The set-up for "The Wicker Tree," based on Hardy's novel "Cowboys for Christ," is intriguing enough, following a pair of born again Christian missionaries, Beth (Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), as they travel to Scotland to spread the word of God. In an interesting subplot that's never really explored, Beth was once a Britney Spears-style pop tart, before finding her faith (the internal tug-of-war between her formerly sexual self and her current chasteness is barely touched upon). After being dazzled by Beth's concert at a local church, the couple (who wear matching purity rings) are picked up by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonardas) to come preach in their small village community of Tressock.
For a while, at least, "The Wicker Tree" manages to be quite fun and bouncy, as it hops from one absurd sub-plot to the next. None of these subplots, mind you, add up to anything besides contributing to the overall sensation of out-there weirdness, but they are fun nonetheless. There's the subplot about how a local nuclear reactor (run, no less, by the community's leader Sir Morrison) has led to all of the women being infertile, a situation the locals believe can be undone, of course, by crazy mystical hoo-ha. There's the detective who is posing as a local police officer to gain information on the group (in a distant echo of the original 'Wicker Man' plot). And there's Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks), a free-spirited (i.e. frequently nude) member of the cult who tempts Steve and actually feels kind of guilty when things become all evil towards the end. Oh yeah and "The Wicker Tree" is pretty much a musical, full of both honky-tonk Christian ditties and more traditional chants from the cult (but, no, nothing tops "Willow's Song" from the original and not just because this one doesn't feature a very naked Britt Ekland).
Part of the problem is the cast – Graham McTavish has none of the devilish charisma or otherworldly forcefulness of Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle. (And, in truth, Lee was intended to play the Sir Morrison part before being sidelined by an injury and reduced to appearing in an odd flashback for no good reason). Sir Morrison's speeches don't come across as seductive; they're just bad – flat and hammy at the same time. Nicol and Garrett, too, aren't convincing enough as the Texas youngsters. The satire in "The Wicker Tree" is fairly broad but there's no excuse for them to be quite so cartoonish or phony.
While "The Wicker Tree" is respectably strange (how many pagan horror musicals are out there right now?), it fails to capture the moody tension of the original, while offering nothing in the way of visual sophistication or stylization. (From a visual standpoint this thing doesn't even deserve to be on British television, next to handsome productions like "Downton Abbey" or "Sherlock"). Hardy is clearly interested in the collision of celestial Christianity and earthy paganism, from both a dramatic and comedic standpoint, but in "The Wicker Tree" the satire is a bit too out-there and the horror not quite intense enough. "The Wicker Tree" almost skates by because it's so fucking weird, but that only goes so far. In the end, it needed to be something more. Anything more, really. The "Citizen Kane" of horror film sequels, it's not. But at least it's free of Nicolas Cage and bees. [C-]