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From “Citizen Kane” to “Children of the Corny”

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on January 30, 2012 | Comments (0)

Back in 1973 I was living in Encinitas, part of “North County” of San Diego, California. My good friend, Lori C., insisted that we should go to an exclusive showing of a new movie called “The Wicca Man.” I didn’t know anything about the movie, but I liked spending time with her, so I picked her up and we drove over to the Ken theater on Adams Ave.

There was a long line of people waiting to see a movie that was actually named The Wicker Man. Most of the people were dressed in black and wearing silver jewelry.

For me, the movie was spellbinding. It actually had two plots. The superficial plot was of a deeply religious (Christian) British police officer who learned of a missing young girl on a remote island off of Scotland. He goes there to investigate and is confronted with a deeper mystery. People don’t give him sensible answers to his questions. Plus, the local customs are entirely Pagan in nature, and he is so unacquainted with any Pagan thought that he is flummoxed at every turn.

The second plot is that the island, which is famed for its apples (which shouldn’t be able to be grown there), has had an unsuccessful series of harvests, leading the people to need to make the ultimate sacrifice to their Deities in order for the apple crop to become abundant once again.

Poster used to advertise British release of the film in 1973

They do everything possible to get Sgt. Howie to leave. They tell him to go. They offend him with their Paganism. They try to have one of their very open young women seduce him. But he is driven to find the missing girl.

And that is what makes Sgt. Howie, played by Edward Woodward, so darn likable. He’s trying to find a young girl in mortal danger and save her life. It makes people unhappy at his eventual fate and forget his unrelenting Christian evangelical dogmatism.

Over the years since I originally saw the film, The Wicker Man has become a cult favorite. Cinemafantastique magazine called it the “Citizen Kane of horror films.” Pagans all over the world discuss it and argue over its ethics. It was so popular that it earned a remake. That remake was released in 2006 and starred Nicolas Cage. It has become a cult favorite, too, as one of the worst and most unintentionally funny films ever made.

In actuality, I didn’t see the director’s original film. Instead, I saw the “American version.” I now own, thanks to videotape and DVDs, several versions of the film. One of the big losses that most people don’t see is the backstory of Sgt. Howie and how he is so devoutly Christian that he loses his fiancĂ© and has co-workers make fun of him.

Not a Remake

Many of the people involved with the original wanted to do a new version of it, too. And finally, that film (as of this writing) has now received a limited release. Living in a major city, Los Angeles, I was able to take the subway about 20 miles to see the movie last Saturday, the day after its official opening, at the famous, hands-in-cement theater, Graumann’s Chinese. Well, actually it was at the annex next to the main, large, Chinese-styled cinema, but you get the idea. Big theater. It was there I saw The Wicker Tree.

When the movie started, there were only two of us in the theater. After the film started about six more people slipped in. I believe they were associated with the production of the movie and may have included one of the stars. This was a far cry from my experience of the original.

This movie was based on the director’s 2006 novel, Cowboys for Christ. This is said not to be a sequel or remake. Rather it is spiritual companion piece dealing with the same sort of issues. In the movie, a sexy country singer who has become a demure, born-again evangelist (who hates her past—a theme that could have been explored but wasn’t) goes with her fiancĂ© (they have promised to remain virgins until they marry) to a small Scottish town. Their goal, as part of a group called the Cowboys for Christ, is to convert people to, or “remind” people about Jesus.

Like the earlier film, there is a secondary plot unknown to the singer and her fiancĂ©. Here, the leader of the town is also the owner of a nuclear power plant (the company he owns shares the name of a deity invented for the earlier film) and now, after an accident, the people are sterile. There are no children around. (Well, there’s one, but how he got there is unclear.) They hope that their sacrifice will lead to increased fertility.

The director uses techniques he used in the original film. Quick shots of local people. Their somewhat over-the-top enjoyment of both their own Paganism and the evangelization by their visitors. The plot has numerous similarities with the earlier film, and there is even a cameo by Christopher Lee, one of the stars of the first film.

A Hit or a Miss?

Unfortunately, this new film fails to capture the magic of its earlier cousin. There are several major problems with it. In Man, Sgt. Howie was bright, intelligent, dedicated, and trying to save a young girl’s life. In Tree, the two leads are insipidly moronic. The female lead, played by Brittania Nicol, could have been played by Anna Farris, who has made a living out of playing naive and stupid blondes, the archetype presented here. The male lead, played by Henry Garrett, reminds me of the innately stupid but at times clever Jason Stackhouse character, played by Ryan Kwanten, on HBO’s “True Blood” series. They did a take-off (without realizing it—they’re too dumb) from the famed musical, Annie Get Your Gun, repeating lines from Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” ending with, “Yes you can. Yes you can. Yes you can!” Not only are the characters stupid, they’re trying to say they’re superior due to their religious beliefs. This pomposity makes them extremely unlikeable and expendable, and I found myself anxiously awaiting their demise.

When it comes to the Pagans of the town, there is far less presented here than in Man. Further, in the earlier film, there is no doubt that the leader of the Pagans, Lord Summerisle (played by Lee), was a firm believer in the Pagan traditions. In Tree, the leader of the town, Sir Lachlan Morrison (played by Graham McTavish), doesn’t seem to have any beliefs, saying that the Pagan religion is simply what the people need now. Like Lee in the original, McTavish is handsome and dapper. Unlike Lord Summerisle, his focus is not on his people and their crops, it is about overcoming the local disaster caused by his nuclear power plant. Ultimately, he is also unlikeable.

In the original, I liked everyone, even the pompous Sgt. Howie. In The Wicker Tree the characters are driven not by their religions, but by their own, petty desires. The overblown evangelicals are so much like the ever-present and ubiquitous televangelists that I was quickly tired of them and didn’t care about them. The concepts that enlivened the earlier film were lost, here. The Pagans appeared to be more like the kids of the Children of the Corn movies and I found myself waiting to see what horrible ends awaited the evangelicals, much as some people look forward to new and more outrageous tortures and killings in various slasher and killer cult ultraviolent films.

In Closing

The Wicker Tree is an odd film. It was highly anticipated. It wasn’t a remake or a sequel but it was related to the respected and honored The Wicker Man. Even the titles are similar. How could any film live up to that build-up?

This one doesn’t. Regrettably, it’s not even in the same class. The lack of admirable characters, of selflessness, of inner devotion to faith, make this film feel false, almost like watching Citizen Kane being done on “Robot Chicken.” Instead of a meaty dish we get children of the corniness. It’s not as awful as Nick Cage’s remake of the original. It suffers a worse fate: it’s mediocre at best, boring at worst.

My suggestion: find as complete a version of the original The Wicker Man (The original director’s cut is about 112 minutes long. The American release was 88 minutes long.) and watch it with some friends on a large screen TV. Wait to see The Wicker Tree until it comes out on a TV broadcast and watch it if you’ve nothing better to do.

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