There may be spoilers ahead made of corn....
THE WICKER TREE & THE WOMAN @ FRIGHTFEST, LEICESTER SQUARE, 27th AUGUST 2011
The ending of Wicker Tree, a film that explores similar themes to the original classic Wicker Man from 1973, is what you might well expect it to be; there's a wicker effigy and a burning. In the original it was Edward Woodward, here there's a twist and the person who goes up in smoke, wasn't meant to.
There are plenty of twists at the end of this random, often funny, sinister treat. After the shocking ending, some of the horror of the moment is ruined in The Wicker Tree by another singalong, of which the film contains many.
There are, rather annoyingly, many songs in The Woman as well, mostly all by the same chap; an American Nirvana-esque growler called Sean Spillane. A few too many of his songs goes a long way, especially as in many cases they are played from start to finish, giving us an MTV pop video feeling throughout. Sometimes the songs do work.
The ending of The Woman also has a violent outburst. And much like the letdown of The Wicker Tree's ending, here also, it was slightly spoiled by the person you really wanted to survive and be protected by 'The Woman' - is killed off by her instead. Never mind - but I thought this character's survival would have made for a better ending.
Both The Woman and The Wicker Tree explore extremes.
The Wicker Tree sees two Dallas-based born again christians - boyfriend and girlfriend wearing chastity rings, which it seems they may have forgotten about on occasion - come to the small, Scottish border village of Tressock.
Like the original Wicker Man, the villagers aren't happy. They are all infertile, but it's not through lack of trying. In fact, one local village gal, has her heart set on getting pregnant with the local police force; all one of him. She persuades him to do it 5 times a night, often with a donkey head on, before setting her sights on the nice young often topless American boy who rides into town.
Brand spanking new actress Brittania Nicol as the young American gospel singer Beth (and former pop star and singer of the rather lovely 'Trailer Trash Love') is simply brilliant as the possibly doomed future May Queen of Tressock. The sinister Sir Lachlan Morrison who lords it over the locals in the same way Christopher Lee did in the original, believes that by sacrificing this innocent young virgin, the rest of the village will suddenly become very fertile indeed.
Christopher Lee was too ill to appear in this movie as anything other than a quick cameo flashback - as an old man talking to the young Lachlan, about how all religions think they can change fate in some way, although 'none really can' - but 'still, we keep trying'. The cameo is a nice respectful nod to the original that maybe seems slightly out of place but still brought a big spontaneous cheer from the audience. That, to my mind, means something was worth doing.
In the same way that Lee's character of Lord Summerisle in the original Wicker Man thought that a real human sacrifice would bring fertility to the crops, so too does Sir Lachlan (a nicely understated and slightly naive - deliberately so - performance from a creepy and fruity-of-voiced Graham McTavish) think that doing bad things to America's very own real-life version of a born again Ken and Barbie, newly arrived in the village, will bring forth the babies for all.
Slightly bizarrely, the fertility problem the village has - we later find out - has something to do with a nuclear leak into the river. Which doesn't stop that randy local girl who keeps getting it on with the resident copper also managing to get Steve the Celibate skinnydipping in the river with her and losing his chastity ring somewhere inside. Inside the river. One hopes.
The cast of The Wicker Tree sing many traditional folk songs: in pubs; at home; in front of a burning victim - you name it. You get it. There's no single moment to rival the loveliness of the songs and singing of the original however. But there are some very good moments indeed where the music - a particular love of director of both Wicker films, Robin Hardy - really elevates the film to a creepier kind of level.
I hope that Brittania Nicol who plays the dizzy and determined Beth Boothby gets picked up for more film roles soon. Like I say - and I'm sorry to keep on saying this - she really is fantastic in this movie and really makes it work as well as it does, for me, by keeping a sense of tongue-in-cheekness to proceedings, as well as startled little girl lostness fighting against the obvious naughtiness of her previous life before she was 'born again'. There's a flashback to a long lost video, played as she watches in horror from her hotel bed, of Beth performing her single Trailer Trash Love, discovered by the local media. It's hilarious. She gets to tempt and tease two scary-looking bikers in a bar, while waving her denim hotpants in their faces, only for it to all end in a synchronised dance routine - two bikers and one hot chick in a slightly camp linedance. If you've ever seen 70's sitcom Man About The House, you'll know that Brittania Nicol has a look of Sally Thomsett about her, and she's perfect for horror and comedy; of which, The Wicker Tree warmly embraces both.
The Woman also features a few star turns among the cast, although to be fair, everyone in it is good. Astonishing as 'the woman' - a native wild girl of the Massachuttets woodland (of which I don't think there are many) - is Polyanna McIntosh. Captured by a dominating dad - a family man who inflicts violent abuse on pretty much all his family all the time, and kept in his cellar, she has to endure all kinds of abuse (much like the rest of the family of which she seems to have now been signed up to) before it all ends in predictable nastiness and wild, crowd-clapping revenge at the end. McIntosh's role sees her improvise her own made-up language to convey the struggling speech of the wild woman, and her moments of quiet desperation, alongside those of pure rage, are convincing and unnerving in equal measure. The children in this family are also incredible - moving to watch, terrifying to see crumble and fall apart. From an aged seven or so youngest daughter, to a terminally troubled teenage daughter and sicko son, to an abused and slapped around mother; this family convey utter hopelessness, sadness and uncertain or sometimes very certain love for their father - like I say; pure hopelessness.
When the family goes down to the cellar to see what their dad has found in the woods; they stand there in disbelief, but also total conformity. Because this is Dad; the man in charge - the guy who everyone loves and is the life and soul of a BBQ - but beneath the surface a violent control freak. He now has a new woman to control freak with - and so we get plenty of scenes of abuse towards his captive trophy in the cellar; symbolic of what he is doing to his family upstairs in the house as well. Trouble is, his young son is as bad as he is - a 12 or 13 year old kid who has a nice way with pliers and sticking chewing gum (in a nice subtle touch) in the hairbrush of good girls that play basketball better than he does.
Young Zach Rand plays the bad seed son, Brian - he deserves to be better known. He will be soon.
Director Lucky McKee also gave us the classic horror movie May that starred a young Angela Bettis, who also turns in a traumatic role here as the abused mother. McKee grew up in a world of real small town poverty and used a video camera to escape to a better reality. In many of his films young actors face-up against teenage angst and horror genre-type torture (physical and mental) and bad things-a-happening vibes. Like Carrie meets Kids; the children of McKee's vision know where they are going, but you can't always like how they get there. Brian hangs out during the day with kids his age, and gets asked out on dates, but he'd rather spend his time with the captured cavegirl in the cellar doing very bad things to her.
The teenage daughter of the family; Lauren Ashley Carter as tormented, sallow-eyed Peggy Cleek, who her teacher at school thinks is so mixed up that she simply has to be pregnant (terrifyingly, it's implied later that she may be - even though she has no boyfriend or lover in sight) captures teenage angst (as well as sympathy for the devil woman), absolutely wonderfully. The young actress is simply astounding in this movie. Like Zach Rand who plays her onscreen brother, and Brittania Nicol from The Wicker Tree, these are three up-and-coming names you will hear more of in the years ahead, without any doubt.
In the Q&A after The Wicker Tree, director and writer (of the novel and screenplay) Robin Hardy tells us that there is a lot of humour as well as horror in his film. He wasn't kidding. Whereas the original had dark, sinister, unnerving humour (actually, I adore the original, but I can't say I find it at all humorous - just wonderfully unsettling and a creepy crawly one big bad) The Wicker Tree is mostly played for laughs. After 5 orgasms in one night with a donkey head on, the local policeman gets to try it for the sixth time that night with a scarf tied to a place 'he won't ever have tried it tied to before' - shortly after this scene, an ambulance rushes away from the police station. It is funny. As is the moment when the creepy butler, who rather hilariously looks exactly like Russ Abbott's 'See you Jimmy!' character - C.U.Jimmy (and no, I'm not joking - he really does!) almost has his left testicle taken off by Beth. Mind you, he was trying to inject her with a poison first. There's also a very slapstick moment with a dead cat. No really - you had to be there! The cat licks the poisoned milk intended for Beth and gets taken down to breakfast the next morning by the lady of the manor - still being stroked, despite being as rigid as one of the stuffed animals on the wall, before being dumped in a nearby bin. "We're going to miss him" says Sir Lachlan, deadpan, before biting on his toast.
Director Robin Hardy did warn us that there would be plenty of laughs ahead. He also told us there would be plenty of horror, and that Christopher Lee told him directly - in that famously black treacly-embalmed voice of his - that there was enough horror in this movie "to melt the bowels of a brass statue".
And there is. There's a shocking climatic scene of cannibalism and, yes, actual embalming - as well as random outbreaks of violence, made all the more shocking by the calm of the gorgeous lilting folk songs and speckles of warm, earthy humour. Enough humour to make us drift into occasional Carry On territory for adults, but enough horror to remind us that this man directed one of the all time classic horror movies; The Wicker Man. You can't take that fact lightly.
The Wicker Tree has a few standout moments that drive the film into classic horror-seeded barley meadows and fields of corn-ripeness. Especially effective is the setpiece at the end where the born again Christians really come up against the villagers. The biggest monster in this movie is a group of people. Separately they are all less scary. Together they are terrifying. Steve finds himself trapped in an ancient ruin. Beth finds herself trapped in a village where nobody wants to help her. There's something horrid and cruel hanging in the air and it's about to be made real, not something of legend and story. I felt very uncomfortable in some of these final scenes - I felt trapped. For me, the film worked as a work of horror as a result of the effect it had on me at times. Not all the way through. I think, because the scares don't come all the way through. The Wicker Man didn't really need traditional scares. I think The Wicker Tree maybe embraces the terror a little more literally than the original. But it's no bad thing. As Robin Hardy states: it's not a remake or sequel; it's a film that "shares similarities with the original".
I read once, the author Stephen Volk comment that he hates the word 'reimagining' when it comes to those films that are remakes in all but name but try to pretend they are doing something different. I think Hardy's description of The Wicker Tree being a film that "shares similarities" with the original, but is its own lush, fertile nightmares, is a good place to be. Robin Hardy makes far too few movies; when asked why he has only directed a handful, he tells us that it's because he likes doing other things too; like writing; like concentrating on his love of music. And really, both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree are horror musicals at heart. You know, at the opening of The Wicker Tree, there's a fabulous setpiece of direction, a single take shot with the camera entering the manor house, and winding its way downstairs; all the way to the deep cavernous kitchen where that creepy Butler is splashing blood against the door - blood from an animal kill he is carving up for lunch. I felt like cheering. Robin Hardy - welcome back! And if you don't like it - you'd better watch out, there will be a new 'Wicker' movie coming out soon called, Hardy tells us - The Wrath of the Gods. Not, hopefully, of the critics.
The Woman also has some moments of truly great - outstanding horror, alongside the slow burn build-up. Especially a disconcerting act of torture where the dad gets out his gun and blasts it close to the wild woman's ear resulting in an effect that resembles tinitus for a few minutes. Ugh. It's a very loud movie anyway, so I hope that tinitus was an effect, and not just the decline of my eardrums after all that screaming and random distorted symbolic feedback. When teenage daughter Peggy's teacher visits the family home of the oddest family in town, there's also an incredibly depressing prelude to her arrival where poor Mum tells wild-eyed Dad that she's had enough and is leaving him. You can guess what happens next. If you don't want to know don't read on. Two punches to the tummy and a blow to the head. If you feel like crying when you read that, join me. And then the teacher arrives. She enters the house. All seems normal...and then. Horror isn't for everyone - I guess horror fans will mostly cheer the gore that splashes into the camera's lens at the end of The Woman. Maybe, just maybe - I think this could have been toned down.
The film is based on a story by Jack Ketchum, a horror novelist who many other horror novelists - including Stephen King - look up to, and a chap who takes no prisoners when it comes to the shocking underbelly of young and older lives. So, considering the source material, perhaps the blood and guts finale is entirely warranted. Certainly it is effectively yucky, if a little rushed, as if the producer realised that time was ticking on the hire of the farmyard - so hurry up and end this thing already! The slow-build, ratcheting tension of the rest of the movie, and sudden brutal shocks are the most effective moments of the film. The ending is a crowd-pleaser for sure. But whether needed or not - well, for tonight, yes, the ending goes down a storm. You know you're at Frightfest when the plucking out of an internal organ gets a big cheer! For an audience not at a Frightfest, probably not - the gore will have a best-before-date on it, one that slightly detracts from the quite serious musings and quiet horror of much of the movie. But as Lucky McKee tells us at the Q&A following the screening; looking directly at the large crowd of appreciative fans hanging on every word; "I make movies for audiences like this" - not for the mainstream, or those likely to be offended. Cue one very long round of applause, similar to the round of applause given to director Robin Hardy earlier. As I had a final sup from my plastic glass of red wine served to me earlier by an Empire Leicester Square girl dressed up as a zombie; smothered with facepaint that made the plastic on my glass very slippery and oily-smelling indeed, I think that - as an experience; as two movies that dare to be original and not flirt with the mainstream; as showcases at Frightfest 2011 - both The Wicker Tree and The Woman were both absolutely horrible. Thank god. Or thank the corn fields and the sister sun, brother moon, gods of the forest and the stars above. That they were.
Pick at the bones of 2011's films
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