Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man remains one of the pillars of British horror and a cult classic nearly forty years after its initial release. Part enthralling mystery, part comedy and part musical, the film’s climax still holds the power to leave audiences speechless. In the time since The Wicker Man, Hardy enjoyed a storied career as a novelist, playwright, painter and a historian that designs period accurate theme parks. The release of The Wicker Tree finds the director, now 82, returning to familiar territory. While the film explores similar terrain, this time around Mr. Hardy approaches the material with more of an emphasis on the comedic “fish out of water” aspect of a pair of American Christian missionaries who set out to spread the Gospel to the Scottish pagans. While the follow up forgoes the central mystery of the original work, the comedic tone masks a sinister intent and a climax no less tragic than the fate that befell the duped Sgt. Howie.
On the eve of the theatrical release of The Wicker Tree, Mr. Robin Hardy was gracious enough to discuss the upcoming film and look back on his seminal work.
It becomes clear when discussing the original Wicker Man is Hardy’s pride at crafting a film that defies easy categorization. While he doesn’t bristle at the notion that The Wicker Man is a horror film (like Friedkin does when discussing The Exorcist, calling the film a “theological thriller”) he posits that the film is not horror in the traditional sense of the term. He is quick to point out that the film revolves around the mystery and the noose that tightens on the oblivious Sgt. Howie: “It’s filmed with various clues as to what’s going on, which because of his mindset as a fundamentalist Christian he doesn’t recognize his predicament. Although he starts to at the end when the mother of the girl tells him ‘You just don’t understand about sacrifice’ he doesn’t know what she’s talking about nor does he make much effort to find out. The clues are all there.”
Ignorance is a theme that often comes up when discussing both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree. The idea of outsiders coming into a culture they have no understanding of and attempting to make wholesale changes with disastrous consequences is central to both films. Hardy discussed how Western conflicts in the Middle East influenced him while writing the novel which would form the basis of The Wicker Tree, Cowboys For Christ: “When I was writing IRAQ was going on. We who should have known better, as the British created Iraq in 1922. We followed in Mr. Bush’s shadow into a country whose religion and culture where we understood not one thing. When the culture starts to get smashed up Donald Rumsfeld proclaims ‘Well Shit happens’. It’s all the same thing, when people venture into things they know nothing about cause a lot of damage.”
A certain remake that shall not be named also nudged Hardy towards revisiting the world of Summersisle. Hardy discussed how Neil LaBute and company missed the point of the original. “I’ve always been surprised that the genre we created that mixture of genres that no one had tried to do again. I wanted to do it after seeing the remake and finding the atmosphere that made our film work simply ignored. In the remake all the lovely sons- and they had a number of Appalachian songs they could choose from-instead of that they had wall to wall elevator music. There were no jokes and no sex just a strange swapping of genders where the men became women and vice versa for no particular reason. The only thing they kept from the original was the plot, which on its own isn’t extraordinary. There have been a million plots about a girl getting lost. All the things that made the film remarkable they seemed to miss.”
Hardy also discussed the intentional to make his follow up lean towards black comedy. The satirical streak that runs through the film may take viewers aback aft first, but Hardy believes that direction serves to make the dark turn of the third act all the more insidious. “I thought it was fun to paint the characters a bit broader. In a way it makes it all the more surprising, though there are dark clues from the very beginning. When they turn the Christian Hymn into a Pagan Hymn that ‘There’s Power in the Blood”, the audience should then realize something dreadful is about to happen. I’ve noticed when sitting with audiences that there is plenty of laughter throughout until you get to that point, and then there’s a silence that descends, especially when you see through the peepholes as to what they’re doing in that castle. From then on it becomes a horror film, one that is not that explicit as one hopes imagination will take over. It makes it sadder as we sympathize or that young couple. As a result what happens to them is just as awful (as what happens to Sgt. Howie in the first movie). As Christopher Lee says in his review of the book ‘It’s comic, romantic, sexy but also horrific enough to melt the bowels of a bronze statue’. It’s another film in the same genre and proves that genre works and that you can mix media. You have to ignore the fact that Walmart dictates that one shelf will say ‘horror film’ and anything that’s a black comedy does not have a shelf. I wanted to encourage the idea that we could mix genres.”
I asked Mr. Hardy what advice he gave to his lead actress, newcomer Brittania Nicol. As Christian pop singer/missionary Beth, her performance will inevitably be compared to Edward Woodward’s iconic turn as the doomed Sgt. Neil Howie. What did he do to prepare his lead for the comparisons and how does Beth differ from Howie? “She has to play herself and not worry about that. We give her lots of things to do like singing that shows her rejoicing from being away from the ‘pop’ world and doing what she wants with her voice. It’s a sub plot for her. To compare any actor to Edward Woodward is hard. The part is so different that it wasn’t a problem for her as she was playing a very specific part. She has blindness to what’s going on that pop stars who live in four Season hotels for most of their young lives with no connection to reality of the average persons lives. Therefore she’s much easier to fool in ways than the average person.” Balancing the naivety of Beth is her fiancé Steve (Henry Garrett) a down to earth cowboy that doesn’t quite get all the accolades. “I believe that shows in the film because I made the cowboy much more of a realist. He’s an ordinary guy and knows it’s very strange that he should be celebrated the way he is, but she doesn’t get it.”
Finally, Hardy spoke of the importance of bringing Sir Christopher Lee back for a cameo. Lee had originally been tapped to play the lead villain of the film, but a back injury suffered during the filming of The Resident scuttled those plans. Hardy still felt it was critical for Lee to appear in the film in order to tie the two pictures together. Lee appears only in one scene, but it is a pivotal one in the film. “Christopher and I are friends and talked about this movie for a long time before we made it. It was disappointing for him and me when he had his accident in New Mexico. But he was completely realistic about it. He could not have done the things the script called on him which Graham McTavish does. The role is very active and Christopher hurt his back very badly which made it impossible for him to stand for any length of time. Even the short time he stands in the scene I put him in was hard on him but he did it because he’s a trooper. It was a disappointment for everybody but it had to be. I think his cameo works well because it talks about ‘fate and faith’ and sets up a scene I’m rather fond of where McTavish says if I were a Rabbi Jehovah would be my lord. If I were Muslim, Allah the merciful is he. If a Christian Jesus is my Lord, but we know in the situation we’re in with the Celtic religion, it works very well and what more can you ask for from a religion?’ That is all set up by the previous scene, or at least that was my intention with Christopher’s scene.”
Up next for Robin Hardy is the final film in the trilogy, The Hand of the Gods “It’s a little bit based on the Scandinavian part of Scotland in the isles of the north of the country that was settled by the Vikings, the Shetland islands that were ruled by the Danes for about five centuries. I’m going up to see one of the great Viking festivals they have ‘Ook Hilly Aa’ where they launch Viking ships into the ocean as part of festivities. I’m going to be shooting that on the 31st.”
The Wicker Tree opens in select markets today.