE RESIDENT and withdrew from the project.  McTavish had been cast as Sir Lachlan's henchman Beane and found himself promoted to the lead role, which led to Collins being replaced by the more age-appropriate (McTavish being 40 years younger than Lee) Leonard.  Hardy quickly wrote a cameo for Lee, whose one brief scene is shot against the ugliest, shoddiest-looking greenscreen CGI imagery you'll ever see.

Other than Lee, who really isn't on screen long enough to do much, the film's only decent performance comes from McTavish, who tries to bring some level of menace to the role and gives it his best effort.  But it's Nicol and Garrett who have to carry the film, and neither are up to the challenge, especially Garrett, who sounds badly dubbed most of the time.  Let's be honest:  most people walking into Best Buy or Wal-Mart will see this on the shelf and think it's a sequel to Neil LaBute's hilarious 2006 remake.  And I think that's great.  Let the 1973 film stand on its own in its unique, lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance, untarnished by ill-advised remakes and "re-imaginings" that give it a bad name.   Those who have experienced it know, and those willing to chance it, despite the nonsense that it's spawned, will be richly rewarded.  I can't say the same for the truly abysmal THE WICKER TREE.

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